It must have been about 1938 when my father bought the big barge. He went out to Hoboken, New Jersey and visited the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company and purchased a 260' railroad barge [with a beam of approximately 45'] for about $1,500. He was pursuing his theory that family fishing could be great fun.... under the right circumstances.
First, while in Hoboken, he and his carpenter constructed housing along ½ of the elevated area that once held railroad cars. You had to take about 3 steps to get up to the enclosed area, which included public restrooms, a bait and tackle area and a long lunch counter. The interior was light and airy as there were windows throughout. The other half of the former elevated railroad platform was transformed into an open air area with tables and chairs. Since the eastern coast of Manhattan loomed right in front of the big barge, my father also installed a few large '10 cents a view', telescopic adjustable lenses. All of western City Island was visible, Rodman's Neck, the East River, Stepping Stones Lighthouse and parts of Long Island were all in range of the telescope and viewable. On a clear day the Empire State Building was visible without the use of the telescope. In the late thirties, those lenses, about 5' in height, were very popular and seen frequently in waterfront businesses.
My father purchased a 6,000 lb. anchor from Cowan's in Brooklyn, which Cowan's delivered via tug boat and dropped into Eastchester Bay. Since it was to be moored off the west coast of City Island, in Eastchester Bay, and near Big Tom's rock, my father named the barge Big Tom's and called his business Fred's Fishing Paradise. Once the barge was secured, it swung freely with the currents. Choppy waters slapped up against the hull, and the barge barely budged. Rarely, large ground swells from ocean liners had a small impact on that sturdy ole barge. Customers often said "it's just like being on a floating city block!"
Our family was living on City Island, when in the Spring of 1938 dad said........ "We're ready for business and the family is going to live on Big Tom's." "Mom will run the luncheonette and you kids will be in charge of bait and tackle." Thus began a new adventure in our lives.
We had lived on the water before. I was born on a houseboat, anchored off Jakobs Shipyard [now Consolidated] on City Island before dad built a home on the island. So, this change was not hard for us to accept. It just meant that Donald and I had to travel by boat to get to school..... and that somehow we had to be ferried home. The trip from the boat to the island was at least a mile. Launch service was provided by a lap-strake or clinker built 32' boat named the "Doris R."docked at Vidal's on City Island. So for a 50 cent fee, an adult could have a boat ride to Fred's Fishing Paradise, spend the day fishing on one of the world's sturdiest barges, avail himself of luncheonette services and rent/buy any fishing equipment needed. Donald and I counted out boxes of sandworms or bloodworms, by the dozen, and sold them to our customers. Also, we sold muslin fishing bags, flounder hooks, spreaders, sinkers or fishing line. Occasionally, we rented out rods with wooden "knuckle buster reels." At the days end, our customers were ferried back to the Island, where they either took a bus home or drove their car [parked in Vidal's large parking lot]. It was a good deal for 50 cents.
Dad was his own press agent. He hired fellow City Islander, world famous nautical photographer Morris Rosenfeld to come out in his boat the "Foto" and take a beautiful black and white picture of the big barge.........Then dad had 11 x 17 posters made up and placed them in all the local Bronx bars. The posters showed a picture of the barge in the upper left hand corner of the poster, and it had a 12 month spread, showing what fish could be caught for each month .... hopefully! Small postcards with a picture of the big barge were also available. He let 'word of mouth' advertising spread the word about the fishing station. It worked like a charm.
There were days that we were very busy. Especially that summer when the mackerel hit. Dad had us chumming for weeks before we saw a mackerel. He had a theory that the fish would follow the chum. The chum was a foul smelling mixture of linseed oil and moss bunker chunks. Donald and I would grab the chum bucket and walk around the barge, dropping dollops of chum about every 25 feet or so. We did this every day. It was a job we hated because of the pungent smell of that stuff.. Everyone dad knew told him that he was wasting his time chumming for mackerel primarily because mackerel hadn't been seen in City Island waters for 7 years. We chummed anyway. One day, dad said, "kids, lets go up on the roof... mom grab the binoculars." Sure enough, in the distance we could see the tell tale sign of cats paws swirling about. We grabbed bamboo poles, cast lines overboard, jigged on the surface til we brought up some most welcome mackerel. Dads theory about chumming had paid off! He advertised in the Bronx Press Review when the mackerel were running. When word spread about the good fishing on the barge, business exploded! Some mornings, Donald and I got up early, caught buckets of mackerel and sold them 6 for a quarter! We sold snappers, butterfish and flounders as well.
Sometimes, the 'Doris' was so burdened with people coming out to fish, that the boat lay deep in the water and looked like it might sink or split in half. People would be everywhere in that little boat........ in the bow, stuffed in the cabin and overflowing crowds in the stern. Safety was a concern to dad and he installed a metal brace amidship that went from port to starboard, trying to reinforce the strength of the hull. Weekend traffic was the worst around 11 a.m. It seems that everyone showed up around that time and they were unreasonable about waiting for the boat to make a trip and come back for them on the next trip. Occasionally, there were so many people waiting on Vidal's float, that the float actually looked like it was in danger of sinking! Then, people always seemed to want to leave at 5 o'clock. If there were 100 people on the barge, there was a transport problem. Dad eventually developed another plan. He purchased a 50' fishing boat "The Osprey" and used it as an auxiliary launch. Eventually, he used the "Osprey" [renamed the Sea Queen] to take people fishing up Long Island Sound.
