From: The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics and the Future of Wilderness in America, by Summer Brennan. Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2015
The oyster pirates preferred to ambush the beds by moonlight. Working mostly in pairs, with two men per vessel, they mustered together in ramshackle armadas of thirty or forty small boats. They waited until cloudless nights when the full moon shone brightly on the piles of pale shells on shore, before advancing on the oyster companies’ camps en masse, their pistols at the ready. They went by nicknames, like the Porpoise, the Centipede, the Spider or the Shark. One particularly vicious character, known for trying to tear off the faces of his opponents in hand-to-hand combat, was known simply as “Scratch.” Their ranks included petty thieves and notorious murderers, fishermen gone crooked and adventuring youths; and, in 1897, among their number was a twenty-year-old undercover Fish Patrol agent by the name of John Griffith Chaney, better known to you and me as Jack London.
The year that London joined the California Fish Patrol, the San Francisco Bay was a Wild West of the waves. Though water-based banditry of all kinds was common, the oyster pirates were among the most insidious. The San Francisco oyster industry had been booming for decades, but some saw the flourishing beds as treasure left out in the open, free for the taking. While still a teenager, or so he tells it, London bought his own sloop, the Razzle-Dazzle, from an oyster pirate known as French Frank. London even tried his hand at piracy himself, before switching sides and becoming a freelance deputy for the Patrol, working on commission from the fines that his arrests brought in. But some criminals would not be taken in alive, and many of the most notorious piscine outlaws met bloody ends. In his autobiographical novel Tales of the Fish Patrol, London tells of gun battles aboard sinking sloops, and a terrifying Greek fishing kingpin called Big Alec, who bribed senior Patrol members to be granted carte blanche. The bay was a veritable fishing cornucopia. There were flounder and rock cod, carp and sturgeon, smelt and salmon year-round. Shad were abundant from October to June, and sardines and mackerel made a strong showing all through the summer. But by as early as 1852, just three years after the start of the Gold Rush, the fishes’ numbers were already declining. Laws were put in place, designating seasons and even days of the week for different species. However, fishermen bent the laws at every opportunity, and gangsters like Big Alec simply refused to obey them. The oysters, on the other hand, were a different story altogether. When it came to the oyster market, you were either a company man or a crook. So many men tried their hand at the latter that London and his colleagues at the Fish Patrol tried to make their living arresting them. He writes of infiltrating oyster pirate raids undercover, posing as an oyster pirate himself and actually following through with plundering the beds, hoping to apprehend a few fellow marauders once the job was done.
For decades, the main target of the oyster pirates’ raids were the beds of one John Stillwell Morgan, head of the Morgan Oyster Company. By the 1880s his operation had merged with the other major oyster businesses in the area, and he now owned nearly all of the oystering ground in both the north and south bay. To help combat piracy, Morgan kept the workers of his beds on site at all times. They lived in modest houses right there on the docks, or else on houseboats moored out on the water. They were armed, and were instructed to shoot dead anyone who came to rob them. Morgan had artesian wells dug out in the bay, some as far as a mile from shore, and hired cooks to stay on site at each camp. This way, the men never had an excuse to leave the bivalves unattended. It was because of this that the oyster pirates banded together in such large numbers, hoping to appear so threatening in their collective assault that Morgan’s guards would not fight back but simply abandon their helpless charges. The guards knew that even if they managed to kill one of the thieves, they’d be shot dead themselves before they could kill another. The pirates would then use the moonlight to guide them to the oysters in the shallower water, gathering up as many as they could to sell on the black market.
Back in 1849, the year that Morgan arrived in California, the peninsular settlement that would become the City by the Bay was not much more than a conglomeration of shantytowns. The nearby ailing Spanish mission, nicknamed Mission Dolores (“Mission of Sorrows,” or, if you prefer, “Pain Mission”) was full of fed-up priests and dying Indians. But after word spread far and wide that there was gold in California’s golden hills, some three hundred thousand people swarmed into the state to seek their fortune. This influx caused the sleepy 200-person village of San Francisco to balloon into a city of 36,000 in a matter of six years.
The forty-niners, as they came to be called, and their immediate successors, were rich and poor, old and young. They were mostly men, but women, too, braved the ocean voyage around the horn of South America, or else risked the more treacherous overland journey through the unforgiving mountains and dusty plains. They were American, Mexican, Portuguese, Italian, Irish, Chinese, German, French, Filipino, Swiss, Turkish and African. They were cooks from Manhattan and fishermen from Maine and farmers from Virginia. In letters back home they all seemed to agree on one thing at least: In 1849 and the early years of the Gold Rush, everything in San Francisco, from housing to horseshoes, was extremely expensive.
