The History of Shad in the Lehigh River


The Decline of Shad Fishing in the Lehigh

Return of A Native: Shad in the Lehigh River

Return of the Native

The Shad: Its Life History

Back to Bethlehem

The Lehigh River and Its Shad

Shad in the Lehigh Today

Bethlehem's Best Fishing Holes


My father instilled in me an appreciation of the outdoors and living things, and it is to him I dedicate this booklet. Without his involvement in the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association and his support and encouragement of my work in that organization, it is doubtful that Lehigh River shad restoration would have progressed to its present stage. I also would like to acknowledge shad fishermen past and present who recognized the importance of this unique natural resource and strived in some way to preserve it. And my sincere thanks to Dr. Vernon Nelson, Archivist of the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, whose research I relied upon closely and heavily to prepare portions of this booklet. Dr. Nelson deserves credit for organizing much of the exisiting information regarding Moravian shad fishing in the Lehigh River in the 18th and 19th centuries. He first presented this information as a public lecture in April of 1980.

Return of A Native: Shad in the Lehigh River

When the Leni Lenape - the "Original People" - arrived at the valley of the Delaware River around A.D. 1396 after an epic migration that began in Asia 9,000 years earlier, they found a land of lush, green forests that were alive with animals and birds, and clear, sparkling rivers that teemed with fish.

White settlers exploring the Delaware Valley two centuries later found the same scenario. An unnamed Englishman who visited the New World in 1588 was amazed by the variety of underwater life. He a letter to home he wrote: "For foure moenthes of the yeere, February, March, April and May, there are plentie of Sturgeons and also in the same moenthes of Herrings; some of the ordinary bignesse as ours in England, but the most part farre greater, of eighteene, twentie inches, and some two foot ein length and better.

"There are also Troutes, Porpoises, Rayes, Oldwines, Mullets, Plaice, and very many other sortes of excellent good fish, which we have taken and eaten, whose names I know not but in the country language."

The herring seen by the English traveler probably included the largest herring of all, the white shad, a relatively large, deep-bodied silver fish whose abundance was so great that it naturally became a source of food and income. What made shad even more important than other fish, though, was its taste. Centuries later, well-known American ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, would dub the white shad Alosa sapidissima, or "most delicious shad".

The shad's white flesh is firm and rich, but not oily. It is difficult to compare its taste to any other fish. A typical male, or buck shad, of three to four pounds provides enough of a meal for even the heartiest of appetites. The grain-sized eggs of the female, called roe, are encased in two sacs and are an epicure's delight. When cooked, they take the appearance of fat, oversized sausages curled into the shape of an oval. Their taste is somewhat nutty, and even more rich than the succulent flesh.

The Lenape grilled shad on wooden racks suspended over open fires, and even baked them in ovens made of mud. Shad bones have been found at nearly every archeological dig along the Delaware and its tributaries, where shad also swam. The Lenape also preserved their shad by air-drying and smoking. Swedish and Dutch settlers borrowed the Lenape practices and added European preservation processes such as pickling and salting. A typical Dutch feast of the mid-1600s included fish and cheese and ham and fowls, "with cabbage set around," with good Dutch beer to drink, with boiled fruit puddings for desserts, and strips of smoked shad and sturgeon to revive a flagging appetite.

Indeed, the shad was a Godsend. Its only drawback (and from all accounts people learned to work around it) was its unbelievably intricate bone structure. The Lenape called the shad "porcupine-fish-turned-inside-out". And Europeans soon learned why. To wit, and old fisherman's poem.

When the Lord made shad
The Devil was mad
For it seemed such a feast of delight
So to poison the scheme
He jumped in the stream
And stuck in the bones out of spite.

The Moravian settlers of Bethlehem undoubtedly picked their way around the shad's bothersome bones, for the shad was an important part of life in early Bethlehem as elsewhere in the Delaware Valley. The Moravians caught shad in the Lehigh River and kept accurate accounts of their efforts, many of which are preserved in the Moravian Archives.

The Lehigh was a perfect shad fishing stream: wide and deep enough to attract shad in the first place, but not too deep and fast to dissuade Moravian Brethren from wading into it to fish. And like all North American rivers of the mid-1700s, it was superbly clean, the type of environment that shad preferred and needed.

With its headwaters in the foothills of the Pocono Plateau, the Lehigh River drains an area of approximately 1,364 square miles containing parts of present-day Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Luzerne, Monroe, Northampton, Pike and Schuylkill counties. The river flows south and east for 75 miles before joining the Delaware at the "Forks of the Delaware" in Easton. Early settlers knew the river as the West Branch of the Delaware or as the Lehi. The Lehigh Valley was a favorite fishing and hunting grounds for the Leni Lenapes.

