Commercial Township: Home of the Oyster Industry

Commercial Township's original inhabitants were the Lenape Indians, who harvested oysters and other shellfish along the river and bay. The first post-contact settlement occurred here in 1728, when a mill, tavern, and ferry comprised a village named Dallas' Ferry. Dallas's holdings were sold to a coffee merchant in 1810, who named the village Port Norris after his son. At that time, cordwood and sheep were the primary products of the area. In the 1830's there were eight dwellings in Port Norris. The construction of a railroad line to Bivalve, already an oystering port, created a boom resulting in a major population increase over the next several decades; in 1892 there were 1800 residents. Three hundred and sixty five schooners, sloops, and tongers were registered through the Oyster Act and involved in harvesting oysters under sail. Maurice River Cove oysters became famous throughout the eastern seaboard, and formed a staple in places such as Philadelphia, where enormous quantities of the bivalve were bought and eaten. During the industry's heyday, ninety railroad cars a week shipped oysters from Bivalve three months of the year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries figures, in 1880 17,735,000 pounds were gleaned from Delaware Bay beds. In the late nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Port Norris was considered "The Oyster Capital of the World." In 1929 almost 20 million pounds were harvested. Oystering was the mainstay of the local economy, and supported a unique, maritime - based lifestyle. According to local opinion, there were more millionaires per square mile in Port Norris than in any other New Jersey town, thanks to the lowly bivalve.

After World War II, due to depleted manpower the oystermen petitioned and received permission to dispense with sails and to harvest under power. The mainsails were lopped off and the schooners refitted for heavy machinery and dredges. The industry continued to exert a market force, although never to its previous extent, until an epidemic disease labelled MSX hit the Bay in 1957. In the next two years, over ninety per cent of the Delaware Bay oyster population died. More recently, after it began to appear that a comeback might be possible, a parasite called dermo surfaced, again causing severe losses in the local oyster beds. The Haskins Shellfish Research Lab in Bivalve has been working on the development of MSX-resistant strains of oysters. In addition, the economy has shifted to embrace other marine and estuarine-based products, such as crabs and fish. The Bayshore Center at Bivalve has also restored the historic waterfront areas of Shellpile and Bivalve to showcase the oystering and fishing activities prevalent in the area, at the time when the harvesting of oysters put this small river village on the map.

While Port Norris and its Shellpile and Bivalve areas represented the business side of the oyster industry, many oyster captains called the small village of Mauricetown, up river from the bustling wharves, sheds, and packing houses, their home. Established in the 1730's, this settlement was originally called Mattox Landing, and provided an area for the shipping of cordwood. Later the name was changed to Mauricetown, and it became a village of seafaring captains who owned large coasting vessels that traded from Maine to the West Indies and South America. The pretty white church with its tall steeple became a beacon to captains sailing up the Maurice after lengthy voyages, and its stained glass window, reflecting the area's maritime history, lists the names of local captains who were missing and presumed drowned at sea. Mauricetown is currently renowned for its colorfully-painted Victorian homes and antique shops, and its quaint turn-of-the-century atmosphere.

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