Saturday, December 17, 2011

Only slightly clammy: the towns of Bivalve and Shellpile

If you're sick of congestion and crowds and noise, have I got the place for you!

Years ago I found Shellpile and Bivalve, twin communities in the larger community of Port Norris, which is, in turn, part of the even bigger Commercial Township. These mollusk-themed places share a common link to the fortunes and downfall of New Jersey's oystering heritage.

It just looks as if these boats are sailing on shells.
You read that right: New Jersey and oysters. It's not widely known now, but in the first half of the 20th century, Delaware Bay was home to an abundant oyster population and a significant fishing industry to capitalize on it. A vibrant business community settled in Shellpile and Bivalve to harvest and process oysters, shipping them in long freight trains to markets in New York and Philadelphia. The name Shellpile, in fact, refers to the vast mountains of oyster shells dumped outside the processors' factories. Thousands of people lived nearby, mostly in sub-standard housing, filling the demand for labor at all stages of the oystering process.

A lethal parasite called MSX (Multinucleated Sphere Unknown) decimated the region's oyster population in the late 1950s, taking the fates of Shellpile and Bivalve with it. Today, a few companies continue to process clams and oysters brought in from other areas, but for the most part, the community has taken on a ghost town-like aura. The only time it livens up is for the annual Bay Day in June.

To get to Shellpile or Bivalve, you first need to drive through Port Norris, an experience straight out of a Twilight Zone episode. The streets are lined with homes and the occasional business or government building, but rarely is there a soul to be seen. The place doesn't look especially well-off, though it's definitely liveable. Where is everyone?

I wasn't sure what to expect when I visited recently. It had been a while since I was down there, so I didn't know if some of the structures I knew would be gone, but I was pretty well assured nothing would have improved. I'm still hurting from the time I visited to find that the fabled Shellpile Restaurant had been sold. I didn't have the heart to go inside and find out whether the owner had sold his out-of-this-world crabcake recipe along with the building.

On this visit, I was pleasantly surprised to see a big red, white and blue banner flapping in the breeze near the waterfront, welcoming visitors. The Bayshore Discovery Project had restored one of the historic shipping sheds, and it was actually open for visitation. When I went inside, two women were engaged in a meeting, busily talking about an upcoming event to be held there.

The Bayshore Project people have been in Bivalve for years, as it's the home port for the official New Jersey state schooner, A.J. Meerwald. Formed in the late 80's, the Project organization is responsible for the restoration and upkeep of the Meerwald and use it for a variety of educational purposes. Their larger goal is to motivate people to take care of the environment, the history and culture of New Jersey's Bayshore Region through education, preservation and example. During the summer, the Meerwald offers sailing excursions and summer camps to give kids and adults alike the opportunity to see what life was like on an oyster schooner in years past.

Unfortunately, the museum exhibit was closed during my visit, but I wandered through the building and outside a bit to find signs that it's probably pretty active during the warmer months. They even have a raw bar set up, which is enough to get me to return.

Outside of the immediate wharf area, Bivalve was very very quiet, looking, as always, like a painting Edward Hopper might have done during a period of severe depression. Old boats up on blocks had obviously not felt salt water lapping their hulls in many a year, and the church building was as shut-up and abandoned as it had been when I first saw it over a decade ago.

I took the narrow road through fields of phragmites to check out the Shellpile waterfront and found the same, if not more so. Summertime near the old Shellpile Restaurant is often more active, given the boat launch nearby, but on a Saturday in December, there wasn't much more than a few turkey vultures and a flock of gulls picking through a small pile of clam shells. When I first started visiting the area, I found it eerie. Now I find it curiously calming. Yeah, there's the possibility of a random visitor or resident driving by, but I've never been questioned or confronted by anyone when I was there. Somebody would actually have to be around for that to happen, and it often feels as if I'm the only human being within miles.


  1. Fascinating!! I'll have to check that out someday.

  2. Born and raised there for 18yrs. Moved away in 1971

  3. Born and raised there for 18yrs. Moved away in 1971

  4. Bivalve, New Jersey
    Back in the 60’s, Mitch proposed we go hunt for pictures! I was flattered – he made his living as a photographer. “Where?” “New Jersey” “OK let me get a tripod and a pocketful of film.”
    We crossed the bridge and headed south-west along the coast. We bypassed Atlantic City, looked at Ocean City, and worked our way down to Cape May. Cape May was a finger into the Atlantic – a “jumping-off place.”
    When we turned inland past the Ferry docks, the population thinned out, the road narrowed, and we were in a lost country, no people. A sign said “Bivalve.” “What’s a bivalve?” asked Mitch. “It’s a clam with a hinged shell, and a valve at either end.” “Just like a human except with a shell!”
    But it was a ghost town. (And it’s no longer on the map.) After two hours without seeing anyone, we suddenly encountered two –in an old, wrecked house, one swinging on a beam, the other indoors. . “Hey,” said Mitch! “Two more bivalves!” I was happy to see humans within this desolate environment. I wondered why so many had left, and why; some old boats on blocks, and a boarded up church. No people and no answers, so we turned around and headed for home.
    Craig Jennings


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