Category: Lighthouse/Maritime Structure
The Bivalve Shipping Sheds are an example of the unique architecture which formed around the oyster industry of southern New Jersey.
Oysters were a staple food of those who lived along the Maurice River from prehistoric times. The Lenape peoples used fresh and smoked oysters as evidenced by the middens (piles of shells) found in the remnants of their communities. European settlers would harvest oysters and ship them in locally-made coastal schooners up the Delaware River to Philadelphia and Burlington. However, the heyday of Maurice River’s oyster harvesting really took off with the arrival of the Bridgeton and Port Norris Railroad in 1872. The railroad connected Bivalve with Philadelphia and New York, and allowed for the popular oysters to be delivered to those cities within a day. After 1927, African-American workers were brought to the area to shuck, that is, remove oysters from their shell, making for a great reduction in volume and correspondingly reducing their price. By the early 20th century, Maurice River oysters, the country’s number one fishery product, were served from Baltimore to New York and west as far as Kansas City, shipped via the Central Railroad of New Jersey and the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Thousands of workers and hundreds of oyster schooners were harvesting, shucking and packing oysters in uniquely designed buildings like the Bivalve Shipping Sheds. On the waterfront side are wharves covered by sloping shed roofs. Oyster schooners, known for their shallow hulls needed to navigate mud flats and river systems, would unload the oysters into floats along the river, then transfer the oysters into scows, where were brought under the covered wharves where the oysters were busheled into baskets before being dumped into bags or barrels. When a bag or barrel was filled it was wheeled up the alleyway to the broad wood plank platform that provided the link to the railroad cars. The dock and the roofs would protect the scow gangs from the elements. Attached to the wharves are the two-story sheds that housed offices for oyster planters and shippers, as well as, numerous businesses that supported the industry. Later, this single structure housed several shucking houses where shuckers would spend endless hours prying the oyster open before they were washed by skimmers and placed in cans.
The oyster industry flourished until 1957 when the oyster beds in the Delaware Bay were hit with MSX and later by Dermo in the 1990s, parasites that decimated the oyster crop. The railroad had already abandoned its line in the 1930s as trucking took over the shipping needs. Bivalve and other river communities plummeted in size and stature. Many of the Shipping Sheds deteriorated and were used as storage or simply abandoned; others have continued to house oyster and other seafood businesses as they’ve evolved with the ups and downs of Delaware Bay’s oyster fishery.
Today, little remains of this once vital area. Most recently, through the effort and dedication of the Bayshore Discovery Project, seven of the original shipping sheds have been restored and have been repurposed as a combination maritime community center, museum and the homeport of New Jersey’s Official Tall Ship, the Delaware Bay oyster schooner, A.J. Meerwald. This Bayshore Center celebrates history, culture and environment of New Jersey’s bayshore region and connects people to the past while motivating them to be involved in shaping a sustainable future. The shipping sheds were placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1996.