Shad fishing was strictly seasonal, however, since the fish appeared only for a few weeks each spring after leaving the depths of the Atlantic Ocean to spawn in their natal streams. The Lehigh and many other rivers along the eastern seaboard literally turned silver in April and May as millions upon millions of sleek shad headed inland. It was a time for communities along these rivers to fill the larder for months to come.

The Shad: Its Life History

Shad, like salmon, are anadromous (a-nad'-ro-mus) fish. The shad's life cycle begins in fresh water in the spring when young shad hatch from eggs. An average female shad will release about 250,000 eggs, although larger females can carry upward of 600,000 eggs. On average, only one shad reaches adulthood for every 100,000 eggs fertilized. Shad eggs are slightly heavier than water and will sink to the bottom where they hatch in five to six days.

The first week of growth is sustained by food stored in the yolk sac. Newly-hatched shad, called larvae, feed on a diet of fresh water plankton and insects. The fish continue to feed throughout spring and summer and by fall reach a length of three to five inches. Declining river temperatures in the fall trigger a migratory instinct in young shad to leave fresh water to enter the ocean. Most of their adult life - anywhere from two to five years - is spent in salt water. They return to fresh water only to spawn.

The migrations of shad in the Atlantic Ocean are not completely understood, although scientists agree that shad movements are regulated by water temperature. Tagging research shows that young shad exiting their natal rivers in October and November join an offshore population of mixed origins and ages. This off-shore population then migrates southward in late fall and spends the winter off the mid-Atlantic Coast. A northward migration, closer to shore, begins in late winter and continues through spring and early summer. During the northward migration, sexually mature shad seek out their rivers of origin.

Shad born in the Lehigh River in the early days of Bethlehem began their journey home by first entering Delaware Bay in late February and March when water temperatures were in the mid-40s F. They would hold in the bay until their bodies became accustomed to the change from salt- to fresh water and then would head upstream as temperatures allowed. (The prime temperature regime for migration is 55 to 62 degrees F.)

Once the fish were in fresh water at Trenton, they traveled anywhere from 6 to 14 miles a day depending on water temperature and river flow. A spring snowstorm and subsequent runoff that would lower the river temperature would slow the progress of the shad. A spring freshet, or flood, might push some of the fish down river or at least hamper their typical daily progress. Under normal flow, it took shad about three weeks to swim from Delaware Bay and up the Delaware River to the mouth of the Lehigh River. Moravian records indicate the shad usually arrived in Bethlehem in late April or early May, the same time they arrive today in the Delaware River at Easton. Once the shad entered the Lehigh, their instincts took them to the section of stream in which their life began.

Most shad die after spawning, due simply to the fact that they expend so much energy during the course of their freshwater migration. Once spawning is complete, surviving adults begin consuming plankton and insects and regain enough energy to make a return trip to the Atlantic. They head northward along the coast until they reach summer feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy and off the Gulf of Maine. Here they meet sexually immature shad and adult survivors from other river systems and grow fat on a rich diet of plankton and krill. They remain in these fertile grounds until fall signals another return to their wintering area off the mid-Atlantic Coast. In late winter, the entire process begins again.

The Lehigh River and Its Shad

No one knows when shad began ascending the Lehigh River to spawn. Certainly they were using the Lehigh before the Lenape arrived prior to 1400. Early settlers and Moravian missionaries were familiar with shad and other migrant fish that used the Lehigh and often wrote passes describing the techniques employed by the Lenape to catch them.

Perhaps the best description is provided in The History of the Mission of the United Brethren Among the Indians in North America, written in 1788 by George Henry Loskiel.

"There is a particular manner of fishing, which is undertaken in parties, as many hands are wanted, in the following manner: When the Shad-fish (clupea alosa) come up the rivers, the Indians run a dam of stones across the stream, where its depth will admit of it, not in a strait line, but in two parts, verging towards each other in an angle. An opening is left in the middle for the water to run off. At this opening they place a large box, the bottom of which is full of holes. They then make a rope of the twigs of the wild vine, reaching across the stream, upon which boughs of about six feet in length are fastened at the distance of about two fathoms from each other. A party is detached about a mile above the dam with this rope and its appendages, who begin to move gently down the current, some guiding one, some the opposite end, whilst others keep the branches from sinking by supporting the rope in the middle with wooden forks. Thus they proceed, frightening the fishes into the opening left in the middle of the dam, where a number of Indians are placed on each side, who standing upon the two legs of the angles, drive the fishes with poles and a hideous noise, through the openings into the above mentioned box or chest. Here they lie, the water running off through the holes in the bottom, and other Indians stationed on each side of the chest, take them out, kill them and fill their canoes. By this contrivance they sometimes catch above a thousand shad and other fish in half a day."

