Record-setting East Lyme menhaden fishery has disappeared
East Lyme — All that remains of what was once the largest commercial fishing operation from New London to the Connecticut River are the stone jetty at Rocky Neck State Park, some historical documents and a song telling of a “fish gang from Niantic.”
The Luce Brothers crews did not pursue cod, tuna, or haddock, but landed millions of oily, bony menhaden they caught in Long Island Sound. In their factory, they steamed and pressed the fish for abundant oil and turned the dry “scrap” into prized fish guano to fertilize farms in England and New England.
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David Littlefield, whose family has long and deep roots in East Lyme and Old Lyme, has worked passionately for decades to bring the story of the Luce Bros. and the menhaden fishery they dominated back to life.
During a recent interview in Old Lyme, where he also performed a sea chantey he wrote about the menhaden fishery, Littlefield read aloud from an 1877 U.S. Fisheries report on commercial fishing.
“Between New London and the Connecticut River, there is no fishery of importance except the menhaden industry carried out at Niantic at the factory of Luce Bros., where 125 men are employed, some $50,000 capital invested in vessels, buildings and apparatus for the capture of menhaden for the manufacture of oil and guano."
James, John, Edward and Frank Luce started their menhaden empire in 1858, at first hauling the fish to a rocky point in East Lyme, using giant kettles to steam the fish to extract the oil. When John Littlefield, David's great-great-grandfather, purchased Rocky Neck Farm in 1861, the deed gave the Luce Bros. the right to use the shoreline for a menhaden fishery.
Mid-19th century maps do not show Rocky Neck as a place, but records, deeds and photos all point to the current site of the Rocky Neck State Park pavilion, built in the 1930s, as the site of the Luce Bros. menhaden fishery.
The Luces purchased a giant factory barge to steam the fish at sea, but this proved inefficient, Littlefield said, as the constant waves prevented oil impurities from settling and sinking to the bottom of the barrel. The Luces built a factory at Rocky Neck in 1876, the stone jetty to off-load the fish and a tram to cart the fish to the plant.
Littlefield, 70, a retired registered nurse and longtime local sea chantey singer, has mined primary sources, photographs, newspaper accounts and U.S. Fisheries reports. He received a treasure trove of materials from Luce Bros. descendant Daphne Luce Greg.
Littlefield once presented his research at a marine fisheries symposium. He has been singing the story of a “fish gang from Niantic” — a term frequently used in period records — since 1995, when he wrote the chantey, “Luce Bros.”
“We were out from the factory on Long Island Sound, to Greenport and Napeague and the promised land grounds. In the good steamer Beatrice, the pride of us all, purse seining menhaden from spring to the fall,” the song starts.
He sings that the lookout watches for the telltale jumping of huge schools of menhaden on the surface, then calls out, "Hey, they play!”
The captain sends two small boats out from the ship with the purse seine net, one end in each boat. The net is maneuvered beneath the school, and a worker in one boat drops a weight to “purse the seine.” Startled menhaden clump together in a frenzy. The crews gather the net and entrap thousands of fish.
A giant dipper on the ship draws fish from the net. The fish is transferred to boats, brought to the factory, hauled by tram cars to the factory, steamed and pressed for oil and guano.
In the song, Littlefield lays out a race to the prime fishing grounds between the Luce Bros. and a crew from rival George Wilcox’s menhaden fishery.
“We beat old Wilcox and his gang, now take the gals in tow and turn the fields of England green with good fish guano.”
Nearly everything in his song is historically accurate, Littlefield said, but he played a little in the final verse. Historical accounts cite complaints of strong stench from the menhaden factory. At one point after 1900, the tram elevator was set on fire.
“Now the factory’s gone. Some fool burned her down. They say it was the smell that drove the folks in town. My living has been taken, and it grieves my heart sore.
Next season I’ll ship with Wilcox and plow the Sound once more.”
A Nov. 17, 1897, report said the Luce Bros. ship “Arizona” caught 18 million fish in one season, including a record 580,000 fish in one day and landed 1.2 million fish at its sister factory in Lewes, Del., that week. The Luces had four ships, including "the good steamer Beatrice” of Littlefield’s song.
As Luce Bros. soared to “high hook,” topping all Atlantic menhaden companies, a giant corporate syndicate took notice.
New Jersey-based American Fishery Co. in 1897 sought to purchase all menhaden factories on the Eastern Seaboard, threatening to put out of business any that didn't sell. The Luces and all companies sold except Wilcox, Littlefield said.
The Jan. 10, 1898, New London Morning Telegraph reported that with tens of millions in capital, the American Fishery Co. had consolidated 16 menhaden oil and guano plants, including Luce Bros. and its Lewes, Del., plant. Luce Bros. sold on Feb. 20, 1898.
A whirlwind of ownership and name changes followed, Littlefield said. American Fisheries sold land on Giant’s Neck Farm in Niantic to the U.S. Menhaden and Guano Co. on May 5, 1900.
In 1902, The Day reported: “At Mystic, local men met to complete the organization of the Niantic Phosphate Co. Byron Billings, formerly of Wilcox Fertilizer Co. of Quiamboug, was named manager. The firm was located two miles from Niantic and a steamer was being built for company use."
By 1902 the fish factory at Rocky Neck was owned by Byron Billings, with partner Lucien Sanders, Littlefield said. At that point, the operation was known as Niantic Menhaden Oil & Guano Co.
The land was being leased from James Luce except for "quarry, derrick, engine, & tracks,” as Luce operated a small granite quarry adjacent to the factory. A year later, Luce sold the 6 acres with buildings to the Niantic Menhaden Oil & Guano Co.
The company reorganized in 1918 as Shay Fertilizer Co. and ended up foreclosed and in receivership in 1922-23.
Littlefield said there was no chantey singing tradition in the Long Island menhaden fishery, but when the industry moved south, a rich tradition emerged, as Black menhaden fishermen sang to coordinate working the nets.
Besides the family connection, Littlefield said he became passionate about telling the forgotten Luce Bros. story, because it is such a powerful American tale: A local fishery grows so big that it gets gobbled up by a giant pre anti-trust syndicate not unlike the creation of Standard Oil. And the fish guano helped save depleted New England farmland. Farmers met at granges to exchange recipes for mixing menhaden guano with other materials for the best fertilizer.
“It started right here in 1858 with the Luce Bros.,” Littlefield said.