Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

The view from the crest of Erie’s lower State Street is a powerful one. Framed by the tall masts and spars of Oliver Hazard Per­ry’s restored War of 1812 flagship, the Niagara, are the waters of Presque Isle Bay. In the distance, the Presque Isle Peninsula is visible as it curves around and shelters the bay, and beyond that looms the ocean-like expanse of Lake Erie.

The bayfront area today seems to have given itself over totally to the needs of the yachtsman, the pleasure boater and the sport fisherman. Names like the Sailyard, Erie Marine, the Buoy and the Complete Angler testify to the fact that the business of Erie’s bayfront is not business at all, but pleasure. In the enor­mous marinas that line either side of lower State Street, majestic Flying Dutchman, Endeavor and Catalina sail­boats nestle alongside high-bridged cabin cruisers and their smaller Sea Ray and Bayliner brethren.

At one pier in the west marina, how­ever, a different story is told. Amid a group of small cabin cruisers are moored three long, box-like boats, their superstructures closed all around. Called fish tugs, these specialized craft are designed to weather the rigors of commercial fishing on Lake Erie. Virtually extinct today, these boats are a last reminder that once the city of Erie was the largest freshwater fishing port in the world.

Fishing has always been important in Erie. Three centuries ago, the Presque Isle Bay teemed with black bass, perch, catfish, pike and sturgeon. Erie’s first fishermen were Indians, who found the bay to be a vast and wonderful provider of food, and it is an Indian legend that the Presque Isle Peninsula was created by the Great Spirit to give protection to fishermen in small boats.

Following the American Revolution a group of Seneca Indians became Erie’s first commercial fishermen, selling fish to whites who were too involved in other pursuits to fish for their food. The In­dians were succeeded by a mulatto named McKinney who, interestingly enough, choked to death when a fish­bone became lodged in his throat. McKinney was followed by his son-in­-law, Benjamin Fleming, a survivor of the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. Fleming’s nickname, “Bass,” reflected the pre­dominant food fish of the period, which he sold door to door for a nickel apiece.

Until 1830 fishing was done with a hook and line, but in that year Thomas Horton began using a seine, and others followed. Still, these fishermen re­mained in the bay, and the market for their catch remained local. The impetus to hazard the risks of fishing on Lake Erie came in 1852 when one Captain Nash, a Mackinac fisherman, took two boats with gill nets to Dunkirk, New York and began fishing experimentally for whitefish, a delectable species not thought to exist in Lake Erie. When Nash produced large catches of white­fish, attention was aroused all along Lake Erie from Cleveland to Buffalo.

The gill-net method of fishing that was introduced by Nash has predomi­nated in Erie ever since. In this type of fishing, a vertical fence is formed in the water by suspending the nets from floats. Fish are trapped by their gills as they attempt to swim through. The size of the mesh can be varied according to the type and size of fish desired.

Though the existence of whitefish, the premier food fish of the day, in vast numbers was a necessary factor in the coming of Erie’s fishing industry to greatness, it was not the cause. Like much local history, the rise of commer­cial fishing was linked to national events. In this case, the key was the tre­mendous internal expansion of the United States after the Civil War known as the Industrial Revolution. A torrent of immigrants poured into America to man the new machinery and this New Immigration, as it was known, came principally from southern and eastern Europe, drawing heavily on Catholic and Jewish peoples who were ac­customed to a diet of fish. Jewish immi­grants especially preferred fresh-water fish to those from salt water, and de­mand for whitefish soared.

Still, it was a long way from the Erie fisheries to the fish markets on New York’s Fulton Street. The widening of America’s railway network after the Civil War and the merger movement that soon followed ensured the rapid shipment of fresh fish to urban, eastern markets. With the convergence of a bur­geoning demand and the development of systems capable of meeting the de­mand, the fisheries of Erie exploded with activity.