Wrote one San Franciscan in a letter sent back east in 1852, “it costs high to live here and a man without business can soon get rid of his small change.” This man, who signed his letters as simply “Orrin,” was paying $412 per month for a small house without “any garden or Barn” (sic), which did not include “the price of meat, fuel, servants [or] vegetables.” That is the equivalent of close to $12,000 today.
Most of the people pouring in from all over the world were hoping to reinvent themselves in some way, although it didn’t always work out as they expected. Rich men became paupers and vice versa. The chance of “making their pile,” as it was called—recouping their investments plus enough to make the whole tribulation worthwhile—was a carrot often held just out of reach. For many, the promise of wealth, for anyone willing to dig or pan for it, never proved fruitful. They died from disease or drunkenness or madness, or else simply perished from the dangers of the near-lawless West. But not all. Morgan, a farmer’s son from Staten Island, New York, would make a fortune creating the West Coast oyster industry almost single-handedly.
When Morgan arrived in San Francisco in December of 1849, he was a tall, skinny young man of twenty-one. His pale blond hair was already going gray, and by the age of thirty-five it was completely white. This he attributed, rather inexplicably, to his habit of wearing a military officer’s cap every day since his late teens, as if the assumed authority of it had literally aged him prematurely. As a child they’d called him Tow Head. At 5'10" he weighed only 135 pounds that first winter in California, but possessed an unbreakable determination far stronger than his slight physique would suggest. He was patient, even-tempered and persuasive. Born in 1828 in the village of Westfield, his father’s sixty-acre farm extended down to the water where there were natural oyster beds, and where young John could see the boats going by—coaster ships and fishing vessels and ferries. From a young age he knew that he wanted to spend his life working on the water, and planned to be a sailor. His family disapproved of the choice, but no amount of discouragement could dissuade him.
His childhood was a happy one, though not without the tragedies so common to those times. John was one of ten children born to the family, though only seven lived past infancy. His sisters and other girls in the village would start out summer mornings picking blackberries that grew along the edges of the woods. John’s mother and sisters would spin and weave all of the cloth for the family’s clothes at home, and then sew them, too. In the winter, the local shoemaker would come and sit by the Morgan family’s massive fireplace, cobbling the children’s new shoes for the year. John recalled dances in the village hall, in which rosy-cheeked girls would twirl and skip all night in homemade calico dresses. As an older man he would remember these as some of the happiest times of his life. While he was living through them, however, his thoughts were always of the sea.
He was considered “dull” in school, and didn’t manage to learn his multiplication tables until the last year he attended, between the ages of fourteen and fifteen. He would later say he didn’t master them until he decided to put his mind to it, as it simply hadn’t interested him before. He certainly was determined. As a little boy, he and his brother fell ill with typhoid fever. Though barely able to move from the sickness, he nevertheless got it into his mind that he wanted some cakes, which he knew were hidden in the cupboard of his grandmother’s room. This room had been co-opted for his brother and himself as a nursery during their illness. He managed to climb out of the bed, but was then too weak to reach the cupboard or even to climb back under the covers again, and had to be rescued. Still, he had tried.
His mother died when he was eight years old after the birth of his youngest sister, and then less than ten years later his father died too, when John was seventeen, after falling from a hay cart and puncturing a lung. Once orphaned, the older Morgan children looked after their younger siblings. They sold the family house and divided the profits among themselves. For John, this meant it was time to go and seek his fortune.
He crossed over from the island of his childhood to Manhattan, taking up residence on the Lower East Side. Having no experience working on the water, though he’d grown up next to it, he decided to learn shipbuilding. He was also learning staircasing in the process, but it was no doubt the shipbuilding part that interested him most. After a little more than a month he decided he’d had enough of saws and hammering, and wandered along the docks up the East River, looking for work. At the time, New York City was in the grip of an oyster madness that would not subside until the first half of the twentieth century. Walking up or down the river, he passed skiff after skiff covered in the bivalves, and waterfront oyster bars, some doubling as brothels with the excuse of “taking a late ferry to Brooklyn” ready to serve as a cover story for any philandering gentleman. It was a rough area during a rough time, but John managed to avoid all that, and talked his way onto a coaster, a schooner ferrying supplies like wheat and lumber up and down the Atlantic coast.