This method was popular in many areas along the Lehigh and even its tributaries. The Aquashicola Creek, a Lehigh tributary near Lehighton in Carbon County, means, in Lenape, "the place where we fish with brush nets." The methods later employed by the Moravian Brethren undoubtedly were borrowed from the Lenapes. In fact, for a number of years the Indians living in the Bethlehem area conducted the shad fishing for the community. Consider a passage from the Indian diary of Bethlehem, dated Tuesday, May 10, 1757:

"In early service we used the text. Immediately thereafter all the men went one mile up the Lehigh to fish with the bush net. Brother Grube went with them. In the afternoon they arrived safely at the dam below the sawmill, and enclosed a great mess of shad fish, over 2,200, the largest catch ever to occur in Bethlehem. Of these the [white] brethren and sisters in Bethlehem got 1,000, the [wild] Indians over the Lehigh 100, and the rest were divided among the families. They were all very happy, and thankful to the dear father in heaven for this rich blessing, and soon lay down to sleep."

Eventually shad fishing was conducted by the Single Brethren's Choir, the group of Single Brethren who lived in a large stone building on Church Street that is now part of Moravian College's South Campus. The Single Brthren's Choir conducted the fishing partly as a business, partly as sport.

Taken in its entirety, the information in Moravian records concerning shad fishing is extensive and often quite precise. The Single Brethren's diaries often contain statements like: "Today our Brethren fished for the first time," or "Today our Brethren fished for the 7th and last time." Although information isn't available for every year, it is given frequently enough to establish certain statistics concerning the shad run.

First, there is no doubt that the migrating fish were primarily shad. The documents, in English or German, use the name shad, spelled shad, schett, schadt and other ways. The Moravians were not overly descriptive of the fish, making only occasional comparative references to weight and size. One entry describes the shad as being as large as European carp (which could be an exaggeration) while another likens it in size to Great Lakes whitefish, which is probably more accurate since whitefish typically attain weights of five to seven pounds and more (13 pounds is the record).

There are other fish mentioned in the diaries, including rock fish or striped bass. The Lehigh held an excellent population of this migratory species, which also was held in high esteem as table fare. "The Rock-fish is large, and some are found to weigh above ten pound," wrote George Henry Loskiel in his 1788 history of the Indian missions. "It has large bones, and its flesh is white, of an agreeable taste."

The nearby Delaware River also harbored tremendous runs of migratory Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, white perch, white catfish and river herring. The Lehigh, particularly the portion near its mouth, probably hosted all those species - except the sturgeons - to some extent, although the Moravian records make no mention of them. It was the shad and rock fish that commanded the attention of Bethlehem's settlers.

The timing of the shad run was especially well-documented. Using records available, the run normally began in late April and concluded in the first part of May. The median date for the start of fishing was April 28 and the median date for the conclusion of fishing was May 14. The earliest start to a season, on record, is 1779, when fishing commenced April 16 and concluded May 3. The latest season on record was 1785, when fishing began on May 18 and ended on May 28.

The typical length of the Moravians' shad fishing seasons was two-and-a-half weeks or 18 days. But on two occasions, in 1773 and 1787, the season lasted 26 days. Records indicate that the average number of fishing days per season was five to 10, which was partly dependent on how many fish were caught. In 1787 the Single Brethren fished 13 times. And unlike modern fishermen, they never fished on Sunday.

The Moravians also learned from experience when they could expect good, and bad, fishing. They knew that fishing was poor when the water was too high or the temperature too cold. The differences in the timing of the fishing and the number of fish caught in different years probably are related to climactic conditions rather than fishing ability. We see the same even today at the fishery of Fred Lewis in Lambertville, New Jersey, where shad have been caught by the Lewis family since the 1890s.

In unusually warm springs, Mr. Lewis has caught shad as early as St. Patrick's Day, March 17. Then there are years when flood waters don't permit Mr. Lewis and his crew to set their nets until the third week of April or later. In 1993, for instance, Mr. Lewis caught only 125 shad because of continuous high water that hampered his efforts. That followed a banner 1992 season when more than 2,000 shad were caught. Undoubtedly the Moravian fishermen of early Bethlehem experienced the same frustrations.

Some interesting information regarding the shad's pattern of movement can be gleaned from the records of the Moravian Indian missions located further north on the Lehigh and Susquehanna rivers. For instance, shad were caught at Friedenshütten, near Wyalusing on the East Branch of the Susquehanna, on May 27, 1767 and June 6, 1767. That is an indication that then, as today, shad were reluctant to move into the upper reaches of a river system until the water warmed sufficiently.

How large were the shad of old? There is no reason to believe they were different than today's fish, which range from a low of two pounds for a precocious male shad that may be spawning a year ahead of nature's schedule, to a nine-pound female that may be on its second spawning run. (The current world record is an 11-pound, four-ounce shad.) A shad's food supply in the ocean is the same today as it was hundreds of years ago. The amount of plankton and krill has not diminished to a point where the size of the shad is affected.

