HISTORY MYSTERY: Rites of Spring
Several years ago while on a visit to Lock 23 on the Oneida River in Caughdenoy, I met this group of men with fishing gear setting up their Bar-B-Que on a picnic table. Of course I asked them what they were doing so early in spring (March). They said they were the Rites of Spring gang and were celebrating by cooking and eating their catch of fish. In the photo, Rick Frass is holding one of his fish and in the lower photo the others are ready to bite into theirs. They are from left to right Mike Masucci, John Bartley, Rob Goffredo, Jim Batruch and Rick Frass. They had set up camp for the day.
They explained the Rites of Spring means the first day that you can go fishing; the water has opened and the fish are looking for good fishermen’s food. By the second week in March, fishermen line the 67 miles of waterways of Clay. To the east is the Seneca River and to the west is the Oneida River, plus all the canal cuts.
Fishing has a long history in Clay. The first, of course, were the Onondagas, one of the six tribes of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). They met at Three Rivers Point coming in their canoes from the Finger Lakes, and Mohawk, Oswego, and Seneca Rivers; naturally fishing along the way. One favorite place was the carry at Oak Orchard just east of Three Rivers Point. Another was on what is now called Horseshoe Island, just west of Caughdenoy. Buried arrowhead s are still being found there.
After hunting and fishing, they would dry and smoke their catches leaving the bones and refuse to be washed down the river in spring rains. Add to this the eels they caught in the Caughdenoy area with their stone and wood traps. This was in spring when the eels migrated from the Saragassa Sea near Africa to spawn. As we know, when the pioneers arrived, they took up these arts of fishing through instruction from the natives.
To them it wasn’t so much a sport but a way to help feed their families. Even in the winter, they were able to cut holes in the frozen lakes and rivers to do their ice fishing. They also built ice houses to store their food by using the sawdust from the saw mills to save the ice through the warm weather of summer.
In 1842, as part of the Erie Canal Project, an extension of the Oneida River was incorporated into the waterway. Dams and locks were built at Caughdenoy and Oak Orchard. Of course this disturbed the fishing to some extent. But mainly the dams prohibited the eels from getting yearly to their spawning grounds. Some did manage to get through for many years. However, now only seldom one is caught.
From the 1800’s on tourists would ride the trolley or stagecoach to the Euclid Hotel in Clay. From there they would be taken to the rivers and lakes to fish or to hunting camps. Later trains began to carry passengers north, and they would attend the performances at Barnum’s resort and just enjoy the scenic river country.
All along the Seneca and Oneida Rivers and Barge Canal in Clay, small fishing and hunting camp remains might be found. Most are gone as they were the forerunners of some beautiful riverfront homes. Everyone has a boat – fishing is still king.
Fishing and the rivers have helped bring prosperity to Clay through the years, feed families, become an industry, and encourage modern tourism. Although I promised the Rites of Spring gang I would not tell where the good fishing spots were, all you have to do is look along the rivers and canals, at the boats, on the shores and even from the bridges to see the fishermen.
Dorothy Heller, Historian