Farther Leslie Chard, late City Historian, wrote in his book Out of the Wilderness, that “A century or so ago Lake Erie was still a vast inland sea, replete with sturgeon, white fish, pike and herring–the lake itself not a great deal different from when it was formed by the receding glaciers 11,000 years ago.” It was that lake to which the earliest settlers arrived and it was that lake that offered a wealth of fish.
True commercial fishing in the Dunkirk harbor may be said to have started in earnest in the 1850’s, credited to the Johnson brothers, Samuel Morehead, and James Maloney. White fish and trout were offered for sale at 5 cents a pound, much of it shipped to Buffalo. Maloney, a native of County Clare, Ireland, fished here with gill nets from an ordinary row boat starting in 1851. He sold his catch out of his shanty at the foot of Lion St. (Main Street). He was followed by the arrival of four experienced fishermen from Canada, brothers Bill, Gus and Hank Johnson, and Sam Morewood. They had fished in Canada using “night lines”, described by Historian Chard as “long heavy line[s] wrapped with as many as 500 baited hooks set about 24 inches apart, left in the water overnight and harvested the next morning.” [“The Decline of the Fishing Industry”, Chard] This varied from the American method of using home made nets of five or six inch mesh, held down by large flat stones. They included operations out of Dunkirk as it became clear more fish were being caught here. These men were the first true commercial producers of fish for sale in Dunkirk, the fishermen receiving around $45 per month in wages. William Johnson opened his shanty on the beach at the foot of Eagle Street, from which he packed and shipped the catch of the brothers, who used a sailing skiff called the “Banner.” Gus and Hank moved to Buffalo and opened a fish market, and there they sold the fish caught in Dunkirk. Sam Morewood and three other men served as the crew of the “Banner” at that point.
More fishermen were attracted to Dunkirk to join the fishing business, including Louis Boehm and his son Herman, and John and Charley Gunther. They opened a fishing shanty at Beaver Street on the beach. Charles Gunther and John Gunther owned a skiff from which they fished, their crew including Charles Smith. Chris Gunter owned another boat. Fred Gunther and Bill Rushboldt fished out of their own 26 foot sailboat. Fred Henry Helwig was part of their crew. Fred Gunther would be the first fisherman drowning victim out of Dunkirk. These men were the pioneers of the fishing industry of the city.
From those days in the early 1850’s through the 1870’s and 80’s, others joined in the operations. Blue and yellow pike, and then ciscoes were all marketed
Fishing from open boats predominated until the forty foot steam tug “Ruby” arrived under owners Captain Jim Smith and Elizur Sweet in 1884. The Ruby was the first tug to use the cork and leads method of fishing. Soon she was joined by the “Helen Lewis,” the “H.G. Brooks,” and the “Jennie A. Desmond” of the Desmond Fish Company, which became one of the largest and most successful fishing companies in the area. Between 1890 and 1913 some 125 fishing tugs operated out of the city.
In the 1880’s into the early 1900’s sturgeon became popular, and its roe was shipped to Germany, processed into caviar and sold, often back into the US market. Sturgeon commanded the highest of prices. In 1901, 2,475,000 pounds of fish were taken from the waters, and the industry employed at least 150 men. The Desmond Fishing Company itself operated 14 tugs. By 1905 there were 27 boats operating in the harbor with a salary roll of $75,000 annually being provided to 200 men. Of those, 21 were tugs and three were gasoline boats. Fishing companies in Dunkirk included those operated by Fred Helwig, Sr., Theodore Walters and William Meisner, The Lake Fish and Provision Co., The Cooperative Fish Co., the Lake City Fish Co., The Buckeye Fish Co. (7 tugs), and the Booth Fisheries (9 tugs). The Desmond fleet held eight tugs, their best being the “Jennie A. Desmond.” It was the first tug to use “bull nets.”
In 1907 the Licensed Tugman’s Protective Association, Dunkirk Local #30, was established. In the same year 3.6 million pounds of fish were produced. Fish caught in Dunkirk could be purchased the next day in New York City at the Fulton Fish Market via New York Central express trains.
In 1914 Ross Bickley of Sandusky, Ohio, opened the Dunkirk Fish Company at 70 Lake Shore Drive East. Tugs from Sandusky would operate out of Dunkirk and the fish shipped from here. That same year when the Desmond Fish Company operated 14 tugs, they alone produced 77 tons of fish a day of mostly ciscoes, which had risen in popularity. But by 1925 that fish disappeared from the waters of Lake Erie. In 1913 Dunkirk’s fishing industry shipped out 3.5 million pounds of fish. In 1917 the state of New York established a fish hatchery at Point Gratiot, stocking the lake with ciscoes, whitefish, blue and yellow pike. In 1919, 166 million ciscoe fry were placed into Lake Erie at the Dunkirk hatchery. In 1924 the “Lycora” of the Ranney Fish Company of Cleveland brought in a load of ciscoe totaling 22 tons. In 1932 Captain Martin O’Shea and his sons caught ten tons of carp in one day between the Central Avenue and Eagle Street docks. But from 1925 onward the fish catch diminished in number and some varieties were fished out altogether. The decline of the industry intensified due to overfishing and the increasing pollution of the lake, resulting eventually in its demise in the 1930’s. A 1970 service leaflet noted the effect agricultural drainage had on waters near shorelines, in addition to domestic and industrial waste discharged into the lake. Higher water temperatures, heavy algal blooms, oxygen deficiencies, and overall “aging” of the lake were also listed as causes of trouble..
The Centennial Edition of the Evening Observer, Thursday, August 5, 1937, was a major source of information.