“Harvesting the Sea” in Monmouth Beach …
Today, few people remember and even fewer know that Monmouth Beach was once a thriving commercial fishing village. While many local anglers still regularly cast off borough beaches, the practice as a business is now gone.
Situated mainly in the “Galilee” section of town (located roughly from the Sea Bright border to Central Road), the fishing trade is a colorful and vibrant part of our local history. Back in the day it was “harvesting the sea.”
Hardworking and strong, the Galilee fishermen were of mostly Scandinavian heritage. Combined with the busy Nauvoo fishing village in Sea Bright, our shore area was perhaps the largest pound boat fishing industry along the U.S. coast in its day.
In the Beginning
Much of the fish caught off our waters was shipped to the Fulton Fish Market and sold. Gustav Kobbe, in his majestic 1889 book, The Jersey Coast and Pines, called these coastal fishing communities “the only ones of their kind in this country.” According to Kobbe, area fishermen would catch 9 million pounds of fish during an average 150-day season. In the late 1880s, fish sold for about 3 cents per pound. “Bluefish, bass, weakfish, blackfish are caught in plenty … these with crabs and clams abounding in the waters make seafood abundant and cheap,” wrote Kobbe.
Launching their massive cedar boats right into surf off the beaches at daybreak, the fishermen’s work “may be over before their fashionable neighbors have any thought of rising,” according to a Harper’s Weekly report.
Having first purchased land from Dr. Arthur Conover in 1870, the Galilee Fishing Association was chartered in March 1884. Despite some ups and downs, the glory days of commercial fishing and storage in town would last into 1960s. The peak was probably in 1903 when a small train station was built in Galilee and fish was transported up north each day. In later years, a spur for loading fish was added. In the summer of 1917, a serious accident occurred in Galilee when a southbound express train struck a loaded gasoline truck. The massive explosion took the lives of the locomotive engineer and the truck driver. The flames cooked three coaches of the train, the railroad station, and a surrounding field.
In July 1940, Pat Maney, a borough police and fire chief, won an amateur photography contest sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune for his photo of the majestic pound boat, Anna Marie (a painting by Gail Gannon of the scene hung for years in borough hall).
The pound boats — massive floating hulks 40-feet in length and weighing a quarter of a ton — were built and maintained at nearby Jerolamon’s Boat Works (which dates to 1861). The cost of a new boat then ran about $85.
Starting well before dawn, 6- to 8-man crews would launch boats directly into the breaking surf. The pound nets were anchored to the ocean floor and bypassing fish would be caught in the nets. The men would clean the fish on the way in, as leaving fish guts on the beach was frowned upon.
After the day’s fishing, a team of horses (later tractors were used) would pull the vessels ashore. The fish were placed in large wicker baskets and taken to nearby icehouses — in the area that are now Icehouse Road and Drew Court. The ice was cut in large chucks from the nearby Shrewsbury River and Manahasset Creek during winter months and insulated with salt hay, sawdust, or burlap for future use. There the catch was stored — there wasn’t refrigeration.
The practice was that “if you caught fish you made money, if you didn’t catch fish you didn’t make any money.” The rule was that the boat owner took one-third, the boat captain got one-third, and the crew got one-third. The variety of fish caught included Bluefish, Weakfish, Whiting, Ling, Porgies, Tuna, and Butterfish.
Family names synonymous with the fishing industry in Monmouth Beach include Cook, Peterson, Koch, Woolley, Lockwood, and Johnson. And it appeared that collegiality prevailed. According to a November 1891 Harper’s Weekly report, “a brawl in Galilee is almost unknown, all are living closely on the best terms. The fishermen are trusting and trustworthy, for nothing is ever stolen from the boats, left exposed with all the implements of their trade.”
“There is something in angling that produces a serenity of the mind.”
In 1873, the fishermen built their own house of worship on Ocean Avenue, the Episcopal St. Peter’s of Galilee Church. Operating only during the summer, it was damaged by a storm in the early 1930s and moved to the westside of Ocean Avenue for more protection. It was finally taken by fire in May 1955.
The Lockwood family — known for hard work and community involvement — first opened a fish market on the east side of Ocean Avenue in the 1890s. A 1953 storm washed the building from atop the seawall. Across the street, the family built a new store. Under different owners, it operated until the late 1970s.
In 1912, Abram O. Johnson, a four-term borough mayor, started the Monmouth Beach Cold Storage Company (where the Monmouth Commons is now). After his death, his son Sidney (mayor from 1949 to 1978) took over the business and managed it for 30 years. The facility survived a major fire in 1972, saw business decline in the late 1970s, and closed in 1983.
Fish was frozen and stored at the facility off Riverdale Avenue and eventually shipped to the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan. At one point, the Johnsons were freezing more than 2 million pounds of fish each year. Winfield West was the long-time business manager for both Johnsons. Many a boroughs youth can say they clocked hours at “The Freezer” through the years.
Oscar Peterson came to Monmouth Beach in 1887 and got into the pound boat trade. Beginning on Wesley Street, the business would last two more generations — to his son, Edwin O. Peterson, Sr. and grandson, Edwin O. Peterson, Jr.
Beginning in 1924, Oscar’s wife, Hilda, pedaled fresh fish door-to-door. E.O. Peterson, Sr., known for his entrepreneur ways and marketing flair, took the family into several new businesses. He formed Peterson Enterprises in 1956, which included fish freezing and storage, bait fish and ice supply, shrimp supplies, and land developer among others. The business moved to Park Road in Galilee in 1958.
His son, E.O. Peterson, Jr. took over the enterprise in 1973. A borough commissioner and fire chief, he ran the business until 1986. The land was sold, the aging buildings were razed, and new homes were built in 1997.
After World War II, the team of Al Ferrugiaro, Edwin “Nick” Woolley, Harold “Skeets” Peterson (a borough commissioner), and Ed Koch got into the fish trade and ran a successful Wesley Street business up until 1983.
Arthur Peterson, Sr. started the Shrewsbury Fishery in the late 1920s and operated it until 1960. Born in Norway in 1903, he came to Monmouth Beach in 1928. A man known for his work ethic and good business sense, he owned much of the land in Galilee for many years.
The fish business was tough in more ways than one. Through the years, according to a New York Times report, the influence of organized crime at Fulton was never far away. And right here in Monmouth Beach the hijacking of a NYC-bound fish truck was occasional (once at gun-point).
In the late 1800s, when Monmouth Beach was growing as a shore resort for the rich and famous, the fishing business began to face challenges. Wealthy and connected neighbors living in the mansions on Ocean Avenue started to complain about the early morning noise and smell.
The issue came to a head in 1928 when the Monmouth Beach Association, a group that owned much of the borough’s properties, filed suit to stop the practice. Although the legal action failed, the days of commercial fishing in town were numbered.
In neighboring Sea Bright, according to former Monmouth County historian George Moss, beaches had 280 fishing boats in 1904; by 1949 just half a dozen remained.