The expansion of demand for fish lured Erie’s fishermen onto Lake Erie in small sailboats, sometimes up to dis­tances of twenty miles offshore. These sailboats were usually twenty-five to thirty-five feet in length and were rigged with a foresail and a mainsail. The num­ber of boats based in Erie grew from three or four in 1856 to fifty by 1884.

Still, these sailboats were too small to efficiently produce large catches, espe­cially on Lake Erie, which is considered to be the roughest of the Great Lakes. Long-time Erie fisherman Bill Tabb re­called some particularly treacherous conditions which often kept boats close to shore:

A lot of these seas they called the Three Sisters. Three great big ones in a row. That’s what you have to watch out for. You get up in one and you go down and another one is on top of you and be­! ore you can shake out of that, the third one is on top of you …

They [sailboats] would have too much trouble getting back at times. If they hit one of the Southwesters coming down the lake, they would wind up in Canada. They would never be able to tack back into Erie with all that wind.

The answer to the dilemma was the steam-powered fish tug. First intro­duced in Erie in 1881, these big wooden tugs were the queens of the fleet. Gen­erally, the maximum length of these boats was sixty-five feet because boats over that length were required to have both a captain and an engineer who were licensed. Further, the cost of fish­ing licenses rose with the greater length and tonnage. The importance of the steam tugs can be gauged by the fact that four years after their introduction, there were seventeen in Erie valued at $40,000. By 1892 there were twenty­-eight steam tugs in Erie and only four­teen sailboats left. In that year the in­dustry employed 500 men on the boats and in the fish houses.

Over the years, the steam tug changed considerably in appearance. Before the days of the mechanical net puller, men had to haul in the heavy fish-laden nets over the bow of the boat. In foul weather, common on Lake Erie, condi­tions were miserable. Bill Tabb’s com­ments hint at the severity of the weather during late-season fishing:

Oh, you wouldn’t mind it – you get used to it. The only thing is taking fish in December. Getting the net and keep­ing the net thawed our. You’d pull them aboard and they would freeze. But they always had a hot water hose to thaw out. They used to have men there and then they would sit back aft, there, a little spray hits and they’d freeze. They used to have heavy raincoats. They would have ice and freeze right to their seat, and they would get a little hot wa­ter and get off.

The boats originally had open decks but gradually structures began to be added until by 1915 most steam tugs had their decks completely covered. Bill Tabb described the process:

Oh, they kept adding to it. First they had covered only half the front end. They called it the turtle deck. Only half way back. That kept a lot of the spray off. But when they first started they only put the turtle deck half way back because they were afraid they would get too much weight up there. Bur that worked pretty good so they kept the whole works going back. They used to have curtains on the side. You used to have to roll the curtains down in bad weather. On good days you would roll them back up. Instead of rolling cur­tains then, they put a wooden house on them – all the way around instead of a curtain.

As the industry grew, Erie’s water­ front began to teem with activity. It seems inevitable that Lake Erie’s fish­ing industry would gradually consolidate in Erie since the Presque Isle Pen­insula forms the lake’s only large, nat­ural harbor. Former fisherman Joe Glover characterized the development of the bay area in this manner: “That was all fish houses, the east slip and the west slip. If it wasn’t for fishermen, they wouldn’t have those slips. They built them. That is, the companies did.”

Erie’s fishing industry was always dominated by several large companies and, as early as 1878, a number of them had formed a trade group, the Erie Fisherman’s Association, the purpose of which was to maintain prices as the size of the catches increased. Along the bayfront, fish companies like Case, Union, Booth, Kolbe, Driscoll, Loesch, Shaw and Keystone built wharves, processing houses, ice houses, twine shacks and reels to dry the easily rotted cotton and linen nets. Howard Jones, son of the owner of the Union Fish Company, recalled the reason for the net reels:

Every tug had at least three complete sets of nets. One set would be in the lake fishing, another set would be on the way out to the nets and the third set would be drying on the reels. So they had to have at least three se1s of nets. Nets were very expensive even then because they were made of linen. They had robe mended and the net shanty was where the fisher­men that weren’t fishing would take the nets in and mend them.

