Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Old Oysters

The other morning while walking down Commercial St on my way to work, I found something interesting- some very old oysters of mysterious origin. They were thick (about three times thicker that any oyster you’d find at a modern fish market) and their growth rings were very close together. These were not the oyster I look at on a daily basis.

The city is going through a bit of a construction boom and parts of downtown are almost unrecognizable.  Its encouraging, I guess, but still a bit strange. In the six months I’d been working at the fish-market, I've seen a boatyard and two hotels go-up. Across from one of these new hotels, a work crew had been excavating to improve the sidewalk. Scattered in their debris pile were some strange looking bleached-out oysters.

Until the 1850’s, Commercial St was part of the harbor. Wharves came right up to the base of the hilly Portland peninsula, near modern-day Fore St. Industry was thriving at this time and the city was a major east coast port and rail-hub, comparable in size to Boston. To bolster the shipping industry and compete against arch-rival Boston, the city underwent a massive public works project- filling in what were then shallow coves and building a massive road and rail connector between the wharves and the Atlantic and Saint Laurence Railroad. A massive amount of fill was used to complete the project and the Portland peninsula was greatly expanded.

Portland during the construction project- Commercial Street runs as a causeway over much of its length.

Which brings us back to the oysters: The sandy-fill along the sidewalk was full of them- but where did they come from?

This is where things get murky. Maine’s oysters were wiped out in pre-colonial times (potentially by disease or overfishing) though there is plenty of archaeological evidence they were abundant in other parts of the state for at least a millennium. Oysters in other parts of the northeast fared slightly better, but were fished-out by the 1870s. 

Did my oysters live and die before the city was built? It is certainly a possibility. The fill used to build Commercial St could have been dredged on site. The harbor could have once nurtured oysters.

Alternately, the oysters could be imported. Historic shell piles (called middens) were mined and used in road construction. Could this be the source of the Commercial St. fill? 

Or... were these oysters just imported whole and enjoyed on the waterfront, shells tossed casually aside?