There were so many people that wanted to night fish on the barge that dad bought a generator and strung lights all around Big Tom. When he threw the light switch, that barge lit up like a Christmas tree! It seemed that some fishermen would have stayed all night if dad would have let them. But night fishing ended at midnight.... people would pile into the "Doris" and return home.
Families loved that ole barge and they came out in droves. Usually they came with their own sandwiches and picnicked for the day. For the most part, they didn't seem to care if they caught fish or not. It was such a safe place. Many brought their own chairs and sunbathed. Some just loved to lay on the string piece and enjoy the sun. If you forgot your lunch, mom would sell you a ham and cheese sandwich on rye for fifteen cents. She made you a cup of coffee for a nickle, served with cream or milk. Dad teased her that she was losing money on her luncheonette! Typically, mom said she just wanted people to enjoy whatever she made for them.
But 'serious' fishermen were different. They arrived with their own special rods and reels. Usually, they had tapered wooden rods, separated into three sections, with fine guides through which their lines flowed. The poles were varnished or shellacked and usually they had a Penn reel with a star drag. These fishermen were very protective [and proud] of their fishing equipment and took excellent care of their poles. At days end, they wiped down the rods and carefully replaced them in their cloth case, tying them up with the attached case strings, before returning home. Many of them wore aprons or protective pants, [yellow rubber slickers] over their clothes. They came prepared to fish and enjoy their day.
Customers started arriving in the early Spring...... so dad erected 'windbreakers' to protect them from the cold air. Despite the weather, people still came. I believe they would have come out all winter if dad would have let them. For sure, dad never expected his business to be so successful.
We had some memorable customers. One time, I was walking around the barge, greeting people, when I stopped before an older woman who was knitting. In admiration, I watched her work her knitting needles. "Would you like to learn how to knit?" "I sure would" I said to her, "but I have no needles or wool." "I have extra needles, do you have some fishing line?"So I learned to cast on stitches, knit/ purl and cast off stitches [to end knitting]..... from this generous elderly lady. She took great pride, as did I, in my progress. Whenever she came fishing with her family, she wanted to check on my progress. I was 9 years old. This skill stood me in good stead during the Second World War when my entire class of boys and girls, knitted squares and made "Blankets for Belgium." I was the only pupil in my class who could cast stitches on or off. Lucky break for Belgium!!
One sunny Sunday, the Doris brought out a boat full of people plus a young man in his teens. He became memorable to me for many reasons. First of all, he was walking towards me clinging to my brother......... who was not a touchy-feely kind of person. I remember thinking what is wrong with this picture? Donald was carrying his fishing pole for him and looking so uncomfortable. Dad told me that the young man was blind. We situated him on the wide string piece, where he sat and fished by himself. I was so intrigued by this teenager, that I sat down beside him. "Hi, my name is Fay." "How old are you and have you always been blind?" He sat dangling his legs over the side of the barge, smiled and said "No." "I could see until I was four years old, when I was struck in the eyes with a baseball bat.""I'm sixteen." "Can you remember colors?" I persisted?" "Yes." "So if I tell you something is red or white, you know what I'm talking about?" "Thankfully." "And what about sailboats, remember them?" "Yes I do", he patiently replied. "Well if you can hear a swooshing noise, a white sailboat is passing by us and it is rigged with a white and red sail." "Can your hear it?"........ "Yes, it sounds really big, how big is it?" "About 40 feet." Later on I asked him if he had a girl friend. "I sure do."....... "Is she pretty?" I shamelessly persisted. "Of course." .. "How do you know that?" He laughed. At this point, he felt a nibble on his fishing pole........ and jerked it so hard that the sinker and hook came flying out of the water. "Hey, don't do that, I scolded!"....... I got in back of him and slipped my arms under his and put my hands over his reel. "Just gently jig the line up and down like this, and if you get a bite, wait a second then jerk it a little harder, like this." "Otherwise, you'll yank the hook right out of the fish's mouth." "This is a terrible fishing pole you have, its thick , like a broom stick." "Where did you get it?" He laughed and thanked me for that little fishing lesson. Later on he told me that he lived at the School for the Blind, a building off Pelham Parkway, in the Bronx. Years later, I passed that building every day as I walked to Christopher Columbus high school. I never forgot that young man and hoped he forgave a very young inquisitive kid, who asked him far too many questions when he was sixteen and I was nine.
On December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan after they bombed Pearl Harbor. Three days later, Hitler declared war on the United States. Suddenly we were a nation at war on two fronts. It was a traumatizing happening for young grammar school children and it changed our lives. In early 1943, the United States Navy paid dad a visit and told him, "Captain Schmahl, we need the barge for the war effort and we're going to confiscate it." It was a sad day when the big barge was towed away and left our lives forever.