This was more of a job than might be expected because in 1902 Erie fishermen were using 800 miles of nets, enough to reach from Erie to Philadelphia to New York and almost back again. And there was a place for women in all this. Ac­cording to Howard Jones, “During the winter months there were several elderly women who lived on West First and Sec­ond Streets who made a profession out of repairing nets. They would cake the nets up there after the fishing season was over and they would go over all the nets and mend them all during the win­ter months for which they got piece work wages, I imagine.”

Erie’s bayfront was taking on the look of a New England seaport town. The names of the boats that, by the turn of the century were crowding for space along the docks, added a cosmopolitan touch. Bill Tabb remembered:

Well, the Keystone Fish Company boats were named after the stars. The Saturn (that’s the one I sunk on), the Atlas, Mars, Jupiter, Mercury. The Booth Fish Company was named after cities – Baltimore, Chatanooga, New York, Cincinnati and a few more. Most of the independents named their boats after their kids or their wife. My father had the Eagle – he named his after the birds.

The waterfront was visually exciting, as well. Many of the companies had standard color schemes for their boats. Frank Paganoff, an elderly Russian immigrant who began work as a fish dresser and ended his career as caretaker of the flagship Niagara, recalled that “the Booth Fish House was yellow. The Keystone Fish House was green. Kolbe’s were white. Independent boats painted them anyway they wanted them.” The boats of the Case Fish Company, ac­cording to Paganoff, featured orange deckhouses on white bulls. Paganoff also noted that the whistles on the steam tugs differed from boat to boat, and the fish-dressers could tell which tug had entered the harbor by the sound of its whistle.

Immigration, which boosted the de­mand for fish, also affected the charac­ter of fishing in Erie. Finns, Swedes, Irishmen and Russians settled along Erie’s bayfront in the poorest wards, the first and fourth, and formed ethnic, fishing oriented enclaves. Howard Jones commented on the effect of these residential patterns:

Well, I think that when they came to this country they tended to go where other Irish and other Germans were be­cause there were definitely sections of Erie which were Irish, German, Polish, Italian and Russian. I think more so than because of economic status they would go to where they felt they had friends. Friends who spoke the same language and had the same heritage. Doing the cleaning of the fish we had quite a few Russians. It was quite a Rus­sian colony in the bayfront area. They were good workers and they were steady and they came to work every day. My father liked to hire Russian men because they were good workers. Our captains and our engineers, they were almost all Irish.

The fish companies not only main­tained processing houses, but they owned and sometimes built their own boats and hired the crews. They also backed independent, owner-operated boats, furnishing them with expense money and twine for nets while guaran­teeing the purchase of each boat’s catch. As Frank Paganoff recalled the system, “Each fish company had so many of their boats that they used and if the fish were running, they would hire so many independent boats. When they didn’t want any more fish, the first fish tugs to be laid off would be the independent boats.”

The amount of fish caught was enor­mous. The tug, W.J. McCarter, in the third week of May 1891 netted over 21,000 pounds of herring. In 1892 al­most 13 million pounds of fish were taken in Erie. Once the nets were hauled aboard at the fishing grounds, the tugs often raced back to port so that the fish could be processed in time to meet the evening train departures to the great cities of the East and Midwest. As Bill Tabb recalled:

They [the boats] generally leave the dock at six o’clock in the morning. They had to leave early to get in early to meet the train. As soon as the boat came in they hurried up and dressed the fish. They had to ship them out right away. There used to be a train that would go through there to New York City some­where around three o’clock in the after­noon. So they had to get in to beat that train.

