Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Fishy Cargo

One of the more unusual rail cargoes was eelgrass. This was an aquatic plant whose unique properties made it desirable. Eelgrass could be used to stuff mattresses and insulate homes. The sea plant did not rot, was odorless and fire-resistant. It grew in great volume along the New Jersey Coast. Eelgrass was abundant in Raritan Bay and Barnegat Bay

The eelgrass was harvested and then strewn on the beach to dry. From there, it was carted off to the nearest railroad station for shipment to the big cities. Small lines serving the shore made good money shipping eelgrass. It was a money-maker for the diminutive Tuckerton Railroad that served the Manahawkin area of Ocean County and the resorts of Long Beach Island.

A blight in the 1930s nearly eliminated eelgrass. As a result, the harvesting and shipping of the sea plant came to an end. Railroads lost a valuable commodity. Only the clammers and oystermen rejoiced at the retreat of eelgrass. The seaweed was inhospitable to shellfish.

Fish, clams and oysters were another cargo of the Shore area. They would be packed in barrels with ice and sent to Philadelphia and New York. At one time, oysters were packed in milk cans. A new lighter container was invented to make shipping them easier.

Oysters were very popular in the late 1800s. Aficionados of the shellfish could tell from what waters an oyster came. Northeastern oysters were prized and would be shipped to oyster lovers out West. The Stillwell company even constructed a special "oyster car" to haul the popular shellfish across the country.

In recent years, regulations and various environmental problems have made clamming and oyster gathering less lucrative. Baymen have to work more to get less. Hopefully this will turn around, thanks to scientists and environmental specialists working to restore shellfish populations along the Jersey Coast.

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