Stone Age
Middle Ages
18. & 19. Cent.
••Gold Rush
••Willapa Bay
Belle Epoque
20. Century
••1. Half
••2. Half
••Willapa Bay
21. Century

Historical Oyster Harvesting Equipment
John McCabe

 •Gold Rush
 •Willapa Bay

By the early 18th century, the traditional harvesting method of gathering oysters by hand or rake at low tide yielded increasingly fewer oysters. However, oysters were still plentiful in deeper water. Two highly effective pieces of harvest equipment soon became commonplace: oyster tongs and oyster dredges.

Oyster tongs resemble two rakes which are joined by a bolt about half way down the wood handles to open and close like common pliers. Blacksmiths lengthened and formed the tines of the rake heads, so they would interlock to form a holding cavity. The handles were made of hard woods in varying lengths.

Inset image: Early 20th century post card of a tonger at work on Willapa Bay (Washington State). Klick image to enlarge.

Although the basic principle of this tool is simple, using it is not. It's back breaking work to operate one of these tongs for hours on end. It also takes a considerable amount of skill to productively pull oysters from the ocean floor. The working depth of this tool is limited. Relatively small quantities of oysters, right along with empty shells, crabs and other debris, are harvested in this manner. The catch is dumped in a small boat, the marketable oysters are plucked from the pile and put into baskets, and the unwanted "stuff" (empty shells, rocks...) soon goes right back overboard. Hand tongs, along with mechanically/pneumatically driven "Patent Tongs" are still being used today in many places along the East Coast and the Gulf. People, who commercially harvest oysters in this manner, are called "tongers". There always were (and still are) lots more tongers than dredgers. Anybody who could afford a small seaworthy craft and a set of tongs, was basically in business. The extra ingredients necessary for staying in business were strong arms, a sound back, and above all, a real good attitude, because that kind of work often was (and is) wet, windy, cold, and sometimes just plain miserable. The harvesting depth was limited by the lenght of the tongs. Tongers were also limited as to how far they could venture out in their small crafts, particularly in rough weather.

Oystermen who use a dredge are called "dredgers". Historically, never much love was lost between tongers and dredgers. Historically, tongers often deeply disliked dredgers, particularly when dredgers efficiently wiped out oyster beds in both shallow and deep water.

Oyster dredges consist of a steel frame, triangualar or square, about three to six feet wide, with a steel mesh sack. The strong base of the frame operates like a blade and sometimes features rake-like prongs. By the mid 1700s, dredges were in common use along the coast of France and England. Early on, the mesh sacks were made of woven seal skin strips. Later the sacks were made of steel links. The size of the openings in the mesh were (and are) important as well, as the dredge sack will flush out much of the small oysters and debris and retain the rest. By the 19th century, more than a dozen different dredge designs existed. many more designs were developed in the 20th century.

Inset image above: A common design of a small dredge with hand winch.

A dredge is dragged behind a boat. A strong cable on the boat attaches to the sturdy tongue ahead of the open side of the steel frame. The dredge thus operates much like a sled on the ocean floor. The open side of the steel frame scrapes up more or less "everything" in its path and funnels it into the mesh bag.
The harvesting depth is very flexible and its effectiveness has alot to do with the design of the boat and the experience of the skipper. A good 19th century skipper with the right boat (shallow draft, center board) could easily dredge where tongers worked and could also dredge where tongers could never go.

Inset image right: An "improved" oyster dredge, patented by Wm. L. Force in 1860. It featured sled runners on a special raking bar and a deflecting board on the arms of the dredge to force the dredge down while in motion. In the extensive patent text, William Force mentions " [...] My invention further consists of a peculiar contruction of the rake, whereby great strength is obtained. At the same time the head of the rake will not form a barrier...[...]". Click image to enlarge (Warning: large image!).

It takes a fairly large sailing or motor vessel to drag one or more dredges. In those days, it also took a lot of experience to anticipate the bottom conditions and calculate the proper angle/distance/speed of the dredge in relation to the boat. The skipper of a sailing vessel like a skipjack was often constantly busy. The wind direction could change, sudden squalls could occur, the sea could get rough, storms could descend with little warning or a favorable wind was simply nowhere to be found at times. Pulling a dredge with a sailboat in a straight line at a steady speed, no faster than two to four knots (so the dredge does not start lifting off the bottom), took great skill. Once the bag was deemed to be full, it was winched on board by hand. Properly operated on rich oystering grounds, dredges were extremely effective and highly profitable. Some dredges could harvest more than a thousand oysters in one pass (called a "lick"). There was also plenty of hit and miss. It was quite common that the dredges only contained a bunch of mud, rocks and empty shells. Experienced skippers would sometimes take one of their long boat hooks, touch the dredge cable and feel the vibrations, hence "hearing" the bottom. Once a promising natural reef was found, the spot was often marked by some kind of temporary bouy. The discovered oyster bed was harvested out as quickly as possible as news of a rich oyster bed spread quickly and lured lots more dredgers in no time.

