by Ned Benton
In celebration of oysters past, the Oyster Festival at Five Islands Park will take place in New Rochelle on September 25-27. But the shellfish will come from oyster beds far from Larchmont’s Manor Park and the surrounding coastal waters that once teemed with “safe-and-delicious” seafood.
What happened to Larchmont’s oysters? Over 100 years ago local oystermen and polluters waged a sometimes violent war on the Long Island Sound. Who won? Who is winning now?
Oysters Thrived in Local Waters
Attendees at the Oyster Festival at Five Islands Park will be able to look out over a large part of the western Long Island Sound. In the 1880s, these waters were a prime site for oyster harvesting, an industry that employed more than 100 families in Pelham, New Rochelle, Mamaroneck and Rye. City Island’s fleet of 45 sloops, 25 floats and 100 skiffs replenished a large steamer that transported the oysters to New York City. While natural oysters could be found in the bays and sheltered nooks, large commercial seed-beds were cultivated off-shore – including off the shore of New Rochelle and Mamaroneck. (Ingersoll, p. 88-89)
But by the 1870s and 1880s, experts and advocates were already warning that the Sound was being poisoned and polluted and that the oyster industry and local way of life was at risk. The Town of Mamaroneck, including a new housing development called Larchmont Manor, was ground zero for much of the controversy.
New York Garbage Dumped on the Oyster Beds
In the spring of 1886, two oystermen from Port Washington, Captain William Mackey and Garret Rothar, were working the oyster beds off of New Rochelle and Mamaroneck on their sloop. Belching smoke and clatter announced the arrival of a New York City Sanitation tugboat, pulling two large scows of ash, dirt and garbage. Shifting the clanking steam engine into neutral, the sanitation workers started dumping their cargo into the Sound. Some of the trash floated to the surface, and the rest descended to the oyster beds below.
The two oystermen, angry and frustrated at repeated despoilings of the oyster beds, rowed their dingy though the garbage, reached the tugboat, and confronted the sanitation workers who, after a surly exchange, produced a permit which purported to authorize the dumping in front of Mamaroneck, Larchmont and New Rochelle. Rowing back to their sloop, through the greasy slime and stinking refuse drifting toward the shore, Captain Mackey and Mr. Rothar must have wondered whether the Long Island Sound – the basis of much local recreation and their own employment – could be saved.
The New York Times reported on a series of dumping incidents. “Vast quantities of garbage and other light refuse floated and were thrown by the tide on the shore of Larchmont and New Rochelle. From time to time oystermen working in their boats saw the process of dumping and protested vehemently against it, but without avail, the crews upon the tugs and scows replying to them with insult or at best impudently claiming, by virtue of a permit from somebody, the right to perpetrate the outrage. The damage done to the oyster interests in the Sound by this means has been estimated at many thousands of dollars and was rapidly increasing, not only as a consequence of dumping, but by the spreading of the foul matter already dumped.“ (Read the 1886 NY Times news article: Spoiling the Oyster Beds.)
Mackey and Rothar Call on the State Oyster Protector
But Captain Mackey and Mr. Rothar had a plan. A new state law had just been passed, in May 1886, making it illegal to deposit industrial sludge, cinders, ashes, waste or garbage into the Long Island Sound. To enforce the law, the governor was authorized to appoint a “State Oyster Protector” and selected an old oyster planter and railroad worker named Joseph W. Mersereau.
The two oystermen contacted Mr. Mersereau, who immediately came up to New Rochelle, got the sheriff and the district attorney involved, and had a warrant issued for the arrest of the boat’s captain and three sanitation workers. Within a week they were arrested, made bond, and were brought before Justice J.W. Steves in New Rochelle. The two oystermen complained that the dumping had been going on for quite a while and that the amount involved was “at least 2,400 cartloads of material per diem.”
The trial took place later that year, and the captain and his three workers pleaded guilty and paid fines of $50 each. (Read the NY Times article about the trial: Tugboat Captains Fined for Dumping Garbage on the Beds.) But the story, as is usually the case when protecting the environment is involved, doesn’t end here.