However, it is highly likely that migrations in the 1700s included many more repeat spawners, since pollution was not a factor then in claiming adults that survived their initial spawning run. When the Single Brethren caught 5,300 "large, fat shad" on May 6, 1772, we do not know how large they were. When shad were sold to neighbors, the Single Brethren charged by the fish, not by weight, so there really was no reason to record weight or size. Those fat shad caught that memorable day could have included a pod of repeat spawners that made the catch stand out from others.

Another intriguing entry which makes one wonder about the size of the fish comes from the Indian mission at Friedenshütten, where 2,000 shad were caught on May 18, 1768 and loaded into eight canoes. If the fish were all larger than normal, perhaps eight pounds each, and distribution were equitable, each canoe would have carried 2,000 pounds of shad. That's quite a payload even considering the ingenuity of Lenape canoe design. More than likely, the fish were mixed sex and size, of weights between four and seven pounds ... just like today.

While the May 6, 1772 catch of 5,300 shad is the all-time high we know of, there were other catches that exceeded 1,000 fish. The Indian Brethren living at Nain near Bethlehem (near present-day Martin Tower) caught more than 2,200 fish on May 10, 1757. The largest seasonal catch that is documented totalled 8,385 fish. That was in 1772, the same year as the large one-day catch by the Nain Indian Brethren. In 1778 a total of 5,077 fish was caught; in 1783 a total of 4,470; in 1766 the total was 3,850, and in 1764 the total was 3,600 or 3,700.

Those were the good years. There were leaner years as well, such as 1777 when the Single Brethren fished six times and caught only 1,010 fish, an average of 168 fish per effort. In 1783 they fished 11 times and caught 1,877 shad, an average of 170 fish. At times they went out and came back with only one fish, sometimes none at all. Since fishing often consumed most of a day for a number of the Brethren, and since the fish might be divided among 1,000 Moravians and neighbors, the Brethren must have gone through times when they wondered whether it was worth the effort. Simple mathematics indicates that in a poor year a person's share of the catch was only one or two fish. Those aren't good numbers considering that shad probably provided the year's first major source of protein.

Bethlehem's Best Fishing Holes

The Leni Lenape were experts at constructing fish traps. The main prerequisite was a fairly shallow stretch of river, preferably a shallow pool above a rapids where shad would typically rest. As Loskiel indicated in his description of the Lenape fishing technique, the water ideally would have been no deeper than chest-high. There were several stretches of river in Bethlehem where conditions were appropriate for fishing, and probably a number of them were tried from time to time. One stretch located between the ferry (just east of the present Hill-to-Hill Bridge) and the fish dam (just east of present-day Sand Island) was popular for many years. If you stand on the Hill-to-Hill Bridge today and look downstream toward Sand Island, you can imagine how conducive this section of river was to shad fishing.

Although the stream bed has changed since the mid-1700s, chances are the gradient has not been altered all that much. The water is fairly swift and relatively shallow, certainly no more than waist-high for most of the river's breadth. In mid-May when rivers in the Delaware Valley typically subside a bit after April's deluges, it's not hard to imagine a group of Brethren wading downstream toward Sand Island, pushing shad out ahead of them. The fish dam, where the fish were trapped, was visible from Niesky - now Nisky Hill Cemetary - near "the stone quarry." A map from 1758, the year the Sun Inn was constructed, clearly shows stone quarries along the bank of the hill. From this information, and from a Rufus Grider drawing that shows the fish dam at this spot, it seems clear that the eastern tip of Sand Island was the downstream end of the Moravians' favorite shad fishing spot.

Fishing was done much the same as it was carried on for centuries by the Lenape. A long net was made, perhaps of vines and tangled branches, and was stretched across the river. The men and boys of the community who were involved in the fishing guided the net down river for as much as a mile, pushing the fish ahead of them. The fish were herded into a pound, probably a wooden cage, that was at the end of the V-shaped fish dam, which was made of rocks. One fishing account on record has a fishing party passing the Sisters' laundry, which was on the river bank about 200 feet east of the present Philip Fahy Bridge.

The records of the Single Brethren contain many references to the fish dam. The diaries often mention that the dam required repair the day before a fishing outing was planned. It also is noted that making just one pass down the river and then collecting the fish was a full-day affair.

Shad fishing in Bethlehem attracted a good deal of attention. In addition to community members who took pleasure in watching the Single Brethren provide food, visitors from as far away as Philadelphia came to witness the excitement.

On April 27, 1768, Governor Robert Penn and his lady, his brother, James Allen, and others arrived in Bethlehem to see the fishing. As it turned out, the governor and his party witnessed the season's first fishing on April 29 (recall that the median starting date for shad fishing in Bethlehem was April 28).

