Somewhere around 1500 BC, the Lapita people (ancestors to the Polynesians) moved across the ocean carrying their plants of food and domestic animals. This marked the beginning of true seafaring skills in the Stone Age. The traditional craft used back then is what we now call a catamaran. These seafarers knew how to read wind and wave patterns, and navigated by the sun and stars. Once could say the Lapitas studied the flight pattern of birds as they headed towards landfall, the drift of vegetation, and even cloud formation; skills old salts still use today.
In the mid-14th century, European Sailors ventured out into the Atlantic. On August 2, 1492, sailing the Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue leaving the Canary Islands. Financed by the king and queen of Spain, Columbus sailed westward in search of silks and spices in Asia only to discover America instead.
In the 1600’s:
— 1620, December 21, wind-battered and weary, the Pilgrims anchored in Plymouth Harbor, MA after being at sea for approximately two months. They spent the winter on their crowded ship (Mayflower) and lost half the people due to disease. Over the next several years the population in Plymouth grew due to new arrivals from England.
— 1659, the first homesteaders (two men, 1 woman, and six children), arrived on Nantucket Island traveling by open boat through seas churned high by winds of approaching winter. Farming and fishing were main activities till 1712 before whaling became popular.
— 1675, Boston Harbor Islands had historically been places where society had set apart unwelcome institutions and people on the margins. American Indians were interned on Deer Island during King Philips’ war.
— 1684, the English purchased the Rumney Marsh and Pudding Point properties from the Native Americans. Then between 1753 and 1763, a fishing industry was located at Point Shirley and 300 people resided and worked there.
For millennium Northeast coastal Indians fished, farmed and hunted on the islands, and European settlers used them for much the same purposes. The large natural harbor and New England’s transportation network have made Boston a thriving seaport since. The port had its share of sea tales, as ships plying the harbor’s sea-lanes attracted pirates.
The pirates would ride up and down the Atlantic coast between Newburyport and Winthrop. It was here they would hide out at Pudding Point waiting for other ships to come down then attack and sink the boats. Before the boats would sink, though, the pirates would take the treasures of gold and jewelry off the boats, then sail back up towards Newburyport where they’d bury these rewards. Where exactly no on today really knows. However, if you come and visit Winthrop, be sure to walk the three-mile path around Deer Island and stop dead center at the tip. In front of you is a tiny island with a light on it called Nix’s Mate. It is here where the pirates were actually imprisoned and some are believed to have died there. On a dark, windy day you can hear them cry revenge. Today boaters make it a point to stay clear of Nix’s Mate. The actual structure is a ledge and meeting place for four different channels; Nubble, Narrows, South, and North. The tide swirls pretty strong there and if you get caught, you may end up with the pirates.
Boston was also a port of entry for early settlers and alter immigrants seeking a better life in a new world.
In the late 1960’s Winthrop had lots of mud flats surrounding their three yacht clubs. There was a problem at that time with some of the overflow from Deer Island coming back into the harbor. This “fertilizer” was causing sea lettuce to grow. Unfortunately, the sea lettuce was covering all the clam-flats causing the clams to die off. The odor and pollution from the clams were permeating the neighborhoods and peeling paint off the houses. A doctor was brought in to find out what could be done and he recommended putting everything under water by dredging.
Clamming is a lively industry in Winthrop and supplies many restaurants in the area. In fact, Boston chefs have claimed the best clams are the ones from Winthrop.
Every week the biologists at Plum Island’s Purification Plant sends out an email to all the clam diggers in Quincy, Boston, and Weymouth. This email notifies clam diggers where and when they can dig for soft shell clams. According to Massachusetts State Law, a clam digger is allotted five racks of soft shell clams per day. This really isn’t a lot of clams in the scheme of things, but it’s back breaking work all the same. Rules and regulations keep changing making it more difficult to support a family this way.
So, no matter if it’s 110° or 20º below, a clam digger begins arriving at Winthrop’s Public Landing ready to shove off one-half hour before sunrise. Armed with their buckets, boots, and trowels, they hop into the dinghies and set out for work before the next tide comes in.
Hunched over for hours with trowel in hand, the clam’s fate is totally up to the clam digger as to whether it ends up on your plate or in a Seagull’s belly. Clams are popular, but have to measure in at two inches in diameter otherwise be thrown back. Sometimes, if the diggers are in a hurry to finish before the tide comes in, the clams will end up being thrown up on the rocks. This is when the Seagulls get fed.
Once the five racks are filled, the diggers come back in. Here they’ll meet up with the buyers and/or Environmental Police to check their clams. Because these clams are dug in Winthrop, they have to be transported to Plum Island’s Purification Plant to be cleansed before being sold to restaurants and seafood stores.
At the purification plant the racks are put into long deep tubs filled with salt water from the ocean. Ultra violet lights are used to clean the clams. The clams stay in there for three days and every morning the tanks are cleaned, samples are taken and checked for bacteria. Air bubbles are pumped into PVC to help clams breathe while in the water. Once the clams are cleaned and the onsite biologists approve, then the racks go through a washer for the last step before getting a stamp of approval by the state before going out. Once approved, the clams will sit in a walk-in refrigerator till they are picked up. However, if there is any bacteria found in any of the tanks while the clams are being cleaned, all those clams are thrown out. This causes a financial loss to the diggers and could mean no clams for the restaurants.
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Robin G. Coles