He told the ship’s captain that he knew his way around a kitchen and was hired on as cook. This was a lie. The ship had “a big Negro,” as John would (unfortunately) later put it, who used to cook for the crew but had now taken on other duties. (As an aside, a search through the records of John Stillwell Morgan and the archives of the New York Historical Society turned up no evidence as to the identity or name of the man who essentially saved Morgan’s bacon.) The man went with John to his room in a poky Lower East Side tenement building and helped retrieve his possessions, which were packed in a large wooden seaman’s trunk, and which Morgan had optimistically brought along to the city. Too poor to pay for a lift, the two men hauled the heavy trunk by hand, each carrying one handle, all the way through the city’s streets and to the waterfront. As cook, John was to be paid $9 a month.
Once they set sail on his first voyage, John was extremely seasick. Fortunately for him, the man who helped him carry his trunk (whom he also later refers to as “the darky”) covered for him once they were at sea and showed him how to cook. In this way, John was able to keep his job. He seemed to have had an earnestness that would serve him throughout his life, his racist language notwithstanding. On one trip back up the coast, carrying a freight of lumber from Virginia, one of the sailors was unable to attend to a matter with the sail. Quick to step in and show his ambition, John volunteered to handle it himself and quickly monkeyed up the mast to fix it. The inept sailor was then demoted to ship’s cook and John was given a promotion and a raise of $2 more per month as sailor.
He served as sailor on a few ships, and was eventually promoted to captain. He started trading mostly in oysters, brought up from the Chesapeake Bay for planting in the New York Harbor. He had grown up around them, and besides, it was easy to fall into the oystering business in New York City at that time. The oyster cellars were very prominent, and discovering a new crop of marketable oysters was akin to striking gold; it could be worth millions.
Getting into the bivalve trade was probably one of the most obvious professions for any New Yorker in the 1840s who wanted any- thing to do with the water. In those days, the lower Hudson had some 350 square miles of oyster beds. They hugged the shorelines of Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Jamaica Bay, and the full length of the East River. They stretched north up the Hudson as far as Ossining, and down along the Jersey Shore to Keyport. They surrounded Staten Island, City Island, Liberty Island and Ellis Island. Oysters graced the tables of the city’s elite, but were also a subsistence food for the poorest of the poor—who sometimes lived on nothing all year but oysters and bread. The first oyster cannery opened in New York in 1819, and before long the city’s oystermen were shipping their stock—both fresh and canned—upstate and as far away as Europe.
John went to work for a man named Joseph Seguine, one of the richest men on Staten Island, who would eventually offer to furnish Morgan with money and supplies for a voyage west to look for gold and—of course—for possible western iterations of the family Ostreidae. Seguine had built an enormous Greek Revival–style mansion on Staten Island in 1838, overlooking Prince’s Bay, and by the time he met Morgan, the Seguines’ oyster harvesting business was thriving. Morgan ran freight for the Seguines as ship’s captain. But even as early as 1810, some of the oyster grounds in and around New York were showing signs of trouble. “Exhaustion,” the oystermen called it. The oysters were traditionally found growing in their natural state in places fed by rivers that ran through limestone—a mineral they use for their shell calcification. It would be a long time before city residents realized the connection between the outpouring of their open sewer systems into the rivers and bays, and the failure to thrive of the oysters that grew there.
When Europeans first arrived on the island of Manahatta and encountered the people living there, known as the Lenape, they found mature oysters as large as eight or ten inches long. There were some oysters described as being significantly larger than this as well. But those first Dutch founders of New Amsterdam also told tales of unicorns appearing in the woods and two-headed tortoises, so some of this may be chalked up to hyperbolic fabulousness.
As the demand for oysters began to outstrip the natural supply, New York oystermen started reseeding the beds with young oysters from other locations. They found that oysters from the Chesapeake Bay matured faster than the New York oysters did in New York waters. Oysters from warmer climates, too, grew fatter faster than the natives in the New York harbor. Thus the shipping of oysters spawned in one place, to be fattened and sold in another, was soon a thriving business. Oyster mariculture was born. And, for a few years, young fair-haired Captain Morgan ran the sloops.
