Learn what life was like for the families of the men who made there living down at Fishermens Wharf over 100 years ago.
The San Francisco Call – 1899
Interesting Lives of Men Who Brave the Dangers of the Sea to Provide Us With Ocean Delicacies – Their Odd Superstitions, Queer Customs and Daily Work.
THE citizens out for an early ramble I will, if he direct his steps to Fishermens Wharf, perceive what reminds him of a pat of dry hop poles blown by the wind. As he approaches and peers down over the railing surrounding the fishermens wharf he will learn that these are merely the masts of fishing boats which have furled their sails and lie at anchor.
Most of these boats coming in are loaded, perhaps with sardines, and lie deep in the water through the weight of their shimmering load. A good sized boat will hold 3000 pounds of fish, but few have that amount, possibly the largest catch will be but 1500 pounds of sardines.
In this boat men dip them up with wooden scoops, or tin basins, into baskets, by which they are drawn up to the wharf and there emptied into boxes. Over there they stand, almost to the knee in the sliding, silvery mass, kicking them into the baskets, stopping to pick out the herrings or smelts that chance to be among the smaller fish. Over here the boats have been cleared of fish, have been washed and the oil skin coats put away, together with other evidences of their last right’s work, and the men are either preparing or eating their breakfast before going out for another catch.
They have no makeshift meals as a woman might after a long fast, but cold and hungry as they are, the soup or stew must be well cooked before it is eaten. Flat loaves of Italian bread lie about the boats wherever they are handiest. They rest on the deck and lie among the corks on the piled up nets. Bottles of wine are propped up against the gun wales and baskets of onions show the fishermen’s partiality for this vegetable.
If home life can be said to exist on fisher boats, one witnesses a species of it here. A man lounges at full length upon the deck of his boat, making entries in a notebook; another smokes a short pipe and fondles the head of a little fox terrier which a friend lowers to him.
In another boat they are washing their nets, one man standing in the bow, an other in the stern, and they dip them up and down, swish, swish, until every scale and bit of seaweed is removed. Up above them the wharf teems with life, and the sound of many voices and tongues fill the air, for the venders are down and wagons from canneries and fish markets are driven among the nondescript crowd.
Little Pietro Torri stands by the rail mending his father’s net as it is drying. In and out among the brown meshes goes the long shuttle, full of seine cord, and the breaks are made whole again. These fishers’ boys are not bold like those of our own race, and the slender hand trembles a little when Pietro hears himself addressed.
“Yes, I like mending nets,” he replies, keeping his great brown eyes on his work. “Yes, once in a while my father lets me go out with him, when I’ve done more mending than usual or on my saint’s day. Yes, I shall be s fisherman; too, when I’m larger – perhaps when I got so big that my brother Paoll’s rubber coat will lit me.”
Four small boys, not of the Latin race, hid behind some fish boxes which have been filled and are waiting to be carried to the cannery. The boys have two large sacks, much taller than the youngest if they were stood upright, and into these they drop the fish which they pull from the boxes.
A great dane dog has followed his master to the wharf and is jumping about play fully. He darts around the corner where the young pilferers are hidden, and the larger of the quartet, being just at the edge, goes into the bay with a splash, his hands full of tell-tale fish. The mild excitement pervading the crowd changes to wild alarm. One fisherman tips over his bottle of wine, and the red stream stains his newly painted boat. Another Just coming down to the ladder to his craft drops his bunch of carrots and the tide sweeps them away.
The man drawing up a basket of herring near the spot quickly tosses the fish into the water and swings the basket to the boy as he comes up, while the man with the earrings, who assures us that “the boy drowna,” boldly plunges in and brings out the thoroughly frightened youngster.
Mary Torentlni, who arrives just in time to take in the situation and witness the rescue, declares quit heartlessly that it serves him right for stealing fish. Then, the excitement having subsided, she gives her father his breakfast, which she brings to him every morning. Being a special occasion, he has raviolis, also a pail of strong coffee. Having dutifully discharged her errand, she takes the visitors under her wing, so to speak, and imparts more information regarding fishermen in general, and the fishermen within immediate range of vision, than they ever expected to know.
A white-faced man wheels a perambulator containing a sickly child along the wharf and looks wistfully at the boats coming in. “Who Is he?” Mary repeats to a question, “that’s Manuel Ganco, and that’s his little baby in the buggy, It’s mother’s dead. Do you know what made her die? “She died because Manuel took his boat out on Friday: It’s bad luck, my father says so, and everyone knows it anyhow. that’s why Manuel’s been so sick and why his wife died. The Portuguese are not so careful as my father and his friends are. When Manuel gets well enough to go out for fish again perhaps he’ll be more careful.”
Mary says something to her father to her father in his native tongue after which she cries eagerly: “Won’t you have some fish? My father will give you some if you do.”
They are generous, these poor fisherman who may work half the night and then, if fish are plentiful, not be able to sell their load for even a dollar.
It is Thursday morning that the large boats come in from the Farallones and Cordell Banks with their load of deep sea fish. The dealers, who usually buy their day’s supply at 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning, then come down and bargain for the amount needed on Friday.
The slips at the wharf are all filled with the boats, which require from four to six men to man them, and the crowd upon the wharf is greater than in the morning. The boats have been out two, three, perhaps four days, and the fishers are anxious to dispose of their catch and seek their homes.
A Neapolitan, less averse than the others to talking with strangers, complains bitterly of the fishing steamer. “I make plenty money before fishing steamer come. I keep wife and children -I got plenty children— too mucha. Steamer take everything— striped bassa, rockcod and it taka da herrln’— mucha fish. Sell it a-cheap and make it had vera bad! Plenty fishermen, plenty little children, go hungry disa winter— too bad.”