Welcome back to Herring Week, my special series on the history of the great herring and shad fishery on Albemarle Sound. Today I have just a brief scene that I want to describe that I hope will give you a sense of an important, but rarely appreciated part of the fishery.
Like most of the other historical photographs that I have featured this week, this scene is from the Greenfield fishery in Chowan County, N.C., circa 1905.
However, this scene is a part of the Albemarle Sound fisheries that we can’t see in Frank Baldwin’s photographs at Greenfield or in any other historical photographs with which I am acquainted: it is a view of the herring and shad fishery at night.
By the turn of the 20th century, the fishery hands at Greenfield no longer worked 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.
But things had changed only slightly: by the time of these photographs, they began work Sunday nights at midnight. They hauled the massive seine and gutted, salted and packed the fish around the clock, day and night, until Saturdays at noon.
Consequently the fishing hands worked nearly half the time in the dark or the near dark.
Illuminating the fishing boats and the fishing beach was no small job in those days before the availability of electricity.
So picture this: at Greenfield’s main fishing shelter, heavy kerosene lanterns burned brightly on those long late winter and early spring nights. They were attached to the big posts that supported the roof. Lightwood fires in tall iron braziers burned along the shelter’s edges.
At the east and west ends of the beach, great lightwood fires also blazed so that the fishermen could find their way to shore.
Lanterns also burned on the beach. As they headed out, the captains of the fishing flats relied on what they called a “center bush” to get their bearings day or night.
The center bush was a pine branch attached to a post that had been pounded into the sound bottom roughly ¼ mile offshore and equidistant from the two ends of the fishery.
At the beginning of every haul, the captains steered in tandem toward the center bush. When they reached the bush, they separated and laid out the seine between them. By starting at the center bush, they ensured that they would end up appropriately placed with respect to the east and west windlasses and the main fishing shelter.
That was far more difficult at night, of course. So the fishing hands placed two lanterns on shore, one directly on the beach and the other 150 feet to the rear, and both of them on a direct line with the center bush.
In that way, the lanterns served as navigational landmarks, the same way river pilots once used lighthouse beacons, and that modern ships and boats use lighted channel markers.
As long as the two lights from the lanterns were lined up with one another, the captains of the fishing flats could count on finding the center bush and beginning their haul in the right place.
I find it difficult not to daydream a little about what the scene at a fishing beach like Greenfield must have been like on one of the warmer, moonlit spring nights.
I imagine the flickering shadows of the fishermen laying out the seine, the whole scene lit by great blazing fires and kerosene lamps and, as far as any of them could see, not another light.
Next up– Herring Week, Day 11– Fried Fish, Greens & Cornbread
One thought on “Herring Week, Day 10– Light in the Darkness”
David, I just stumbled across this and really appreciate your work on it. All my dad’s family grew up in Williamson on the Roanoke River and they always talked about back in the day when the Shad ran and people had water powered fish traps and pulled up nets with mules. Thanks again, jack
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