Kitted out with gear and investment funds from Seguine, John booked passage on the bark Magdella, sailing around the horn to California. The voyage took an unusually long time. The ship left in late April of ’49, when the lilacs and the dogwoods were blooming in New York. As was common with such voyages, they stopped along the way in Central America, but stayed longer than usual because of bad weather and did not arrive in San Francisco until December. Although Morgan complained about the captain of the Magdella’s caution, calling him “grannyish,” many of the ships bound for California met with ill fates. Besides the danger of wrecking on the deadly rocks near Tierra del Fuego, diseases often felled travelers, too. Morgan’s own brother, on his way to join him in California in 1851, succumbed to yellow fever while aboard the ship and died at sea.
John’s own voyage around the Americas did not make him sick of seafaring. Far from it. Many young men spent only a day in the San Francisco settlement before heading up river to Sacramento and points east and north, where the gold mining was. But not John. He got right back out on the water. He saw this strange new place, with its influx of easterners and Europeans of all stripes and social backgrounds, and saw a different opportunity: He saw a market for oysters. Many men came west for gold only to find other fortunes instead; in city business or in agriculture, such as the “butter barons” on the ranches near Point Reyes. The first thing Morgan did was prospect the San Francisco Bay for oysters, but his hopes for instant riches were quickly dashed. As he would clearly document in interviews and letters, he did not find any native oysters there at all.
Although this goes against popular conceptions of West Coast oystering history, the evidence here is very clear. There were no native oysters in the San Francisco Bay when forty-niners like Morgan first arrived and went looking for them. Seguine had sent him out west with oyster tongs, which they used in the east, but they quickly proved unnecessary. The native California oyster, at least as it would have existed in the nineteenth century, is a myth, and one that John Stillwell Morgan would spend the rest of his long and successful life trying to correct. This effort on his part was mostly on account of the extreme personal hardship that came next, making the myth possible in the first place.
Morgan later said he checked surrounding areas as well, including Tomales Bay, though he makes no mention of Drakes Estero. Still, as ships were frequently running up the coast to deal with trappers in Washington Territory, and to supply goods to the settlers there, he certainly would have been aware of it. Drakes Bay and its connected estuary system were known to any sailor on the coast. He did not find it worth mentioning. In none of these places did John find oysters, and there is nothing to indicate that his search was anything less than extremely thorough. He talks about a kind of little whelk, which he nicknamed the “bastard oyster,” perhaps in his frustration of not finding his initial quarry, but I must make it clear: This was a joke name only, and the animal was not a real oyster. There were mussels and clams, sure, but these didn’t interest him. No other shellfish carries the oyster’s particular prestige.
In a way, it was John’s own fault that the myth of the California oyster gained such phenomenal traction. His decision to nickname the whelk he found a “bastard oyster” would later create a lot of confusion for the history of West Coast oystering, when people encountered passing mentions of the animal in historical records, without knowing the full story. The “bastard oyster” is described as being small and soft-shelled, a predator that moved and would attach itself to a “real” oyster and then suck the meat out, killing it. They were easy to crush in the hand, shell and all, and were inedible, though not for lack of trying on Morgan’s part.
In case this has not been made wholly clear before, oysters are not mobile and certainly not carnivorous. They accept what is given to them and do not predate. They are not like scallops, those cheetahs of the shellfish world, skittering along the ocean floor. If scallops are cheetahs, then oysters are, well, rocks. Their world is entirely internal, their motion constrained solely to the opening and closing of their shells. They have no tongue or foot as a clam does, and spend their lives permanently attached to whatever substrate they happened to land on at their inception, often fused together. If you place a starfish next to a scallop in a tank, the scallop will run away from it. But if you place a starfish next to an oyster, it has no choice but to stay put and weather the onslaught, with naught but the thickness of its shell to protect it. Although M.F.K. Fisher famously wrote that oysters lead “a dreadful but exciting life,” full of “stress, passion, and danger,” she was taking poetic license. Their lives are dramatic only in the sense that fairy tales of sleeping princesses are dramatic, since all of the action happens around them. Once they are raised from their beds, that’s it—the story’s over. And for the oysters, at least, it isn’t usually a happily-ever-after.