Industrial Pollution & Sewage Discharge Into the Sound
Each generation faces its own challenges to preserve the quality of the Sound. In the latter half of the 1800s, the challenge came from urbanization and its byproduct, pollution. In 1858, less than 25% of New York City’s streets were sewered, and waste seeped into the water table, infecting wells and spreading disease. (Andersen, p.78) The remedy, however, was to construct sewer lines, so that the waste could be discharged directly, untreated, into the Sound.
Industrial pollution was another problem. In Connecticut, the area around New Haven became known as the “Brass Valley” because of the many metal working plans that discharged industrial wastes into the Naugatuck and Houseatonic Rivers and eventually into the Sound. (Anderson, pp. 72, 73)
The State Fish Commissioner Inspects Newtown Creek
Soon after the dumping incident off Larchmont, the State fish commissioner and several other officials rowed up Newtown Creek, which empties into the East River at the border between Brooklyn and Queens, approximately where the Midtown Tunnel is today. After the inspection, he reported to the press. “To adequately describe the results of the deposits of sludge acid, coal tar and other poisonous substances from the various chemical works and bone and fat rendering establishments is beyond my ability. It is simply frightful.” He explained that he had to burn the clothing he wore for the inspection.
He had gathered seventeen samples of the water along the way, and to drive his point home, he offered to a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle the opportunity to smell a sample. “The odor emitted was something beyond conception,” the reporter wrote. (Brooklyn Eagle, 7/14/1886, p. 4)
The commissioner vowed to prosecute the companies involved, invoking new federal and state laws against pollution. “The only defense they make is that to remove the waste from their factories would entail additional expense.” (Brooklyn Eagle, 7/14/1886, p. 4)
Not in My Back Yard…
There was, however, another problem. Abatement of Newtown Creek had been ordered several times, including an order by the governor five years before, in 1881. Ambivalence about implementing the order culminated in a cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly.
An 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast presents the poisonous odors of Newton Creek experienced from across the river in Manhattan.
In 1888, a bill was introduced by a Brooklyn Assemblyman to make it “lawful to deposit dredgings, stone, earth, mud, ashes and refuse in deep water on Long Island Sound at a place designated by the Shore Inspector, not less than 20 miles from the Battery of New York.” (Read the New York Times article Haggerty’s Dumping Bill – It Provides for Cultivation – of the Dollar.) The effect of this law would be to fully legalize the very dumping that the two oystermen – Mr. Mackey and Mr. Rothar – had witnessed in 1886.
The Larchmont Manor Company and the Larchmont Yacht Club immediately joined forces in opposition to the bill. Members suspected a connection with efforts to clean up Newtown Creek.
Vigilante Justice – and 20 Dead Dogs Wash Up at Manor Park
The conflicts played out in the courts, the legislature and the news media, as well as on the Sound itself, where the oystermen formed a vigilante committee, laying in wait for the sanitation workers, providing rough justice to each worker before reporting them to the authorities.
The sanitation companies retaliated in their own ways. President Charles Murray of the Larchmont Manor Company soon reported discovering 20 dead dogs in the water off Larchmont Manor. The Manor Company advertised Larchmont’s “attractive panorama of land and water” with “picturesque coves and inlets” rife with “delicious clams and nice oysters.” (Read the New York Times Article A New Suburb – A Domestic Problem Solved – Larchmont Manor and its Prospects.)
The New York times reported, “One of the landowners said yesterday that in some quarters credence as been given to a rumor to the effect that the bill has been brought forward in the interests of jobbers, whose purpose was to compel the wealthy residents along the Sound to pay a large sum through fear of having their property damaged with a dumping ground just off their water fronts.” (Read the New York Times article To Keep the Waters Pure – Protesting Against Dumping in Long Island Sound.)
Could the Larchmont Manor Company continue to market its land if Larchmont Manor Park adjoined a regional waste dump?
