Fish Wars on the Schuylkill

Robert Wood

 

From the earliest times the Schuylkill and its tributaries were noted for their abundance of fish. Fresh fish from local creeks would have been a welcome addition to the diets of early settlers in the region.

 

In addition to the resident populations of local stream fish such as catfish, bass, white suckers and pickerel, each spring shoals of shad, herring, rock fish and sturgeon would ascend the Schuylkill and its tributaries from the sea in order to spawn. The Goschenhoppen Historians Museum in Green Lane has a collection of early fishing apparatus: nets, gigs (fish spears), night lanterns and such from the Perkiomen region. Surprisingly there’s even a sentence in a Swedish history that notes a whale nursery which was wiped out by Norwegian whalers in the Delaware Bay sometime in the 1600’s. Bean’s history notes that “The antiquarian Samuel W. Pennypacker has quite a collection of spear-heads or darts from four to six inches in length collected in the shallow channels of the river near Phoenixville, that must, from their size, been chiefly used there for the capture of sturgeon.” Unfortunately he doesn’t say whether they were stone spear points from Native Americans or iron ones from the early colonial times.

 

There is no doubt though about the early fisheries at Pottstown and vicinity. In 1784 Bean’s history records 2,792 shad were caught at a fishery in Pottstown with 3,701 caught the next year. Shad are a large fish about the size and shape of a medium size carp though of better quality. Many properties advertised for sale along the river were noted as having fishing rights and “shad fisheries.” In 1803 a farm of three hundred acres situated between the Perkiomen and Schuylkill listed with its assets “… there is a shad fishery.”

 

The fish “wars” to which the headline refers happened along the Schuylkill principally between 1720 to 1740 and involved freight canoes. It seems freight canoes were an important transport in their day. Freight was taken from up river, Berks County and beyond, down to the city in  huge dugout canoes. Each canoe was made from a single log of prodigious size. William Penn himself writes of seeing a canoe made from a single poplar tree that carried four ton of bricks. Another river man, Isaac Smally, complained of being almost upset while carrying  one hundred and forty bushels of wheat which is an even heavier load.

 

The problem arose when landowners along the rivers erected racks, wears, pickets, and dams to channel fish into traps and nets. The freight canoes would snag on these obstructions and swing sideways in the current and upset or nearly so.

 

 

Typical of the depositions made by navigators from Amity and Oley Townships taken in Philadelphia in 1731 and ’32 is one by Marcus Hulings who stated that he was going down the Schuylkill with a load of wheat, struck against a fish dam, and took on a great deal of water which damaged the load, which he could only save by plunging  into the river himself.

 

On another occasion he had to leap into the river to prevent the load capsizing and in so doing “suffered very much in his body by reason of ye cold.” Another testified that he got fast on a rack-dam and had to leap into the water in February and “with all his labor and skill could not get off in less than half an hour; afterwards proceeding on his journey with ye said clothes, they were frozen stiff on his back, by means whereof he underwent a great deal of misery.”

 

The conflicting interests of the navigators and the fishermen turned increasingly hostile. Laws were passed prohibiting obstructions of the river, but seem to be uninforced or unenforceable. Canoes traveled in fleets destroying wears and dams as they came to them. Shore men maintained that their racks and baskets were placed by their own land and required considerable expense and labor while the navigators maliciously destroyed and broke them.  If the canoes got hung up or ventured too near the shore they were showered with rocks and curses. Things came to a head on the 20th of April 1738. On that date, William Richards, constable of Amity Township and George Boone, Esq. “one of his majesties justices of the peace,” a sheriff, and others were armed with a warrant to remove “all such obstructions as should be found in the said river.” between Berks County and Philadelphia.

 

The little posse set off in three canoes. As they worked to removed obstructions at Mingo Creek word spread down river. By the time they got to Pickering Creek about two hundred men were waiting for them. Constable Richards took his staff of office and his warrant in hand and commanded the men in the king’s name to keep the peace and that he came according to the law to remove the racks and obstructions in the river.

 

A lengthy deposition later taken in Philadelphia notes in part: “Upon which some of the said men damned the laws and the law makers, and cursed this deponent and his assistants; that one James Starr knocked this deponent down in the river with a large club or stake after which several of the said men attacked this deponent and company with large clubs and knocked down Robert Smith, the constable, as also several of his assistants…”

They got out of there, but there was another mob waiting for them next at the Perkiomen Creek’s mouth.  Their canoes were smashed to splinters and their accoutrements thrown into the river. The posse ran for the city. The heads of government then issued orders to the sheriffs of the counties and issued warrants to arrest the rioters. There is no record of further trouble, but the conflict smoldered on until July of 1821. On that date a dam was erected across the Schuylkill to provide slack water for the new Schuylkill canal and also to provide a head of water to turn a water wheel to pump water up to the reservoir of the Fairmount Water Works. This dam and other canal and mill dams upstream put a stop to all fish migration until the present day.

 

An article in the March 9, 2008, Pottstown Mercury is headlined “Shad get helping hand up Schuylkill River.” It details the efforts of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to restore the migratory shad run up the Schuylkill as far as Hamburg. There are eight dams in that stretch and all are in the process of being breached or fish ladders have been or are being constructed. A fish ladder is like a waterfall running down steps at a dam. It allows the fish to ascend the grade and continue on their way. If a few dams on the lower Perkiomen were breached we could theoretically have shad in the Swamp Creek again. But it would be hard for the fingerlings to survive.

 

Even in recent memory many local streams such as the Swamp Creek carried a larger and steadier volume of water year-round which supported sport fishing; although they are virtually fish-less today.  Development and the accompanying deep wells have so drawn down the aquifer (the underground water “table”) that our watercourses dry up to virtually nothing in the dry summer but rage in flooding torrents with surface run off when it rains. The resulting water courses have their banks eroded at places so as to form wide channels yet with the after-storm streams only a few inches deep.

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