All of an oyster’s activity happens in its extreme youth, as shell- less larvae. Once spawned, which happens in open water of the right temperature when floating eggs and sperm encounter one another, sent forth in the millions by their solitary parents, the larvae—called spat— are motile for a few weeks only. Oysters from the genus Ostrea, which includes oysters from Europe and Washington State, are hermaphrodites. They can be either male or female, though not at the same time, and change sex over the course of their lifetime. It is technically possible then for an oyster of this kind to fertilize its own egg, if the change happens quickly enough. Other oysters, from the genus Crassostrea, such as those from the East Coast or Japan, lack this shamanic ability. All oysters lack a brain, but they do have a heart, which is three-chambered and pumps blood the color of seawater through their bodies. The two “valves” referred to are the top and bottom shells which, due to their sedentary lifestyles, in oysters are rarely symmetrical.
Is an oyster aware? Can a thing think without a brain, or feel without a centralized nervous system? Could an animal with no ability to flee from pain still have developed the ability to feel it? Can something that doesn’t mate and has no social life experience feelings? I’ve heard arguments that vegans should not feel guilty eating oysters, and were it not for the presence of the oysters’ hearts, I would be inclined to agree with them. I might even agree with them now. I haven’t completely decided. This was not, however, a common concern in the middle of the nineteenth century. Protein was not always easy to come by, and protein was protein, and oysters were an excellent source of it.
Once Morgan had finally given up on the idea of there being any oysters in the San Francisco Bay, or any oysters to be found in the Bay Area at all, he decided to try his hand at mining. He sailed up the river to Sacramento and spent six months working in the mines, but with little result. He became ill, as was common, and his already thin frame was whittled down even further. He missed the water and hated where he was, so he went back to San Francisco and pooled his money with a few other young men to buy a schooner, to start a shipping business again. The city was growing rapidly. In those early years, most commerce and social life took place right along the water. The docks were crowded with ships, both active and decommissioned. Many old vessels, past their seafaring days, were converted into restaurants, boarding houses and brothels. It was far rowdier than even New York’s shady waterfront, but Morgan kept his wits about him and stayed out of trouble. He was happiest, anyway, when out on his ship, with the virgin California landscape sliding by in the distance on one side and the unbroken horizon on the other. He liked sailing up and down the coast, but engaged in river shipping too. He ferried loads of wheat and other goods to Stockton and back, and after a while he started to make a little money. Seguine’s investment funds were intended to start an oystering business, and although there weren’t any oysters involved yet, that was what John was doing.
Morgan heard from a trader coming down from Washington Territory that the Indians had told him there were oysters in Shoalwater Bay, what’s known as Willapa Bay now. He decided he would go and investigate, putting together a small crew for his schooner the Ann Skeer. But on their very first voyage up, once they reached Shoalwater Bay the cook accidentally burned the ship down. The fire was started in the night, and Morgan and the other crew nearly lost their lives. The next few years were fraught with mishap bordering on farce, and it’s hard to keep track of the names or even the number of vessels that John purchased and sold or lost. In the end it didn’t matter. He had found oysters on the West Coast, even if they were small and located all the way up in Washington. He was determined to bring them to San Francisco and grow them there, the way he’d once brought the Chesapeake oysters to New York—even if it was the last thing he did. Had a less tenacious man been at the helm of such an endeavor, it might never have happened.
The idea was to bring the mollusks to the market. The oysters may have been in Washington, but the market was in San Francisco. On the East Coast, oysters were already being sent as far west as the Ohio River, making their way into the posh hotel restaurants of the burgeoning Midwest. But they couldn’t be shipped to California just yet, and were a delicacy that many settlers sorely missed. The oysters in Shoalwater Bay were small, often around the size of a quarter, and had an intense, coppery flavor. Early prospectors were not mistaken this time—they were indeed oysters, although they were not to everyone’s taste. Frenchmen and Englishmen liked them. There was something in them reminiscent of the Old-World Belon oyster, or of the oysters once harvested from the Thames. They were in fact from the same genus as European oysters and are called Ostrea lurida (Belon oysters are Ostrea edulis). Once Morgan finally managed to get a shipment of them down to the Bay Area, he used this association in his branding. They called the oysters “Olympias,” and hoped the comparison to European varietals would connote sophistication. It worked. With oysters, branding must never be underestimated.
However, the shipments from Washington down to California were treacherous and prone to failure. When Morgan did succeed in those early years, the oysters commanded an enormous profit. A scant bushel was sold for $23—more than $600 in today’s currency, or about $12 per oyster, wholesale. This was compared to the $2 that such a bushel would command in New York, and would later command in San Francisco. Prices were steep, but there were people in rapidly growing San Francisco who were willing to pay them.