A passage from the diaries on April 29 follows:

"Our Brethren fished for the first time and got 640 shad. They (the Single Brethren) came down the river first at 4 o'clock (in the afternoon). The governor and his suite went to Niesky where all could be seen well. Br. Garrison and Arbo got them from the

(Sun) inn, and at the Gemeinhaus Br. and Sr. Nathaneal [Seidel] and the Thranes joined them. Below the Sisters' laundry on the Lehigh was Br. Guhrer with his bateau (a small boat). The governor and his brother, accompanied by the Brethren Nathaniel and Arbo, went down into the bateau and drove along behind the fish net up to the pound. Then they went with the bateau below the pound where they could see everything close-up. The rest of the group watched from the hill near the stone quarry. When it was all over, they were conducted to the Gemein-Saal, where the Single Sisters presented some music for them. Then they drank tea in Br. Thrane's room. About 9 they were entertained by music at table in the inn, as each evening previously."

No one knows whether Governor Penn and his party dined on the day's catch at the Sun Inn, but inventory records at the inn show that shad was a menu item. It is conceivable, then, especially considering it was the year's first catch, that the governor tasted the shad's succulent white flesh.

Sun Inn inventories never included large numbers of shad, which implies that the fish were quickly consumed. There are references to salted fish and fresh fish at the inn. On May 20, 1783, the Sun Inn had 40 salted shad, the highest inventory number found. This fondness for shad pervades throughout community records. Consider the case in 1764, a year of good fishing:

May 10 Catch of 800 shads. No mention of disposition.
May 11 300 shads. Mostly sold to outsiders.
May 15 1000 shads. Mostly sold to outsiders, "who longed for more."
May 17 700-800 shads, mostly sold to outsiders.
May 19 800 shads, all sold to outsiders.

Prices for shad varied over the years. In 1783 the price was 8 pence per fish at the start of fishing, and 6 pence as the season progressed, indicating that fish were plentiful and demand was dwindling. In 1784 the price was 4 pence. In 1785 it was 6 pence. Proceeds from the fishing were divided by the men involved, at least in these years. Transactions seem to have been in cash. The Single Sisters' record books show occasional purchases of shad in spring, as a cash expenditure.

While herding shad into a pound was the accepted method of fishing, some of the Brethren also attempted to fish exclusively with nets. On May 8, 1782, a company of Brethren requested permission from the Aufseher Collegium (Supervisors Committee) to use nets. Later, in 1798, the Aufseher Collegium heard that outsiders wanted to fish with nets from the new Lehigh bridge, which "is not to be allowed." Records do not indicate how successful this method of fishing was.

Shad fishing was not a simple matter of frightening fish into a wooden cage. There were dangers and difficulties that cropped up from time to time. A diary entry from April 30, 1776 states that as a fishing party was nearing the pound, a boy fell into deep water, lost his hold on the net and was in danger of drowning. An older Brother came to his rescue but was himself carried away by the current. He swam for a while but would have drowned if a Brother had not come in a canoe to help him. A farmer with a horse came and brought the boy to land.

There were supervisory problems as well. An account from May 2, 1774 reads:

"Some outsiders from Saucon and the Irish settlement, at the instigation of a carpenter, who is working for Br. Francke, decided to try to fish and to drive into our pound. But we closed the pound. We told them beforehand that we would; they should not bother to trouble themselves for nothing. But they did not quit. When they were near the ferry, the carpenter and another went to the pound, intending to open the pound forcibly.

"Meanwhile they came near the pound with the net, but had to go back with empty hands, which they did quietly. We had locked the pound with the foreknowledge of Br. Ockely as Justice of the Peace and would have taken them to court if they had broken the lock."

On August 2, 1786, the Aufseher Collegium decided changes had to be made, "because there is no order at all during fishing." By this time it appears various groups of Moravians and others were fishing, not just the Single Brethren. It was decided to put one man in charge, whom the fishing parties had to obey. On June 1, 1807, the Aufseher Collegium recorded a complaint:

"Br. Rose complains that the stench from the fishing is very annoying to him, because the fishermen unload and divide their fish near his house. Also, their often profane behavior offends him." It was decided to try to find an unloading place further from his house.

The Decline of Shad Fishing in the Lehigh

Shad rivers up and down the East Coast underwent drastic changes in the early 19th century as America began its change to an industrial society. Pollution came from unabated factory and sewage waste, from coal silt and sawdust, from tanneries and slaughter houses and a myriad of other businesses that treated the young nation's streams as nothing more than nature's gutters. While pollution made life tough enough for shad and other fish, dams put an end to their existence in certain rivers altogether. The Lehigh would be added to this list by the third decade of the century.

