The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Chaumont Cisco is Returning
Syracuse Herald (Syracuse, NY), Nov. 28. 1915

Full Text
Chaumont Cisco is Returning
Fishermen Report, seeing Famous Little Fish.
Missing For Years
Year ago Cisco Money Paid off Many a Farm Mortgage and Fishermen Delighted at Reappearance of the Lake Herring.

Watertown, Nov. 27 Chaumont Ciscoes as the little lake herring were known, which a generation or two ago crowded the bays and coves of the eastern end of Lake Ontario during the late fall to be taken in hundred-barrel hauls by great seines and shipped by trainloads to grace breakfast tables all over this section, are reported to be returning to the waters of Lyme Brownville Hounsfield, Henderson and Ellisburg. Before their strange disappearance about 1875, they furnished profitable employment during the late November and early December to hundreds of dwellers along the shore, many a farm in the above towns having been paid for with Cisco money.

The name "Chaumont ciscoes" given to the little fish is something of a misnomer, for they were taken in the days of their abundance in as great numbers from the waters of the Ellisburg and Henderson as from Chaumont bay. During the decade of their greatest abundance from 1865 to 1875. The shores of Henderson, Ellisburg, Lyme and Brownville were lined in the late fall with fishing shanties, and at night the lights of the fisherman hauling seines or salting down twinkled all along the beach for miles. Scores of yawls were moored along the shore for carrying out the nets, while windlasses for hauling in dotted the banks. With the close of the potato digging season the lake shore farmer "banked the house" and hauled up a supply of fire wood, and leaving the care of the stock and other chores to the boys and women folk (?) him to his fishing shanty for the harvest of the (?) crop. When the cisco season ended in December the fishermen sometimes spent a week or two in taking whitefish a mile or two off shore. Long processions of farm sled piled high with kegs of ciscoes creaked over the frosty roads into Chaumont, Brownville, and Adams every morning from the fishing grounds train loads of fish leaving the railway stations twice a week for the city markets. No home larder in all this section of the State in those days but had its keg of ciscoes, for the little lake herrings were as cheap as they were toothsome. Big cooper shops were kept running night and day during the cisco season of Ellisburg, Belleville, Henderson, Three Mile Bay, Chaumont and Pillar Point, to turn out fish kegs for the daily catch. A famous old cooperage was that of Nathaniel Darner on Point Salubrious

Just what caused the disappearance of the ciscoes from the Ontario shores about forty years ago has never been satisfactorily explained. Seth Green, the "Father of Fishes." claimed that the taking of the herring by the thousands during the spawning season exhausted the supply, but the fishermen held that Mr. Green, in anxiety to keep the lake stock dumped in millions of what he supposed to be herring fry, but what in reality were alewives ad that they "brought their appetite with them." and cleared the lake of young herring. Green held that the horde of alewives came up the St. Lawrence to the lake. The fish hog theory is the one usually received to account for the cisco’s disappearance.

The cisco had abounded in the lake from aboriginal days as it is recorded that the settles who held on Independence point, Chaumont bay, the first Fourth of July celebration that ever awakened the echoes of the Jefferson country word, were supplied with ciscoes for the Independence day feast by a band of Indians dwelling on the point. In 1808, as is shown by a pioneer’s journal, they were taking Ciscoes from Chaumont Bay with "scaff" and scoop nets. About 200 fish was the usual haul with the "Scaff nets."

First Seine Seen in 1820

About 1820 Daniel Tremper came to the town of Lyme from the Hudson river country and brought the first seine ever seen in Jefferson country, and soon every fisherman along the shore was making a seine. These great nets made of linen or cotton twine and costing $100 to $300 each, were from 200 to 2,000 feet long and varied from 20 to 100 feet in breadth. They were widest in the middle, narrowing to the ends, where they were attached to strong cedar splies called jack stakes, while to the bottom of the nets were slung long stones called lead anchors, cedar floats being attached to the upper edge, thus keeping the net nearly perpendicular in the water. The meshes were from an inc to an inch and a half square allowing small fish to escape. The seines were liberally smeared with coal tar.

At either end of the seine was planted on the bank a huge windlass with which the nets were hauled. Those of only 200 feet in length were hauled in by horses. The average haul yielded about six to ten barrels, according to the size of the seine.