For the next handful of years and much of the 1860s, Morgan continued to base his operations up in Shoalwater Bay, taking his oyster crop down to the city when necessary. Orrin, the man who had complained of his expensive house rental in 1852, was in the import/export business and also wrote about the nice young men who tried and tried to get the Olympias to grow in the bay but just couldn’t manage it. They were good, moral, hardworking people in his eyes, and Orrin tried to help them out, even though the business had yet to turn profit- able. The biggest problem in those first years seemed to be predators— whelks, starfish and stingrays, which Morgan called “stingarees.” They stored the Olympia oysters in the San Francisco Bay in increasing numbers, trying out different areas, and built fences around them to keep the stingrays out. They plucked out the other predators like snails from a garden whenever they could. These areas are what would later be referred to as the “native” oyster beds, lining the western shores of the bay’s southern half, and running along the eastern shore past Richmond. Still, the early shipments continued to fail. Morgan tried and tried to get what he called the “native” oysters—the West Coast Olympias—to establish in San Francisco Bay. But they simply wouldn’t spawn there. If they did, it was in no significant numbers, and certainly not enough for a commercial enterprise. He tried them in the North Bay first, near Tiburon and Sausalito, and then further south near San Mateo, and across the water near Oakland. But it didn’t make a difference. He used the bay as wet storage for the Olympias, fattening them there, but that’s it.
“$50,000 would not begin to make their loss good,” Orrin wrote of one failed crop, which equals nearly $1.5 million today. “Poor fellows.”
These were lean years for Morgan, filled with cold, hard work. He was occupied primarily with the transport and marketing, and didn’t concern himself so much with growth or cultivation. Because the product grew naturally up north and wouldn’t flourish further south, it was more of a foraging operation. While in Washington, Morgan became acquainted with two British brothers living up there, John and Thomas Crellin. The settlement where they lived was called Oysterville, overlooking the bay. The brothers had come to America from the Isle of Man with their father and sisters in 1853. Morgan became business partners with them, and then close friends. By the end of the 1850s he was courting their sister, Sophia, and in April of 1860 he married her, on the same day he turned thirty-two. The wedding took place in Oysterville, but they eventually moved the whole Crellin clan down to San Francisco. Morgan wasn’t satisfied with the puny Olympias, and had a much bigger plan in the works.
Although oyster cultivation had begun in New York, it was still largely unpracticed on most of the East Coast. Even if they may have been exaggerating, the oysters that the Dutch settlers first took from the Lenape would indeed grow quite large if left to their natural life cycle, which can be up to twenty years. Some of the largest oysters in the east were found in the Gowanus River, now a fetid canal and a Superfund site in the heart of Brooklyn, designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as “an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located.” (Incidentally, as of this writing, I live next to it.) As the city waters became more fouled with sewage, coal and factory outputs, the oysters around New York needed to be moved around. While the oysters would still spawn in many places, the water was getting too polluted to sustain them to maturity. There were lots of baby oysters that needed a new home, and fast. Many were sent to locations farther out, on Long Island, or up to Rhode Island or Maine. But Morgan and his New York contacts had a bigger idea, and were just waiting for a certain technological advance to put it into action.
What Morgan wanted was to get eastern oysters out to California. He realized that if he could use the bay to fatten the Washington oysters, then he could do the same with the easterners as well. It was, of course, more than just wet storage. Like wine grapes, oysters take on the flavors of the environment in which they are raised. When it comes to oyster flavor, terroir (or “meroir” as it’s been called, from the French mer or “sea”) is everything, and the meroir in California was good.
The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and Morgan’s oyster business took off almost immediately. He didn’t have oysters on the first train ever to go from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, but this was only an error on the part of his suppliers, and he had them on the second. They were shipped in barrels of seawater. Only about 75 to 80 percent survived the journey, a loss that would prove consistent regardless of age or variety. But with the high freight charge, he found that simply selling those first oysters left him with no profit. He requested that his suppliers send him even younger oysters, so that he could fit far more in each barrel for the same price. He put them in the bay, let them grow and fatten for six to eighteen months, and sold them at an enormous markup. The San Franciscans went wild for them. They still wouldn’t spawn in the bay, but that didn’t matter. Morgan and his partners the Crellin brothers had barrels of young oysters on nearly every train that came west. Soon they were buying barrels packed with oysters that were little more than spat. They had been buying up oyster bedding land—the land below the waterline—all around the bay in preparation for this for years. Most of the ground was not actually suitable for oysters, but that didn’t stop John Stillwell Morgan. He hired workers to cart in shells and dirt and construction waste, anything they could use as landfill, to cover up any grooves or muddy places in order to create hard substrate for the beds. They were also destroying the native tideline habitat, but this did not seem to concern them. Before long the partners of the Morgan Oyster Company were among the richest men in the city.