The bell began tolling for the Lehigh's shad when coal mining became an important enterprise around the turn of the century. Coal had to be boated to Philadelphia markets from the coal regions north of Bethlehem. And while there was always some navigation on the Lehigh, tampering with the Lehigh's channel took a more earnest turn in 1800 when the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, under state charter, hired workers to clear obstructions in the river so that river boats would have an easier time navigating downstream.

The system used first was to construct boats, load them with coal, float them down the Lehigh and Delaware rivers and dismantle them and sell the coal and wood at Philadelphia.

But the use of coal boats in the river was inefficient; a canal with locks was a better solution for a steady and efficient supply of coal. The possibility of returning the boats and saving additional labor to construct new ones was attractive as well. The answer was a canal that would carry coal from Mauch Chunk to Easton and from there to Philadelphia. In 1829 the system was completed with the construction of a dam that spanned the Lehigh at the Forks of the Delaware. It resulted in a more efficient coal marketing operation, but it also blocked shad from the river and effectively put Bethlehem's shad fishing enterprise to rest.

Actually, the decline of shad fishing on the Lehigh began earlier during a period when the Single Brethren's Choir was declining. The group was getting older and was having difficulty attracting young men to its way of life. Possibly, they gave up fishing altogether. In 1814 they ceased operation, selling their house to the School for Young Ladies.

The coal industry added more insult to the Lehigh as time went on. Mine acid drainage sterilized many Lehigh tributaries in the vicinity of Mauch Chunk. Coal silt choked the stream bottom, killing aquatic life and making it impossible for trout and other resident fish to spawn. The Lehigh became a highly industrialized river. By 1872 there were more than 1,000 canal boats operating on the canal. There were iron mills, zinc refineries, coal yards and other industries along the river that contributed to its pollution.

John Hill Martin, who published a history of Bethlehem in 1869, believed there were other culprits involved in the demise of the shad, including fish weirs on the river that may have been constructed for fish other than shad, such as eels. He was a proponent of sluices at all the dams on the river, but unfortunately those who controlled the dams weren't. It's also likely that technology of the time wouldn't have allowed successful passage of the fish.

Martin viewed the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company as the villain of the plot, and he was right. Earlier, the Schuylkill River lost its shad in the same manner and other rivers in the Northeast - the Susquehanna, Hudson, and Connecticut - followed in due order. A century later the situation would worsen to the point where shad were nearly forgotten everywhere. Even in the great Delaware, where people supposedly could walk across the river on the backs of shad and sturgeon in the early 1700s, Alosa sapidissima was nearly gone because of pollution. In 1949 only three shad were caught in the nets of Lambertville, New Jersey commercial fisherman, Fred Lewis. By 1953, the total catch was zero.

Return of the Native

In late summer of 1955, twin hurricanes Connie and Diane lambasted portions of the East Coast with relentless fury. Particularly hard hit was the Delaware Valley, where the storms arrived on the heels of each other and dumped record amounts of rainfall in New York's Catskill Mountains and Pennsylvania's Poconos. Flooding was unprecedented and the loss of lives and property was staggering.

Every dark cloud is said to have a silver lining, though, and if indeed there was one in the case of this natural disaster, it was that the Delaware River received a scouring that washed away decades of built-up pollutants and silt. Many people believe that this great flood of '55 was the beginning of the modern shad revival in the Delaware Valley.

In spring of 1960, Delaware River sport fishermen began catching fish they had never seen before, silver-sided beauties that looked and fought like miniature tarpon. What were they? Where had they come from? Of course, they were shad, and it didn't take long for word to spread. By spring of 1962 there were several thousand anglers along the Delaware who proudly identified themselves as shad fishermen. Their ranks grew each year.

The migrations of the early 1960's were large considering that just 10 years before there were no shad at all. Biologists believe that the migration of 1963 may have exceeded 500,000 fish. Fred Lewis's fishery in Lambertville enjoyed tremendous success that year, hauling in 3,983 fish in 71 nettings. The shad were back.

The reappearance of this native species caused quite a stir among Delaware Valley fishermen and biologists from New Jersey and Pennsylvania's fishery agencies. By the early 1970s, New Jersey was tagging shad caught at the Lewis fishery in an attempt to track their movements in the Delaware and determine if the population was increasing.

But it was apparent there were still problems to overcome. Although Fred Lewis had a banner year in 1963, his total catch was back down to just 33 fish in 1968. Foremost among the obstacles keeping the shad at bay, literally, was a 60-mile stretch of river in the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington area where the dissolved oxygen content of the water was so low from late May to early October that shad could not pass through it. It became known as the "pollution block" and it remains a problem even today, although far less of one than before.

