Port Norris: The Port the Oyster Built
By 1880, oysters were the leading fishery product in the United States, with 2.4 million bushels harvested. A 1927 typhoid outbreak erroneously attributed to oysters being sold in the shell (the real cause was later determined to be milk from Chicago) gave rise to the practice of shucking oysters. The labor needed to fulfill this role attracted many southern African-Americans to the area.
In 1957, however, the oyster industry collapsed due to a protozoan parasite that decimated the oyster beds. It took nearly 40 years to rebuild. By 1997, oystering began to make a comeback, with more than 102,400 bushels harvested.
The development of the Port Norris area in Cumberland County followed a familiar pattern, with Lenni Lenape Indians first utilizing the oysters from the Delaware Bay, then European settlers expanding their own personal use into commercial operations. The Lenape used the oysters for food and the shells for decoration. Large pile of shells, known as “middens” could be found centuries later as evidence of oyster use.
In the late-1600s and early-1700s, European settlers began settlements based on the oyster trade. As towns and markets grew, the original subsistence use of oysters turned into large, more widespread trade. As early as 1719, New Jersey found it necessary to pass laws aimed at preventing over fishing of oyster beds, although those measures had little effect
In 1876, the oyster trade grew even larger as the railroad came to the Maurice River, allowing shipping of oysters to even further markets. That growth in the trade led to the emergence of towns like Port Norris, Bivalve and Shellpile, names indicative of the trade that spawned them. In addition to fishing, nearby towns like Leesburg and Greenwich became known as ship-building centers. The A.J. Meerwald, now known as “New Jersey’s tall ship,” was among the ships produced there.
The seafood trade in and around Port Norris created a new prosperity to South Jersey. At the peak of the oyster industry in the late-1800s, Port Norris boasted more millionaires per square mile than any other New Jersey town.