Morgan was not the only one shipping oysters to the San Francisco Bay from the east, or from up in Washington. Others tried both the eastern and the Washington oysters as well. For a time in the 1870s, there was a man who brought the Olympias down the coast, bedded them down in the bay as Morgan had done, and then tried to pass them off as “California oysters.” It was an early instance of trying to cash in on the idea of something being locally grown and region- specific. This aggravated Morgan, who knew that there was no such thing as a California oyster, only those that had been transplanted. His own money, sweat, blood and tears had gone into bringing the industry to San Francisco, and it irked him that another man tried to make it seem as if the oysters simply grew there naturally. He made a point of correcting this again and again, but the story was stubborn.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Morgan kept experimenting. He wanted to find the oysters that did the best in the bay, that were the biggest seller, the best tasting, and that turned the biggest profit. By shipping them out as tiny oysterlings, instead of fitting six hundred to a barrel, he could fit more than ten thousand. Strangely, none of his competitors figured out how to do this, and anyone trying to make their own oyster empire soon found themselves in trouble. Then, more often then not, they were bought out by Morgan until the Morgan Oyster Company held a true oyster monopoly. The shipping secret was one that he kept close, and even his eventual interviewer for the Bancroft historical collection conducted in 1888 made sure not to publish it.
There is evidence to suggest that the winning oyster, the one that Morgan would rely on for years, actually came not from New York but from the Passaic River in New Jersey. The supply was especially cheap because the Passaic was already too polluted for the oysters to reach maturity. By the turn of the century, not even spat could be grown there.
As Jack London would attest, the waves of the west would remain wild for much of the rest of the nineteenth century. As more and more fishermen cast their nets, the fish stocks continued to dwindle. Most of the species that the fishing outlaws risked their lives to catch were not even native in the first place. Alaska cod were brought down in 1863 to try and bolster the waning numbers. Softshell clams were introduced in 1870, shad in 1871, carp in 1872, and catfish in 1874. In 1876, a greater influx of Italian immigrants brought the use of paranzella nets to the bay, which decimated the fish population. Even the introduced fish species needed governmental protection. The bay had been teeming with shrimp, until waves of Chinese fishermen came and laid waste to them. They caught more shrimp than could ever be consumed by the local population, and their catch went principally for export back to China or to the Hawaiian islands.
Many of the fishing groups on the water functioned almost as gangs, divided by country of origin in their methods and loyalties, even when they weren’t breaking the law. The biggest fishing mafia bosses lived on houseboats in the bay, never staying in the same place for too long, and hiding in back rivers among the tule marshes when they needed to disappear for a while.
Morgan’s curiosity and need for improvement seemed greater than his interest in merely accumulating wealth. He joked that his partners were far richer than he was, content as they were to simply keep doing what worked and cash the checks. But Morgan kept trying the oysters in different places to see where they would do best. He tried all up the coast and into Oregon. He tried them in Tomales Bay but was unsatisfied—though it should be mentioned that Tomales Bay has changed a lot since then. This is because the bay has filled in considerably. Oysters now do very well, although they didn’t do well there in Morgan’s time.
By the late 1880s, everything was thriving for Morgan. He saw no reason to think that oystering in the San Francisco Bay would not continue for another hundred years. His second oldest son was following him in the business, and Morgan said that no man besides himself knew more about it.
But there was a new technology that he was excited about too: the steamboats that were coming into use as ferries. He hoped to use these for oystering as well. Little did he know that they would help spell the doom of his empire. The ferries poured coal into the bay and belched out great clouds of black soot, which only compounded the damage being done by the increasing release of city sewage. The fish, already growing scarce, began to decline even further, despite the fishing laws and the presence of young Jack London and the Fish Patrol. Before too long the oysters that Morgan and his compatriots had planted in the bay stopped growing. Then they began to die, both eastern and Olympia.
Thankfully for him, Morgan’s company did not go out of business until after he was gone. He never saw the decline, but died at the height of the empire he had built, not understanding the damage to the bay that his enterprise had caused, or that anything would ever be any different.