History – Oysters and City Island

The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) was once an abundant bivalve species native to the Atlantic coast, including New York City waterways and Long Island Sound, where the habitat was ideal for natural oyster beds to survive.

Eastchester Bay

For hundreds of years in the area around what is now City Island, oysters were a staple of the Native American diet. By the middle of the 19th century, thanks to the practice of “planting” oyster shells introduced by settlers in the region, massive oyster reefs dominated the waters of Eastchester Bay in western Long Island Sound, where the edges of the marshes, buoys, and wharf pilings were covered with oyster larvae that had attached themselves to existing shells.

About 1830 a shipbuilder named Orrin Fordham moved to City Island from Connecticut and is said to have introduced a system of creating artificial beds, or reefs, to increase oyster growth beyond the great natural banks in Eastchester Bay. The oyster farmers knew that by spreading shells on the bay floor, oyster larvae, or spat, would be attracted to the shells and could be readily collected and marketed after about three years.

Oyster skiff at west end of Tier Street 

To limit the wholesale exploitation and give the individual oysterman an equal chance, legislation as early as the 1880s prohibited the use of power vessels for oyster dredging on the natural beds. When dredging, oystermen in oyster sloops like this one let their sails luff (flutter) and used the tide to push them across the oyster beds, dragging as many as six dredges. At the end of the drift the oystermen pulled in the 80-pound dredges by hand, then sailed back to dredge again. After catching 100 or more bushels of oysters, the boats would either take them in to the local oyster processors or deliver them to “buy boats” that sold them for seeding private oyster grounds.

Dredging from an oyster sloop

Because oysters were delivered to market by boat rather than over land, oystering quickly became a major industry on City Island. As the Bureau of Fisheries reported in 1880,
“It is safe to say…that half a hundred families derive their support from the oyster-industry in this one community. . . . The total production of East Chester bay, last season (1879–80), may be placed approximately at 55,000 bushels.”

Oystermen at west Fordham Street

The growth of the oyster business was accompanied by the design and construction of different boats designed for gathering and transporting oysters for market, which ultimately led to City Island’s prominence as a world-famous boat-building center.

Designs for an oyster skiff
Blackbird, an oyster schooner built on City Island

Today, unfortunately, the oysters have declined to less than 1 percent of their peak population, largely as the result of human impact, such as overharvesting, landfilling, habitat destruction, sedimentation, pollution, and disease. By the turn of the 20th century, the oyster reefs throughout western Long Island Sound had been dredged up and covered with silt, and the water quality in the area was so bad that little marine life has been able to survive.

All images courtesy of the City Island Historical Society