Among the things the Bayshore Center at Bivalve in Port Norris, NJ, is known for is its restored oyster schooner, A.J. Meerwald, fresh from its latest renovation at Clark & Eisele Traditional Boatbuilding in Belfast, Maine. The vessel is an impressive sight in full sail, leaving little wonder why it is both New Jersey’s official state tall ship and a crowd pleaser as it returns to touring east coast ports as a floating history and education platform.
But the Port Norris museum complex also has the Meerwald’s shabby sister — the oyster schooner Cashier — and hers is a different story. Out of sight and out of mind, but still deeply rooted in the maritime history of the Maurice River and Delaware Bay, The 173-year-old Cashier is one of Bayshore’s most unusual attractions. When the ship was taken out of service in 2000, it was a genuine historic icon as the oldest, continuously-worked, American-flagged merchant vessel. But it didn’t make the cut for restoration and now sits in the mud of a oyster wharf shed, rotting away as years of visitors snap its sad photo.
The Cashier’s name spoke to the original reason it was built and launched in 1849 — the sail-powered dredging of Delaware Bay oysters that were delicacies selling for high prices if you could get them to market before they went bad. In the pre-Civil War economy, Delaware Bay oystering was a modest enterprise limited by the river boat and horse-and-wagon struggle to get the short-lived product to nearby towns.
The Railroad to Bivalve
The rapid advancement and expansion of railroad technologies and networks after the Civil War had a major impact on oystering. The Cashier was joined by a growing number of new schooners similarly rigged to dredge up oysters from the bay bottom. In an epochal event in 1875, the West Jersey Railroad laid a new railroad spur called the Bridgeton and Port Norris Line that terminated at the Bivalve wharves.
A series of wharf sheds sprang up to enable all-weather processing of their incoming raw oyster catch and easy loading onto box cars. The new rail line connected with the main regional rail networks running throughout the east coast, the southern and midwestern states. The train could deliver tons of iced oysters to Philadelphia or New York City in less than a day’s time. It was the beginning of the explosion of the Port Norris shellfish industry (Bivalve is a riverfront section of the town of Port Norris).
The wharf sheds were part of a factory-like system. The schooners would bring their cargoes up the river, anchor in the channel, and offload the oysters into scows or small barges that hauled them into the wharf sheds where workers processed them into bags and barrels. They shipped more than a million bushels of oysters most years, and a lot more than that in some years.
Incredible Profit and Wealth
By the the late 1800s, Port Norris was a boom town and Bivalve’s fleets and wharves a money machine. The Cashier and 500 other schooners were hauling up oysters that filled as many as 100 railroad box cars every day during the season. The business created a slew of Cumberland County shellfish millionaires. Although now one of New Jersey’s poorest areas, in the heyday of Bivalve oystering, Port Norris was the wealthiest municipality per capita in New Jersey.
In 1904, the Central Railroad of New Jersey took over the Bivalve rail connection and greatly expanded its infrastructure by tearing down the ramshackle sheds sandwiched between the shoreline and the railroad platform. The Central built 30 new three-story contiguous wharf sheds that became the center of a thriving maritime commercial community that took the business to its highest levels of production.
Much like everything else in U.S. society, oystering was heavily disrupted when World War II took most of its workers. In the 1950s, the Bivalve business was making a strong comeback when Delaware Bay’s oyster beds were suddenly overrun by two different shellfish-killing parasites. The end came quickly. The former world center of oystering collapsed into a shadow of its former self. Oyster boats, like the A.J. Meerwald and the Cashier, were ideled on the Maurice River shore by owners who no longer had viable businesses.
Celebrating Bivalve Maritime History
Although the industry of oystering was gone, the lore of that century of vibrant community achievement and maritime greatness lived on in the public’s imagination. In 1974, a small grassroots organization opened the Bivalve Oyster Museum on the Bivalve site to begin the preservation of as much of that history as possible. It was the beginning of a movement to turn the old oyster facilities into a cultural center that would be renamed the Delaware Bay Museum and then renamed again in 1988 as the Bayshore Center at Bivalve.
By donation, the Center acquired two battered old oyster schooners — the A.J. Meerwald, built in 1928, and the much older Cashier, built before the Civil War.
The younger and better built A.J. Meerwald understandably became the center’s fund-raising star attraction as well as New Jersey’s official tall ship. The Cashier was pulled into one of the wharf sheds, to be displayed to visitors, but there with no money for its upkeep or restoration, and it became the decaying historical hulk it is today.