Along the banks of the Maurice River in southern New Jersey, the towns of Bivalve and Shell Pile were once the epicenter of New Jersey’s oyster industry, whose rise and fall is expertly told at the Bayshore Center in Bivalve. The museum was closed the day I visited, but Teri Watson, the Director of Donor Relations & Volunteer Services was kind enough to show me around.
Each year, millions of bushels were harvested, shucked, and shipped to dinner tables up and down the East coast. The highpoint for oystering in this area was the late 1920s, when over 6 million bushels were processed, largely by a community of African American workers from nearby Shell Pile.
For some, prosperity reigned for almost 80 years and nearby Port Norris was once the home of oyster millionaires. Others were not so lucky, and I was particularly interested in learning more about the lives of the African American workers who shucked for untold hours each day to feed their families during the height of Jim Crow.
Fortunes of both rich and poor changed in 1957, with the arrival of MSX. The parasitic oyster disease was accidentally introduced via a shipment of pacific oysters, which are naturally immune. Unfortunately, the eastern oysters were wiped out overnight, with just 10,000 bushels harvested the following year.
The region has never fully recovered and some communities, like Shell Pile are gone. A few years before the shanty town was leveled, a New York Times reporter visited in June of 1978 and gave the following description.
"The wooden shacks are more reminiscent of William Faukner's Missippippi than of Brendan Byrne's New Jersey- mean little shacks built on hundreds of thousands of clam and oyster shells, shacks that contain no water, no toilets, no central heating, where crumbling walls are patched with Coca-Cola signs, where rats scramble under floor boards and seagulls cry above the plastic bottles and moldering garbage that assault the reed grass."
Oysters are still harvested in Delaware Bay, but production rarely climbs above 100,000 bushels. Thankfully, the nearby Rutgers Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory is working to advance aquaculture here and others places.
Plan ahead when you visit and consider a 2-hour sail on the restored 1920s schooner AJ Meerwald, New Jersey’s official tall ship. You can also have lunch a the Oyster Cracker Café.
If you are still feeling adventurous, consider a hike along the Maurice River Bluffs, a Nature Conservancy preserve about 8 miles away. The trails are easily navigated, with views of the river and New Jersey’s largest contiguous wild rice marsh.