Fishermen kept busy

During the day the fishermen were busy mending seines, shaving cedar spiles and hunting on the shore long stones suitable for leader anchors, tarring nests or gathering wood for the fires kindled at night for lighting up the work of hauling in and salting down. After a few hours sleep in the fishing shanty and a supper of bread, potatoes salt fried pork and tea"strong enough to float an iron welge" but never ciscoes, as the bill of fare, the fishermen were ready for a haul. The seine was dragged about a yawl, usually of the type described as "a good sensible craft that would carry a load a sail, stand rough weather and get somewhere."With a rope at one end hitched to the windlass ashore, the yawl was sculled out over a wide half circle, the men paying out the seine as they went, the course curving to land and the ropes at the end last thrown out being carried ashore and attached to another windlass. Then the fishermen manned the levers and slowly the great net, forming a wall in the water through which escape for sizeable ciscoes was impossible was drawn in. By the dancing light of the fire on the bank the fishermen would watch for th bobbing float as the seine came in and as the ends reached shore and the bulging middle of the net with foam flying as the captive fish strove for freedom would wade out into the water, sorting out and throwing ashore the larger fish and flinging the small one back into the lake. Then by the light of the fire the salting down began, in early days of seine fishing the ciscoes being salted whole, just as taken from the water by pouring buckets full of the still live fish and salt into barrels.

Gill Nets Introduced

About 1845 gill nets were introduced, each being from five to eight feet wide and ten to fifteen feet long, provided with sinkers and floats to hold them perpendicular in the water. Many nets were connected to make a line several hundred feet long. The ciscoes became entangled by their gills and drowned in these nets, which were hauled up and unloaded once a day for this reason being considered inferior in the market and the gill net never coming into very general use.

Pound nets were introduced about1870 by eastern men who formed a business partnership with local fishermen, and as high as ten boat loads of fish were sometimes taken at a single haul the boats returning from the nets many times loaded to the waters edge.

These fisher operations called into existence the famous "Ciscoes fleet" of two score years ago, turned out by Asa Wilcox, the veteran boat builder of Point Peninsula; Jack Inman and Capt. Frank Phelps, boat builder of Chaumont; John Flanders of the North Shore, the Barbour Brothers of Three Mile Bay, and the Lockwood Point shipyard. Among the famous boats of the Ciscoe Fleet, were the Comet, from the North Shore the Nymph, and Tormenter of Three Mile Bay, the Sweepstakes, owned by Captain Hemstreet, the White Dove owned by James Yoran; the Saucy Jack , st. Elmo, Condor, Tide Alloy, Yankee Peddler, Horace Grealey, White Rover, Aunt Polly, Nellie Mary Copley, Pinafore, Peerless and Old Barnyard. Then there was this Allspice, named one dark night just as she was being finished by some Chaumont, wag who tacked the end of an allspice box to her stern. One of the best all-around boats of the fleet was the Letter B built by the Barbour Brothers and sailed by the Harobur Brothers and sailed by the Mounts of Three Mile bay. The barber boys tried to improve on this craft by building the Black Republican, which proved a good heavy weather boat, the fasted boat of the fleet was the Crazy June, and she got her speed line by accident, She was built by Captain Canley of Point Peninsula and was still unfinished when winter set in with a snowfall that so overloaded the roof of the shed where she was building that it caved in squashed some speed lines into the craft; that other boat builder were never able to imitate. In the spring her builder ribbed her up without removing the twist given by the squashing she had received. She was launched and started on a victorious career in the race of the "Ciscoe fleet."

The same greed that depopulated the lake of Ciscoes robbed it of the whitefish, once so abundant in Lake Ontario, especially along the southern shore. It is recorded that in 1861 phenomenal catches of whitefish were made east of the pier at Charlotte. In one case some thrifty residents of the town of Irondequoit clubbed together and made a seine eight rods in length, with which in one day they made seven hauls, averaging 7,000 whitefish to haul many of five pound weight.

Now that the feeding and spawning grounds of the ciscoe have been free from nets for many years this little fish, believed to have been exterminated is reappearing many small schools being reported as seen at Snow Shoe across from Henderson Harbor, and Chaumont bay being again frequented by occasional ciscoes, said like those seen at Snow Shoe to have a size larger than in the old days. When the cisco fishery was a most profitable industry and the cisco fleet sailed the waters of Henderson and Chaumont bays.

Media Type:
Item Type:
Date of Original:
Nov. 28. 1915
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement:
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
WWW address
Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.

Chaumont Cisco is Returning