The pollution block effectively stops the shad's movement into the Delaware once the dissolved oxygen content dips below four parts per million. At that point, shad can't breathe; they either die or head back to the Atlantic Ocean and seek another river system in which to spawn. With the passage of the Clean Stream Act in 1970, cities such as Philadelphia and Camden were mandated to upgrade sewage treatment facilities. Around the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency toughened its pollution laws and cracked down on industries that were fouling rivers and smaller streams across the country.

Slowly, the Delaware River became a cleaner environment for all fish species. By 1975, Fred Lewis's annual catch has blossomed to 1,721 fish, and in 1979, he caught 2,052. By the late 1980s, the Delaware's shad population topped 700,000. And in 1992, there were almost one million fish entering the river according to estimates by the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. Spawning grounds, which before 1970 were restricted to cleaner waters above the Delaware Water Gap, now extended south to Trenton and even into small tributaries entering Delaware Bay.

One other threat to the shad was brought under control in 1992 when the United States Congress officially deauthorized funding for Tocks Island Dam. Conceived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following hurricanes Connie and Diane, as a source of recreation, drinking water and flood control, Tocks would have spanned the Delaware just north of Shawnee, Pa., and cut off more than 100 miles of the shad's ancient spawning grounds.

The project was despised by homeowners living in the upper Delaware Valley, and in fact hundreds of them were evicted by federal marshals after they refused to leave their homes when the federal government acquired thousands of acres of land along the river by right of eminent domain. The 25-year struggle that culminated in the defeat of the dam epitomized the environmental consciousness that became rooted in America during the Vietnam War era. With Tocks now out of the way, it is highly doubtful there will be serious talk of a Delaware River dam ever again.

Back to Bethlehem

The same water quality improvements that were taking place in the Delaware River in the 1970s also were occurring in the Lehigh River. Industries such as Bethlehem Steel Corporation and New Jersey Zinc Company were required to clean up or pay up, and they wisely opted to improve their stature among the environmental community. The Lehigh's water quality improved and aquatic life began to return. In April, 1973, the Pennsylvania Fish Commission began a four-year study designed to determine the feasibility of restoring shad to the Lehigh River. Shad eggs were hatched in the river and survival rates were excellent at study sites south of Palmerton, where mine acid drainage was still a major detriment.

When the study was completed in 1976, the Fish Commission concluded that restoration was not feasible because of the inferior quality of Lehigh River water entering the Delaware at Easton. Even though Fish Commission biologists felt that adult and juvenile shad would survive once in the Lehigh, they reasoned that the fish wouldn't choose the river in the first place given the better water flowing in the Delaware.

A sizable downturn in steel production at Bethlehem in the 1980s and the concurrent demise of the New Jersey Zinc Company brought unexpected benefits to Lehigh River water quality and a renewed interest in shad restoration. This time, though, the interest was initiated by sportsmen and not the state's fishery agency.

In May, 1982, members of the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association (DRSFA) and the Lehigh River Preservation, Protection and Improvement Foundation (LRPPIF) joined in a shad stocking and egg hatching experiment that would manifest itself 10 years later. Using hook-and-line techniques in the Shawnee portion of the Delaware River, DRSFA and LRPPIF members caught adult shad and transferred them in a large, homemade, aerated tank to the Lehigh. They were released at the Tri-Boro Sportsmen's Club in Northampton, but none were seen again. Weeks later, several hundred thousand shad eggs from Delaware River fish were placed in the Lehigh in homemade hatch boxes. High water washed many of the boxes away and no juvenile fish were found.

In May, 1983, the groups tried again, this time transferring 72 adult shad that were caught by Fred Lewis in Lambertville. Forty-one survived the trip to Northampton, but once again were never seen. Hatch boxes were placed in the Lehigh at Northampton as before, but this time the eggs hatched successfully. On August 18, LRPPIF members seining the river south of Bethlehem netted two juvenile shad, the first "natives" to be taken from the river since 1820.

The catch of the two juveniles, some 20 miles from where they hatched, triggered more involvement by the DRSFA, the LRPPIF and the Fish Commission. In 1984, the DRSFA was successful in having introduced into the Pennsylvania Legislature a bill that would appropriate $3.3 million to construct fish passageways at the Easton Dam and a second dam several miles upriver at the village of Glendon. A fish passageway on the Samuel Frank Memorial Dam in Allentown opened that year on June 7 as part of the dam's total reconstruction. It was an illustrative lesson of what could happen on the lower river.

The "Shad Ladder Bill" sailed through the House and Senate but was bluelined at the last moment by Gov. Richard Thornburgh, who took his pen to a large number of other capital appropriation projects that year.

