Digging for Clams and even the New England seafood industry really came about due to something very landlubberly – roads. Clam digging was not an ‘industry’ until the late 19th century. Clams and I mean, real clams with the little necks sticking out, were extremely hard to transport long distance.
As the roads improved, the ability to transport the steamer clams to restaurants and even into the larger cities became a profitable affair. It was this fact that caused the clam shacks to pop up at Joppa Flats. Good money could be had providing a quick product to the hungry mouths in Boston and the Suburbs.
But what really supercharged the industry to take off was the advent of the leisurely automobile traveller of the twentieth century. Maine has its lobsters but we have the little neck clams – whether fried or steamed, that can truly not be found anywhere else in America except New England.
And our very own ‘shacks’ similar to today’s Bob Lobster or Brown’s in Seabrook among many other roadside stands like Ipswich’s famous clam shack, offered fresh seafood to these ‘day-trippers’.
In addition to becoming a tourist draw, visitors also enjoyed the novelty of digging for clams themselves. By the 1920’s and the 1930’s, the clam was a beloved New England specialty. Served fried, in chowder, or thanks to advances in refrigeration, raw on the half shell, clams began showing up on menus as far away as New York City. By the 1950’s, Howard Johnson popularized a means by which clams could be enjoyed nationwide by serving clam strips (without the bellies) With franchises in 32 states, they led the way into popularizing the seafood.
It wasn’t long to meet that demand that our famous clam shacks began to sprout up. Amongst the aggressive clam digging, there was the process of chucking and then getting the product to market. And the harvesting was bountiful! In addition to the main river, the salt flats of the vast Great Marsh guaranteed an endless supply. In fact, the term Ipswich Clams referred to the close proximity of the salt marshes that stretched from the Ipswich River by Cape Ann to Newburyport.
Unfortunately, the pollution levels of the Merrimack became so grievous that the clam industry collapsed – it wasn’t long before the shacks which were never meant to be permanent structures came down due to neglect or by willful demolition.
Our last clam shack has been turned into a home and is increasingly more like a beach house rather than its original purpose. Hopefully, the adaptive reuse of the structure will not progress to the point it no longer looks at all like its original structure.
As illness from contaminated clams and the periodic advent of red tide became issues; it became a priority to reduce the impurities in the bipods. The Purification plant at the tip of Plum Island has served this important function for decades. Due to the heightened interest in safe clams, Joppa Flats is barred from being a clam digging site. The outflow from some 11 plants up along the Merrimack dumps directly onto this area as the river flows to the sea.
What I was delighted to find out that at least on the Salisbury side, Newburyport clams are still being dug up! In a recent open house, the plant gave tours and there, stacked nicely were clams from the mouth of the Merrimack – cleaned, filtered and ready for market.
Don’t hold your breath that clam digging will be happening soon at Joppa Flats. Due to the economy, many of the water purification plants up river are bulking at the more stringent requirements of the Clean Water Act and are even taking the Feds to court to delay implementation! (Haverhill is one of them!)
So I am pleased to report that clamming is NOT one of the industries that no longer exists in the city and the chances are high that if you order them off one of our local restaurant menus, you are actually enjoying our local clams!