by Shari Faye Dell
California oyster farming bloomed with the growing populations of people coming west in search of gold and opportunity. As early as 1851, entrepreneurs in San Francisco including Captain John Stillwell Morgan established businesses marketing native shellfish. Connoisseurs of the bivalve reported West Coast varieties as small and coppery in taste, not as desirable as varieties available in the east. Within a few years, Bay Area marketers began supplementing local stock with transplanted oysters from Willapa Bay, Washington. Commercial beds were established as long term storage facilities near Sausalito and parts of northern San Francisco Bay, production lasted only a few years before water cannon mining in the Sierra’s sent tons of silt down the San Joaquin and the Sacramento Rivers burying North Bay oyster operations in 1862. The sheltered underwater acreage off San Mateo County became the new hotspot for a growing shellfish industry; real estate values began a steady climb.
Oyster production in the Bay evolved following completion of the transcontinental railway in 1869. Oystermen imported East Coast seed for cultivation, built canneries, and shipped the mature, packaged product back across the country. According to a bulletin published by the United States Fish Commission, in 1880 the United States was the largest producer of shellfish worldwide: the Bay Area ranking sixth largest harvester in the country. Canned oysters became an essential and affordable source of nourishment nationwide.
The California Oyster industry prospered. By 1870 six well established companies vying for market advantage engaged in a series of buyouts and mergers. By 1886, shrewd business choices granted Morgan Oyster Company the monopolistic advantage. But, Bay Area population continued to grow and California’s most valuable marine industry was threatened by pollution and the presence of salmonella and coliform bacteria (from raw sewage) in estuarine waters. A Typhoid Fever epidemic in 1899, believed to have spread through the consumption of shellfish grown in contaminated waters, seriously handicapped the industry. Oxygen levels in the water continued to drop reports declare that by 1908 “seedlings could not attach themselves to a solid surface.” Within a few years mature oysters suffocated as well.
Shellfisheries: a second childhood on Tomales Bay.
According to a National Park Service working draft of “”Tomales Bay Environmental History,”” the first Tomales Bay oyster beds were sown near Millerton Point in 1875 by Terry and Weinard.
The search for clean water brought Eli Gordon, operating as the Pacific Coast Oyster Company (PCOC), to underwater acerage at Bivalve in 1907 followed by the Morgan Oyster Company in 1909, planting near Millerton Point. In 1910 Gilbert Oyster Company established beds, also near Millerton Point. In 1913 a group of SF businessmen purchased Morgan’s Tomales Bay holdings, officially renaming the fishery Tomales Bay Oyster Company.
Both companies changed hands a number of times before Pacific Coast Oyster Company purchased Tomales Bay Oyster Company. The combined operations were regrouped. TBOC continued to farm both East Shore properties and PCOC focused on marketing, wholesale and retail, in San Francisco.
Conveniently, the North Pacific Coast Railroad, incorporated in 1871 to freight lumber from the Russian River and dairy products from West Sonoma to San Francisco provided worthy transport.
Mass oyster die off in San Francisco bay, in the 1880’s, during the height of production, prompted the United States Fish Commission (USFC) to research oyster cultivation. A paper published by Charles Townsend, a USFC researcher assigned to studies at Morgan Oyster Company’s San Mateo beds, suggests a number of mariculture improvements including the introduction of Pacific or Japanese oysters into Bay Area ecology. The suggestion, although originally overlooked, prompted the California Department of Fish and Game in 1928 partner with TBOC to introduce the Pacific Oyster, a variety from Japan, to Tomales Bay. A few years of experimentation produced an exceptional harvest in 1935; the Pacific oyster grew in popularity and became the West Coast standard.
Oscar Johannson, hired by Tomales Bay Oster’s parent company in 1926, managed growing operations at the Tomales beds, eventually, he gained ownership of the farming side of the company. He continued to cultivate the tidelands with his son until 1988. He sold the company and retired a few weeks before marrying on his eightieth Birthday. To date, Tomales Bay Oyster Company is the longes continually operating oyster farm in the State of California (Insert photo from saving Marin).
In 1915 Morgan built a small post at Hamlet (on the mouth of Walker Creek, south side, between Nick’s Cove and Ocean Roar) before falling to financial ruins in 1921. The Consolidated Oyster Company took over Morgan interests and in 1926 took up residence at the Hamlet post transplanting mature oysters imported from New York and New Jersey into recuperation beds before moving them to markets a month later.
Henry J. Jensen arrived on the Tomales Bay oyster scene sometime during the 1930’s, he continued to work the Walker Creek mud flats near Hamlet until selling to his son, Henry F. Jensen in 1955. By that time Tomales Bay had grown to become the largest oyster-producing region in the State of California. Young Jensen and his wife Virginia expanded the parking lot to accommodate their newly opened bar and restaurant. Virginia recalls:
“Back in the 50’s and probably the early part of the ‘60s we used to wholesale oysters out, delivering them to Nick’s Cove, Tony’s Seafood, Tides Wharf . . . we did quite well, I really can’t complain. Oysters at that time were, what, six dollars a hundred or something or other like that. Weekends use to be quite hectic, but back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and even into the ‘70s I wasn’t serving that much food . . . so I was in the oyster business from the time I got up until the time I went to bed opening oysters. In those days everybody wanted their oyster opened, nobody, you couldn’t con a person into buying an oyster in the shell to kill yourself with . . . every one was opened.”
Coast Oyster Company employee, Charlie Johnson purchased the oyster farm on Drake’s estero in 1957 assuming the name Johnson’s Oyster company. Rumored at one time to be responsible for half of all oyster production in the state, the second generation of Johnson oystermen sold the company to Point Reyes peninsula rancher Kevin Lunny. The company is now known as Drake’s Bay Oyster Company.
Three biologists founded Hog Island Oyster Company, just south of Audubon’s Cypress Grove Preserve, in 1983.