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In This Place

Remembering Wellfleet’s Historic Herring Run

Beth Chapman is fascinated by the history of the Herring River. She serves on the board of the Friends of the Herring River and spent 20 years living just around the bend from where the river crosses under Bound Brook Island Road in North Wellfleet. Today, the river there is little more than an overgrown stream. But historically, before it was diked in the early 1900s, it was tidal here and more than twenty or thirty feet wide.

“[It] takes a lot of imagination but that was exactly where they had a gate,” said Beth. There was also a gatetender who was hired by the town who made sure the gates were open for four days closed rather for four days and open for three to allow the herring to get back up to the ponds.”

This spot was the second most productive herring run in the state between 1890 and 1899 and the gatetender’s job was to oversee the fishery.

“They would auction the rights off to a group of local men to take herring four days a week and in that four days these men would dip net and seine the herring out of a certain coral that they created with nets in the river right in front of the fish house they would barrel the fish, pour on salt to create a brine they’d top the barrels, these were all wooden barrels and roll them over to the railroad track.”

The old railroad bed is still there but the train stopped coming almost a century ago in 1938, before that there used to be a stop on the river where you had to flag the driver if you needed a pick-up.

“There was what they called a flag stop building there and they would put these barrels on the flag stop deck and then the trains would stop just where the boxcars would have a door that could open and they would put the barrels onto the train and primarily they were shipped to the very large fishing ports of New Bedford and Gloucester,” explained Beth.

This spot on the river today feels remote and overgrown. But in the pictures Beth has from the turn of the 20th century, it’s an economic center.

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Elspeth Hay
The herring run today.

“The herring industry was once so important to Wellfleet that it paid the salaries of the Town employees. For many years they would earn from $465 to about $800 a year on the proceeds but in the last two years of the 1800s they made over $1,000 on the auction proceeds. There were 250,000 herring a season and that’s an eight-week season that were barreled and shipped.”

Many of the fish salted and shipped out this way were used for bait. But they were also an important food source.

“Even as a child I was eating salted herring as a treat, just a piece of herring that had been salted and dried,” said Beth. She added, “when you look at old cookbooks and you look for fish recipes almost all of them before 1900 will say soak the fish to remove the salt.”

Back then people knew what to do with a fresh fish, but they needed instructions on removing salt from salted fish so they could put them in their recipes.

In 1907 the Town of Wellfleet voted to dike the Herring River — in part to create more arable land and also in a failed attempt to control mosquitoes. As a result, today only a few thousand fish make it up the river to spawn each year, and there’s a statewide moratorium on taking river herring. The Friends of the Herring River are working to restore tidal flow and with any luck this will also mean the return of the river’s historic herring fishery.

Learn more about the planned Herring River Restoration here.

Find out more about Beth Chapman's upcoming history walk here.