LIFE AND DEATH OF THE HERRING RUN

LIFE AND DEATH OF THE HERRING RIVER

 

Marstons Mills Herring River was one of the best fishing runs on Cape Cod. From time immemorial it had been fished by Indians like Paupmunnock during the month of May when the adult herring or alewives make their way up from the sea to Middle Pond to spawn. In the twenties this was called Cotuit Pond by Congressman Gifford and state fisheries report of 1920, but the common name is Run Pond. The alewives were not only a major source of food, but as Indians had taught white farmers, it was also the best fertilizer for good corn crops.

 

In the nineteenth century mill owners claimed—and Barnstable town meeting affirmed–historic fishing rights to the area. Those rights dated back to the grant of the Barnstable Proprietors, who owned the land, to John Stacy in 1705 for the right to place a grist mill dam on the Cotuit River. Later the stream was known as Goodspeed’s River, named for the first white settler in 1653, and still later the waterway was called Marston’s River after Benjamin Marston who inherited the Goodspeed rights, or was just called the Herring River.

 

Between 1813 and 1828 the Marstons sold their rights to the mill and a quarter of the fish to Ebenezer Scudder and Chipman Hinckley. Scudder and Hinckley sold their share to Chipman’s son Nathaniel Hinckley in 1842. Every year thereafter the town meeting would assign care of the Herring River to someone, often to the Hinckleys.

 

The state passed a law in 1846 regulating all herring fisheries, leading to protests by Hinckley and other villagers like Dr. Henry McCollum. The town issued regulations requiring removal of obstacles during May, taking fish only at the usual fishing place by the fish shed, no fishing on Saturday or Sunday, and limit of five dozen for each family member, with a fee of one cent for fresh fish and 2 ½ cents “salted and stuck”. “Salted and stuck” meant that it had been cleaned, soaked in brine for a week, and strung thru the eyesocket on a stick, ready for smoking.

 

In 1867 the town paid Hinckley $100 for his fishing rights and put the whole catch up for public bidding for five years. The first auction in 1868 was won by Capt. Pardon Burlingame of Cotuit for $65 a year. The next two, in 1873 and 1878 went to the Cotuit postmaster Andrew Lovell for $55. By 1879 the price was down to $35 for five years, sold to the Boston restauranteur Russell Marston.

 

The falling price of the bids reflects the opening of Newtown cranberry bogs which diverted water from the river, to the constant complaint of mill-owner Hinckley. An official state report by

David Belding in 1920 scathingly described the bogs as a “serious menace” since “the interests of the fishery and the cranberry industry are directly opposed.” It blamed the town of Barnstable for the “ruin of the fishery” by favoring taxes from the cranberries over the value of the fishery.

 

In 1875 A. D. Makepeace, known as the Cranberry King, and his partners had bought the 45 acre Big Bog surrounding Muddy Pond and Run Bog which linked it to Run Pond, converting it into the biggest bog on the Cape. Alewives had to make their way up the Herring River, as it was called, through the maze of dams, ditches and canals to the pond.

 

In 1880 the town appropriated $350 for a new canal, which they put under the three Selectmen plus the two most prominent Cotuit leaders, Augustus Thorndyke Perkins and Charles C. Bearse. The town paid David Jones $125 for the pathway of a canal that cut across the knoll on Jones’s homestead that is now the south end of Whistleberry Drive.

 

The rapid decline of the fishery is clear from the falling auction prices, only $20 in 1885 to the A.D. Makepeace, and from the years 1890 to 1896, the price was down to $10 1890-96.

 

Finally, in 1896 the fishery was deemed “worthless”. Belding’s state report shows a dry ditch, and suggests that the over-harvesting encouraged by the short-term auctions added to the loss of the natural herring run. For the next half century the herring fishery was dead.

 

Barnstable Enterprise 3 Dec. 2010

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