Just after Christmas, I walked past the
famous Grand Central Oyster Bar, which
is actually a cavernous restaurant. I haven’t
been inside for years, mainly because the
friend who regularly invites me keeps
breaking our dates, but it is a truly amazing
place, particularly considering its location
in a busy railroad station. Over an average
twelve-month period, the restaurant serves
between fifty and seventy-five varieties of
oysters. Each is somewhat different in appearance
and taste, but nearly all are variants
of the eastern oyster or Crassostrea virginica,
the species native to the Atlantic and Gulf
The Hudson River estuary was once home
to the largest actively worked oyster ground
in the world. It stretched from Raritan
Bay, south of Staten Island, to Croton-on-
Hudson, more than thirty miles upstream
from the Battery. John Waldman, professor
of biology at Queens College, estimates the
total area at 350 square miles.
The first Americans consumed large
quantities of oysters. Given their abundance,
they were easy pickings. Early Dutch settlers
commented that some were so large that they
needed to be cut into pieces before eating.
By 1800, when the population of Manhattan
had swelled to more than 60,000 (a 55
percent increase from 1790 and about onetenth
of the state’s entire population), street
vendors in the now-busy city sold oysters
on the half shell. Charles Dickens tasted
New York’s delicious offerings during his
1842 visit. Their popularity was at its height
between the 1830s and 1870s.
At the time of the Civil War, Henry De
Marsan printed a broadside at his shop on
Chatham Street (now Park Row) about a
shattered affair between the daughter of an
oyster merchant and a mollusk gatherer from
the Garden State. In this comic song, the
romance is broken by a member of a German
(Deutsch) ethnic U.S. Army regiment
encamped on Staten Island. De Marsan’s
song sheet notes that “The Jersey Fisherman”
was popularized by “Dick McGowan,
the great Favorite Banjoist.”
Down near the Battery,
A young gal used to dwell,
Her father kept an oyster stand,
And sold ’em on de shell.
Her mother she sold shaving soap,
For renovating coats:
But the gal sold sour apples
On the Fulton ferry boats.
There was a Jersey fisherman,
His name it was Mr. Crank,
He used to dig for muscles
On the Coney Island banks.
He fell in love with this young gal,
Before that he did know her,
From seeing her picter painted
On an omnibuses door.
He took her to Staten Island,
Where the sogers sleep in tents,
And her cruel heart was konkered
By the Dutch regiments.
Come shange de rings mit me, my tear,
A Dutchman he did say,
He mashed his drum on de fisherman’s
An’ they both did run away.
Now all you Jersey musclemen,
What ever you may do,
Don’t go near the oyster gals,
Or they’ll get you in a stew.
Hail Columbia up in the garret,
Yankee doodle shouta,
By an’ by de policeman,
He can nix fetch him outa.
New York consumption declined beginning
in the 1880s, according to Waldman, although
some 765 million oysters were still being
eaten annually at the start of that decade.
Oyster culture in the city was knocked out by
three blows: overharvesting, siltation from
dredging, and—the toxic punch—pollution.
While oysters can clean huge amounts of
water—one oyster can filter about a gallon of
water in an hour—they do have their limits.
In some areas, raw sewage pipes led directly
to oyster beds. Other contaminating factors
were the leakage of petroleum products and
the wholesale dumping of garbage. Dumping
twelve miles offshore was always accompanied
by a “washback” effect. Although the practice
ceased in 1987, it was immortalized in song
a century earlier by Edward Harrigan in “On
Board o’ the Muddy Day.”
I’ve command of a trim-built scow,
was launched at Hackensack;
’Twas just one year ago when the tide
was very slack;
I carry garbage down from the city to
The finest boat in all the fleet is the
gallant Muddy Day.
Once typhoid fever was linked to local
shellfish, the public lost its taste for oysters.
The last harvest in New York City waters was in
1927, the year Babe Ruth hit his record-setting
sixty home runs. Happily, the Hudson River
estuary cleanup mandated by the Clean Water
Act of 1972 and other legislation is progressing
well. A decade ago when I was stationed as a
ranger at the Statue of Liberty, we were able to
grow oysters below the north dock as part of a
pilot harbor health program. No, we did not eat
them! But New York oysters are now farmed
commercially off Long Island in Shinnecock,
Great South, and Oyster bays.
Bob Wright, a Staten Island native and retired
high school teacher, produced the CD Oyster
Aristocracy (2009), a musical retrospective about
New York Bay partially funded by the New
York State Council on the Arts and the New
York City Department of Cultural Affairs. The
songs are new, and they include “Down by the
Oyster Barges,” “Downing’s Oyster Bar,” and
“The Captains of Captains Row.” It’s certainly
worth a listen. Why not ask your local library
to get a copy? Bob Wright’s web site is www.bojomusic.com. If your appetite for oysters
goes further, look for a copy of John Waldman’s
book Heartbeats in the Muck (2000) or Mark
Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster (2007).
||Dan Milner comes from
a long line of traditional
Irish singers. A cultural
geographer and former
ranger in the National
Park Service, he is
currently writing his
Dan’s newest recording,
Civil War Naval Songs,
was released by Smithsonian Folkways in
At the time of the Civil War, Henry De Marsan printed a broadside at his shop on Chatham Street (now Park Row) about a shattered affair between the daughter of an oyster merchant and a mollusk gatherer from the Garden State.
This column appeared in Voices Vol. 37, Spring-Summer 2011. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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