In the company fish houses, the fish were cleaned and packed for shipment. Roswell D. Mabie, a dispatcher in the 1920s, described the scene at the Erie Fish Company:

You walked in the front door. You § came into this room that was probably 75 feet wide and 150 feet long, and in the back end, on one side going down, is where you dressed the fish. The fish were dumped on the floor in a big pile on the wooden floor. You came in and there was a scale. We weighed the fish and just dumped them onto the floor. We used shovels to put them up on the benches where they dressed them. Then in the back of that, there was a place where they canned the fish. They got them ready to quick freeze them. This was done on the floor in bins with the sides down. You put the sides in, put the pans of fish in, cover it with salt and ice and leave it overnight. Then you would knock them out of the pans and put them in the freezer. Each freezer had a little hole on the side where they shoved the pan of fish through. These pans were about 12 inches wide and 24 inches long.

The excess catch would be maintained frozen until the wintertime and then sold. Io the glory days of the industry, the freezers of the Kolbe Fish Company would have contained 100 tons of her­ring as the season ended in December. Kolbe had a mechanical refrigeration system unlike the other houses which had to charge their freezers by hand us­ing ground-up ice and salt.

Life aboard the tugs was often diffi­cult for the fishermen. Because the ice on Lake Erie thaws from west to east, fishermen would often harbor their boats in Ohio before the lake iced over and, in the spring, would fish their way down to Erie as the ice withdrew. This made for a somewhat gypsy-like existence in which the men frequently lived on the boats for a portion of the season. In his written memoir, fisher­man Charles R. Hoskins described the situation:

We started fishing in the spring, 15th of March, out of Lorain [Ohio] catching mostly perch. Then we moved down to Ashtabula as the ice cleared in May and it was blue pike and whitefish. In the middle of the summer we would be at Erie. Then in the fall at the same port we would bring in tons of herring for several years. . . .

The crew generally stayed aboard the tug, had lots of folding bunks and lived aboard cooking our food. One of the crew usually was a good cook. The cap­tain did the grocery and meat buying then pay days we would all settle up di­viding everything equally. So we lived quite well, better than restaurant food with lots of good fish frys those days.

Of course, Charlie Hoskins’ sense of the good life was different than that of most people. Hoskins, who lived to the age of eighty-eight, was a legendary figure in Erie, a religious man who be­lieved that God would guide him through the most hazardous conditions which included, on one occasion, battling seventy- and eighty-mile-per-hour winds to return to his home port with his catch. On one particularly blustery day in 1925, a member of Hoskins’ crew informed the sturdy captain that the crew was not going to go out in such rough weather. Hoskins, “mad to think that someone was trying to tell me what to do with my tug,” branded the action a mutiny and fired the man on the spot. His apparent co-conspirators reconsidered and reluctantly sailed out with j Hoskins who later reported that “we went out and put in a bad day but we got the nets and 3,000 lbs. of herring.”

Hoskins epitomized the rugged indi­vidualism of the men who worked on the boats. Many of these people could have found factory work in the early part of the twentieth century, but they chose the water instead. Howard Jones characterized the men in this manner:

Fishermen have a trade that they love and they really don’t want to do any­thing else. Fishing was a dangerous, cold, wet, dreary livelihood. During the bad weather they would be up until two o’clock in the morning and go out in the dark in the rain and the cold and be out on the cold wet lake all day and back in and up, and the same thing the next day. There were a lot of fishing boats lost in storms and fires. But the fisherman was always a fisherman. During the winter months they would get jobs wherever they could to keep their homes together and earn a living. But in the spring when the boats were ready to go, they would come back. There was no great turnover of labor. There were men that started as boys and were old men when they quit. They were fishermen and that was their trade and they loved ii, and they didn’t care if they did anything else because everybody who knows the business will tell you that. They were a different breed.

Besides offering employment for ad­venturous individuals, the fishing in­dustry was a valuable one for the city of Erie because it supported a number of subsidiary businesses. Factories proc­essed the offal from the fish into glue, oil and fertilizer, and Erie’s foundries built engines, boilers and net pullers for the boats. Earlier, firms such as A.J. Black would have made sails for the fishing boats, and ships chandleries dotted the bayfront.