The Town of Mamaroneck Takes a Stand
When threatened by big-box stores, airline noise or any other assault on the local and regional environment, modern-day Larchmont and Mamaroneck residents come together at public hearings to protest and to organize a response. So it was in 1888. On March 7th, the Town of Mamaroneck held a public hearing. After hearing from representatives of the Larchmont Manor Company and the Larchmont Yacht Club, the Town Council passed the following resolution:
- Resolved, That the proposed bill, if enacted into a law, would do the greatest injury to the people of Westchester County who live on the shores of Long Island Sound, and we protest against it as an outrage upon our rights and interests.
- Resolved, that the dumping of refuse from New York into the waters of the Sound would not only render life along the Sound uncomfortable, but would destroy the numerous oyster beds that are now planted along the shores.
- Resolved, That the Senators and Representatives for Westchester, Queens and Suffolk Counties be earnestly requested to oppose this mischievious bill by all the means in their power.
- Resolved, That Mr. W.H. Campbell be appointed a committee to present the above resolutions to the proper committee in Albany.
The Demise of the Oystering Industry
Local efforts to “save the Sound” appear to have been in vain. By the end of the 19th century, most of the oyster beds on the western end of Long Island Sound had been so polluted that oysters failed to survive or were too poisoned to eat.
In 1896, the State fish commissioner reported: “I would not care to eat any of the Long Island oysters at present. The immense amount of refuse matter dumped into the sound every year makes it impossible to keep the water circulating through clean and pure. This condition is worse in the upper part of the Sound where hundreds of tons of rubbish and refuse is deposited in the waters every year. As a result the bottom of the Sound is covered with foreign material, and the feeding grounds of the oyster are made a regular dump heap.” (Brooklyn Eagle, May 26, 1896, P. 3)
Can the Oysters Rebound?
While oyster harvesting ceased on the western end of Long Island Sound, oystering continued further east. The Long Island Sound Study reported in 2001, “Today, after a long period of decline, the Sound’s oyster industry is once again one of the largest in the nation. The Sound’s oysters are marketed throughout the country, and their high quality commands a premium price. The oyster is, by far, the most economically important shellfish harvested from Long Island Sound. The volume of oyster and other shellfish harvests is indicative, in part, of improved water quality and successful oyster culture practices.”
To the east, only 25 miles from Larchmont, Norwalk is considered Connecticut’s Oyster Capital based on weight of catch.
To the west, oysters are now reappearing in locations such as the Bronx River where it flows into the East River. The NY/NJ Baykeeper Oyster Restoration Program is restoring oysters to the waters around New York City. Liberty Island, known as “Oyster Island” before the Statue of Liberty was installed there, was an early site of a program that has now spread to places like the infamous Gowanus Canal.
Can Larchmont’s shores once again be abundant with edible clams and oysters? Can the Long Island Sound described by the Larchmont Manor Company in 1872 be recaptured?
According to Mamaroneck Town Council Member Nancy Seligson, who also serves as the co-chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee of the Long Island Sound Study, we can get part of the way by implementing the plans that are in place. These include the improvement of sewage treatment facilities, restoration of wetlands, improved management of non-point sources of pollution such as roadway run-off, and repair of storm water and sanitary sewer systems so they do not leak and overload the water treatment plants.
However, that won’t get us all the way. Restoring the oyster beds will require working with professionals and volunteers to re-establish the oyster beds where they used to flourish. The benefits of oyster restoration could be remarkable. An adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day, and oysters improve water quality wherever they flourish.
“Restoring the beds is one of the goals of the Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan,” said Ms. Seligson. “But that’s proving much more difficult than was originally thought in 1994, when the plan was originally signed.”
She is hopeful, though. “They opened one new bed in Greenwich a few years ago. It would be just wonderful for our area to be able to harvest shellfish from the Sound.”
This article is co-published with the Larchmont Gazette.
This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound, by Tom Anderson (Harrisonburg, VA, R.R. Donnelly and Sons, 2002)
The Oyster Industry, by Ernest Ingersoll (Washington D.C., The Government Printing Office, 1881.)