The DRSFA tried again in 1985 with a new governor in office and a new strategy in mind. Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the DRSFA funded a creel census survey that provided an accurate account of how many fishermen were taking advantage of the Delaware River shad fishery and how much money a similar fishery in the Lehigh River would bring to the Lehigh Valley economy. The survey indicated that more than 65,000 anglers fished the Delaware for shad each year and that a Lehigh River shad run would be worth $2.1 million annually to local businesses.

Armed with this information, the DRSFA appointed members to attend city, borough, township and other municipal meetings throughout the Lehigh River drainage area in an attempt to obtain endorsements for the new shad legislation. No one turned down the DRSFA's requests, and Gov. Robert Casey began receiving letters of local support for the bill. Then in 1988, a statewide petition project was initiated, and with the help of other sportsmen's organizations more than 40,000 signatures were acquired and delivered to the governor.

Public support for the project was too much for Gov. Casey to ignore. In the fall of 1988, Casey included the $3.3 million fish passageway bill in the state's supplemental budget. One year later, on October 19, 1989, Casey came to Easton to announce his approval of funding for the project. After six years and two governors, the "Shad Ladder Bill" had passed and the stage was set for the Lehigh River to receive a native that had disappeared 170 years before. Descendents of early Bethlehem's Moravian fishermen would have another opportunity to catch shad from the Lehigh. Not quite in the same fashion, but no one was arguing.

Shad in the Lehigh Today

Every year since 1978 the people of Bethlehem and surrounding communities have gathered in the city's 18th Century Industrial Area to celebrate the annual Bethlehem Shad Festival. One thousand dinners of baked shad are served to conoisseurs who relish the fish's succulent white flesh. Others come to the festival to learn how to catch them or simply to learn a bit about the past.

In 1994, people attending the festival may have to keep a keen ear toward the nearby Lehigh, where shad will be finning their way upstream for the first time in nearly two centuries. The long-awaited fish passageways were completed in late summer of 1993 and are ready to accept any migrants that yearn for the taste of the Lehigh River. Because the Pennsylvania Fish Commission has been stocking upward of 800,000 shad fry in the Lehigh every year since 1984, there is an adult shad population of undetermined size that rightfully can call the Lehigh "home."

The best available technology was used to construct the passageways and there is no reason to doubt the shad will use them. The passageway at Easton is equipped with a public viewing window and a second window for biologists who will count the shad as they ascend the series of concrete pools that usher them from the Delaware into their new home. With the passageway at the Samuel Frank Dam in Allentown already in place, the shad should be able to ascend the Lehigh to the foothills of the Poconos, the same area they occupied when the Lenape gave name to Aquashicola Creek, "the place where we fish with brush nets."

In years to come, the Lehigh shad population may reach 100,000, and the fish conceivably could occupy Lehigh headwaters as far upriver as Francis E. Walter Dam. But that is the next chapter. For now, let us enjoy the page we are on, and hope that we remember lessons we've learned from pages of the past.


A Management for American Shad in the Delaware River Basin. The Delaware Basin Fish and Wildlife Management Cooperative, West Trenton, New Jersey, 1980.

Levering, Joseph M. A History of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1741-1892. The Times Publishing Co., Bethlehem, Pa., 1903.

Marshall, Richard W. Final Report - Pennsylvania: Shad Restoration Feasibility Study Schuylkill and Lehigh Rivers. Pennsylvania Fish Commission, Harrisburg, Pa., 1976. McCutchen, David. The Red Record: The Wallam Olum, The Oldest Native North American History. Avery Publishing Group, Inc., Garden City Park, New York, 1993.

Nelson, Vernon H. Shad in Early Bethlehem, a lecture compiled from records of the Moravian Archives and other selected literature, 1980.

Pfeiffer, C. Boyd. Shad Fishing. Crown Publishers Inc., New York, 1975.

Report of the Pennsylvania Fish Commissioners, 1896. Pennsylvania Fish Commission, Harrisburg, Pa., 1896.

Wildes, Harry Emerson. The Delaware. 1940.


Dennis Scholl is a native and lifelong resident of Hellertown, Pennsylvania. He received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History from The Pennsylvania State University in 1973. After serving as Director of Tourism for the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce from 1976-80, Mr. Scholl began an eight-year career as a sports and outdoor writer for the Bethlehem Globe-Times. In 1988, he became a magazine editor at Rodale Press in Emmaus, Pennsylvania and currently serves as Associate Director for Outreach at the Rodale Institute Research Center near Kutztown, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Scholl's involvement with shad stems from a lifelong interest in fisheries management. He founded the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association in 1976 and has been the association's president since then. He conceived the idea of the Bethlehem Shad Festival in 1978 and has coordinated the activity for 16 years. In 1992, Mr. Scholl received a Community Spirit Award from the Morning Call newspaper of Allentown, Pennsylvania for his volunteer efforts with the Shad Fishermen's Association.

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