Getting into the dredging business in the 18th and 19th century took quite a bit of money. Often a used sailing vessel was purchased and then modified for the task of dragging one or more heavy dredges. By the middle of the 19th century, sailing vessel designs ideally suited for oyster dredging became the rule, the most famous design being the so-called "skipjack". A high quality dredge was also costly and could easily get lost or damaged. A crew was necessary to haul in and constantly process the dredge loads. A poor catch after a day's work was an expensive consideration for the operator of a dredging boat. Since these oystermen worked in any kind of harsh, cold weather in the proverbial "R-months", the work was strenuous and sometimes quite dangerous. The skipper of a sailing vessel was constantly dependent on favorable winds to pull the dredges properly. In the latter part of the 19th century, the supplementary installation of steam engines would solve this problem. If dredging under motor power was not permitted by the respective legislature, a dredger could still get to where he wanted to go quickly my motor and then switch to permitted sail power dredging (common in the Chesapeake Bay).

Dredges often left a virtual "ocean desert" in their trail, scraping up just about everything. The load was dumped on board and the rig readied for the next pass. The pile of sea life on board consisted of oysters large and small, crabs, starfish, algae, other animal and plant life, empty sea shells, mud, rocks and other debris. Dredges are rough instruments and oysters were frequently damaged. Thoroughly sorting out this huge pile of sea life on board was often simply not economical. Time was money. The rig and crew had to focus on harvesting more oysters.

In the second half of the 19th century, a new breed of dredgers emerged in some regions of the American Northeast. They were no longer hunting the increasingly elusive "wild oysters". Instead they became hard working "oyster farmers", tending carefully to their own oystering grounds, whether they were municipally/governmentally sanctioned leases or private property, with new forms of oyster cultivation method called "shelling" and "bedding".

Inset image: Cut out from a 1951 Conoco Oil advertisement featuring a huge "vacuum dredge" used in the 20th century by the Rowe Oyster Co. of New Haven, Connecticut. The dredge was operated from a converted Army freighter. It could suck up 2,400 gallons of oysters and water per minute, filling the enormous holds of the large freighter with oysters in a matter of just three hours. For another (large!) image of the from the same Conoco advertisement, please click here.

Oyster dredging on owned or leased marine lands is still commonly practiced today in many areas along the Atlantic Coast and some areas in the Pacific Northwest (Willapa Bay, Grays Harbor).

Inset image: A modern dredge boat design commonly used on the Willapa Bay in Washington State. This particular dredge boat is owned and operated by the Goose Point Oyster Co. It features a twin dredge set-up. The dredges are used for two purposes. Large oyster growers on the Willapa Bay manage two kinds of oyster beds: seed beds and fattening beds. Seed oysters (very small oysters) are grown out to a certain size in the seed beds. Then they are dredged up and deposited for a number of years (depending on what size is desired by the grower) in so called fattening beds. Fattening beds are premium oyster beds, as they feature a particularly nutritious phyto-plankton mix. Once they have reached the desired size, they are dredged up again and processed immediately. Click image to enlarge a little.


Inset image: After a day's work, both dredges are detached from the cables on the dredge boat and hoisted on the dock. The boat, dredges and dock are cleaned meticulousy. Then a hoist lifts the two dredges up into a storage room on the second floor of the Goose Point processing facility. Click image to enlarge a little.




Inset image: Crack of dawn on a ice cold January morning at Goose Point Oyster Company. The warming sun rises over the bridge of the Niawiakum River. It's a welcome sight for the men already hard at work on huge mounds of fresh oysters the dredge boat has just brought in. The oysterman in the picture just looks grumpy. He's actually a very pleasant fellow. In fact, that whole place seems to be full of nice people. I've stopped at their little retail store window many times over the years. It's always the same story: outstanding oysters at excellent prices. Recommended! Click image to enlarge a little.


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