Perhaps the greatest industry called into being by fishing was boatbuilding. W.W. Loomis had a shipyard in Erie’s west basin and built schooners there in the 1860s and 70s. Loomis remained in business until the lace 1880s and built a number of steam fish tugs. Captain J.D. Paasch, who trained in Germany as a ship’s carpenter, serviced boats from his shop in Erie’s east basin. His sons, oper­ating as the Paasch Brothers, built a number of fish rugs as well as other craft up until the onset of World War r. The Lund Boat Works and a descendant of the Paasch Brothers, Harold Paasch, also built fish tugs, usually of steel.

The result of all this activity was that by 1920 Erie had surpassed Sandusky, Ohio and was the world’s largest pro­ducer of fresh-water fish. During the 1920s, over 100 fish tugs cleared the port of Erie daily during the season, and fishing was a million-dollar-a-year busi­ness. Roswell D. Mabie recalled that the bayfront was a tremendous sight at that time:

It was one right after the other going out in the morning. They went out at four o’clock in the morning. They would go our in strings, one after the other. Because the boats from Vermillion would come down here. The boats from Cleveland would come down here and Lorain, and that was just about all the big boats that there were at that lime. There was hardly a place down at what they called the canal basin at the foot of State Street to tie up.

But after World War II, the industry quickly began to fade. The seeming­ly inexhaustible supply of fish dwin­dled. Fisherman-turned-philosopher Charles Hoskins summed up the com­plexity of the problem when he said, “What was needed, and it took a half a century of wonderous fishing to prove it, was a comprehensive, reasonable and factual control of the catches and pollu­tion to maintain the almost magical fish production in our glorious Lake Erie.”

Certainly overfishing was a cause. Thousands of giant sturgeon, for exam­ple, were slaughtered for their roe to make caviar, and their carcasses were left to rot on beaches now remembered by such names as Sturgeon Bay. How­ard Jones also pointed to a different marketing system that arrived after the depression:

As I said, even before World War II, the marketing structure changed so much. You started getting your super­markets and they wanted fish that were packaged and prepared, ready to put in their cases without a lot of work. Before that time, the people bought their fish at a fish market or a small store that han­dled fresh fish. But once the super­markets came in they wanted fish in a big volume and they didn’t want to pay much/or it so your salt-water fish began to take over.

The problem was more complex, however. Ironically, fishing was ad­versely affected by the same factors that had expanded the industry. The de­mands of nineteenth-century urbaniza­tion and industrialization brought new population groups to America whose dietary needs enabled commercial fish­ing to prosper. But the growth of in­dustry and cities also caused long-term environmental changes which affected traditional food fish species. Human and industrial pollution lowered oxy­genation levels necessary for spawning. And, as the ecology of the lake changed, some fish, like perch, were better able to adapt while other commercial species, like herring, blue pike and whitefish, de­clined. In short, the demise of commer­cial fishing in Erie was another example of the twentieth-century consequences of nineteenth-century growth.

Today, of course, Lake Erie has made a comeback and sport fishing is excel­lent. But commercial fishing as a cor­porate endeavor has never returned. Yet, in Erie there are still a few men who fish commercially and sell their catches to local fresh-fish outlets. Often their fathers or grandfathers were fishermen. Their boats are ultramodern, steel and diesel craft equipped with radar, fish finders and nylon nets that never rot. But they are the echoes of the past, rather than its inheritors. The glory days of the fishing industry are gone, but the memory lingers.


The material originally gathered for that media show and photographic exhibit, both of which are available to other museums by contacting the Erie Historical Mu­seum, 356 West Sixth Street, Erie 16507, provided the background for this piece.

The author wishes to thank Edwin J. Bernik, Jr. for his assistance in inter­viewing former fishermen and Robert J. MacDonald of Behrend College, who opened his voluminous archives on Great Lakes maritime history.


Charles A. Watkins, Ph.D., is executive director of the Erie Historical Museum in Erie, which received a grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) to complete a project under the same title as this article.