Fishing in Dunkirk: historical information

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts about the importance of fishing to Dunkirk.

Thirty-five tons of blue pike were once shipped on a banner day in 1905 out of the Port of Dunkirk. Fishing supported 600 workers operating as many as 129 named fishing boats up until about 1937. New York City, Chicago and St. Louis were the designated markets for fresh, salted and smoked fish from Lake Erie. Smoke houses lined the harborfront and three active working piers – one at Central Avenue, one at Washington Avenue and the other at Eagle Street – all handled huge drying racks for gillnets, shipping boxes, ice houses, salt operations, fish cleaning shanties, and bait shops. Railroad tracks led right onto the pier to take coal to power the steam engines on the fishing boats, referred to as tugs, and railroad cars waited for the arrival of the tugs with their fresh catch of the day to move that produce across the country.

As recently as 60 years ago according to Bob Harris, Dunkirk historian, one could stand at Point Gratiot and look out onto hundreds of small fishing boats, “like another city” dotting the water.

It all began with John Maloney, who arrived from Ireland as a skilled mackerel gillnet fisherman in 1851. He operated a small row boat and dropped his handmade net, his “rig”, with 5-inch loops to catch whitefish. The fish would attempt to swim through but would get caught in the loops. As they wiggled to try to free themselves, their gills caught in the fibers. The nets were very efficient, allowing the smaller fish to swim through but catching everything else.

Other boats used to fish were sailing skiffs and eventually larger coal burning steam “tugs” as long as 65 feet with five to six crew members. The average rig held 20 nets. Captains and owners generally could make a good living but the crew often earned less than $45 per week. Owners would be paid 2 to 3 cents a pound for fish brought into the fish house. Flattened and salted ciscos brought 1 cent a pound.

The work was difficult; the seas sometimes rough and stormy. It was always a race against time to set the nets, haul in the catch and return to the pier before the ice melted and ruined the catch in the hold or the trains left for the big cities, reported Fredonia’s David Spencer.

David’s brother “Jack” was one of the last licensed commercial gillnet fishermen of Dunkirk and the fifth generation in the fishing industry. Grandfather Frank Spencer had been a licensed professional tugboat captain.

Captains had to calculate the Canadian boundary down the middle of the lake for fear of having one’s boat impounded by Canadian authorities, where fishing was also an active industry. Fishing activity in Dunkirk nearly stopped in August because the ice would not last in the heat and the fish would spoil before reaching their destination. This was before refrigeration.

Some of the other big names associated with the fishing industry in Dunkirk were Desmond, Gloff, Riser, Booth and Alexander. The Helwigs were the last to close out business, although their fish shop sign can still be seen on Lake Shore Drive. Whitefish and Blue pike were favorite commercial fishes of the day, but there were perch, ciscos, yellow pike, herring, sturgeon, trout and smallmouth bass to be caught as well.

Business was booming until the early 1940s. Many reasons are suggested for the decline of Dunkirk’s fishing industry. Overfishing was one big reason. Gillnet fishing was eventually banned. The blue pike were gone. Pollution from the growing industries along the Great Lakes began to take its toll and dead zones impacted the fish population. Smelt had been introduced into the upper Great Lakes between 1880 and 1885 with devastating effects in spite of warnings. Smelt spawned sooner than Whitefish and herring and hatched in time to gobble up eggs of these native fish in the same spawning area.

In 1929 a huge storm wiped out the Washington Avenue pier and sank several key vessels of the fishing fleet. During Prohibition(1920-1933), local fishermen found a lucrative trade smuggling Canadian whisky across the lake. Local lore tells of a small craft warning flag hoisted (even on calm days) when any official-looking strangers came into town. The flag alerted smugglers to possible discovery by authorities. In such cases, the alcohol was dropped into nets and thrown overboard.

“Some of Dunkirk’s well-off citizens were very good smugglers,” reported Dave Frazier of Seneca Falls in an early OBSERVER article. During World War II, men left the fishing boats to work in the steel factories and found they could make more money without relying on the season or the weather for their livelihoods.

Next week: Sport fishing in Dunkirk today.

Skeeter Tower writes monthly for the OBSERVER. Comments may be submitted to