Herring Week, Day 12– The Last Seine Fisheries

Courtesy, North Carolina Collection, UNC Library University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Courtesy, North Carolina Collection, UNC Library University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Welcome to the penultimate installment of my special series on the history of the great herring and shad fisheries on Albemarle Sound. This is photograph of the engine house on the east end of the Greenfield fishery in Chowan County, N.C., circa 1905. One of the great 3 and ½ inch thick warps (hauling ropes) ran from the sea-end fishing flat to this structure, where an engine with a steam drum hauled one end of the seine ashore.

Technology in the Albemarle fisheries had changed dramatically since the Civil War. Except for a few big seine fisheries like Greenfield and Avoca, pound nets, also known locally as “Dutch nets,” had largely replaced the big seines used to catch shad and herring.

Unlike a seine, fishermen did not haul in a pound net. A pound net remained stationary in a river or in the sound, held in place by wooden stakes embedded in the bottom. The stakes and net acted as a trap, and a long wing of net placed in the current directed the fish into the “pound.”

Fishermen visited the nets every morning and emptied them of fish with long-handled hoop nets.

Introduced to Albemarle Sound by a Dutchman named John Pentrose Hettrick (hence their local nickname), the new nets were much smaller and less expensive than the antebellum seines, which often stretched over a mile in length and, before steam power, depended solely on enormous crews of enslaved and free black fishermen.

With pound nets, on the other hand, a single crew of five men could tend a dozen of them daily.

Originally from the Dutch community at Selensgrove, Pennsylvania, Hettrick reportedly got his start in the fishing business by working pound nets on the Great Lakes before the Civil War. He first came to Albemarle Sound as a Union soldier during the war.

He returned north after Appomattox but came back to North Carolina in 1869 and settled near Edenton, the largest town on the Albemarle. Edenton is located 12 miles from the Greenfield fishery, on a bay that is just east of where the Chowan River flows into the sound.

Hettrick started a shad and herring fishery at Sandy Point and, with his brother William, began setting pound nets. The new nets gained popularity quickly. At their high point, fishermen worked an estimated 5,000 pound nets between Winton, on the Chowan River, and Oregon Inlet, on the Outer Banks. That’s a distance of roughly 100 miles.

While the number of the old seine fisheries declined with the end of slavery and the rise of pound netting, the introduction of steam power revolutionized the remaining seine fisheries.

In 1869 Capt. Peter Warren, of Edenton, invented a steam seine and first put it to use at J. G. and Edward Wood’s Drummond Point fishery, which was located near the mouth of the Yeopim River, not far from Greenfield. The new technique employed a pair of steam engines, contained in engine houses like the one in this photograph.

Prior to steam power, that had been a task accomplished by the use of powerful windlasses or capstans set onto the fishing beach and turned by horses or mules.

Sometime during the 1870s, Capt. Warren also fashioned a new type of vessel to lay out the giant seines. Those fishing flats were flat-bottomed, steam-powered craft like the Sea Hawk and the Greenfield at the Greenfield fishery, much different than the long, streamlined bateaus propelled by a large crew of oarsmen before the war.

The new boats with their side paddlewheels looked a little ungainly, and the smoke and roar of their engines certainly disturbed the tranquility of the fishing beaches more than did the lap of the old bateaus’ oars. Nevertheless, the new boats proved seaworthy and handy.

Fishing flats had previously been powered by six or eight oarsmen per boat, so that the introduction of steam engines significantly reduced the need for fishing hands.

The combination of steam-powered fishing flats and steam seines also lessened the time necessary for each haul, which, prior to the Civil War, often took 6 or 8 hours and frequently longer in rough weather. With the advent of steam, baring accidents, new hauls started every four hours, around the clock, day and night.

Long employed by Frank Wood’s father, Edward, Capt. Warren was one of the most important innovators in the shad and herring industry on the Albemarle Sound. In addition to his steam inventions, he patented an oar-driven model of the fishing flat in 1849 and a special oarlock for the boats in 1859. He originally established the Greenfield fishery, shown here, in 1842.

By 1905, the Greenfield fishery was one of only a handful of seine fisheries left on Albemarle Sound or the Chowan River and was increasingly seen as a relic of an earlier age. Visitors traveled long distances to gaze at the black fishermen working the seines, and the women and children cleaning the fish.

The scene reminded older people of their younger days. Many brought children or grandchildren with them to give them a taste of what the herring and shad fishery was like in earlier times.

While they were there, they bought at least a keg or two of salt herring. Stewed with onions and white or sweet potatoes, salt herring and herring roe remained a staple on Albemarle breakfast tables for the rest of the century, as common as bacon in other parts of the country.

 

Tomorrow—Herring Week, Day 13—A Postscript

 

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