Traveling down Great Bay Boulevard near Mystic Island is an interesting experience. It is a narrow two lane road which connects several barrier islands and has 6 bridges, two of which are one lane only. As a result the final bridges have 2 minute traffic lights to allow cars to safely pass each other. Originally it was meant to connect to Atlantic City 8 miles away, but the company in charge went bankrupt and the final bridge was never built. Even though there are only six bridges, it is known as Seven Bridges Rd.
The road is desolate and has no buildings or businesses aside from a half dozen marinas. It has little traffic and is completely isolated. There is little reason to travel this road unless you’re going fishing or just want a nice view of Little Egg Harbor. If you travel to the end of the road, Rutgers University has a research facility just before the road terminates in a sand dune. A nearby island allegedly held a Coast Guard station during WWII which was abandoned after the war, and all remnants removed.
Visible just beyond the dunes, a mile into the harbor, there is an island with a gigantic building which has lost most of its roof, leaving only a twisted metal exoskeleton. A large water tower can be seen as well. If you look quickly, you might think you’re witnessing an optical illusion. Is what you’re seeing really on an island, or is to on the opposite side of the bay? After all, what is a giant building doing there in the middle of the bay, isolated from everything?
The area around Tuckerton and Mystic Island is a prime fishing ground, but no one wanted to catch the menhaden/mossbunker fish. An adult menhaden female can produce as many as 700,000 eggs, so the waters around the harbor are full of this inedible fish. It is very bony, very oily and tasted terrible. The attributes that make it inedible make it a very good fertilizer. The Indians knew they were good for crops, and the word menhaden actually means fertilizer in the Indian language.
The Fish Factory, or the “stinkhouse” as it’s called by locals, is a factory that sits on Fish Island. Formerly known as Clam Island, this 100 acre island sits in the middle of Little Egg Harbor Bay and is now part of the Great Bay Wildlife Refuge. The factory was built around 1840 and was used to process menhaden, also known as mossbunker, a fish that was plentiful to the area. The menhaden is nearly inedible due to its horrible taste, as well as the high oil and bone content. The oil was valuable for things like perfumes, heating and lighting, soap, as well as fertilizer and pure protein, and was sold to companies like Zapata heating Corp & Standard Products.
The factory was established sometimes around 1850, perhaps earlier, said a spokesman from the Tuckerton Historical Society. Fish processing plants in the area primarily turned the fish directly into fertilizer which was sold to local farmers. Eventually the high protein content made the fish a good base for animal and poultry feed. Many pet foods that come in pellet form came from fish flour, taken from the dried remains of fish.
According to legend a 19th century housewife discovered that if you boiled the menhaden you could skim oil off the boiling water and it was a good substitute for whale oil. The oil proved to have many commercial applications including use in makeup, rust resistant varnish, as well as ink & linoleum. Early workers at the fish factory in the 1800’s would spend much of their time on the island, as getting off required a private boat or ferry. Eliza Jackson was born on the island in 1896 and spent her early years primarily on the island, until she was perhaps in her teens.
The operation ran from last spring to late fall and covered areas from the Gulf of Mexico up along the North Atlantic coastline. The fleet included an average crew of 20 using 6 fishing boats, an airplane as well as three large barges as well as many smaller support boats and trucks. The process began when spotter airplanes which would fly overhead and report positions of schools of fish. Three 85-100 foot boats with a purse net, 200 fathoms wide and 25 fathoms deep, would get into position. A sailor in a rowboat would align himself so that the school of fish was between himself and the net boats. The nets would floaters on top of the water and weights on the bottom to keep it hanging low. The boats would then come around both side of the fish, and one end be drawn up to the boat, encircling the fish in the net.
Catches varied greatly from year to year, with a high of 200 million fish but on average the factory processed 125 million fish pr year. The catch grew lower and lower and by the 1960’s was only handling 25 million fish. Once brought back to the factory, the fish were dumped from the holding tank onto container scale where they were sorted by weight into units of 1000 fish. The fish would be boiled in containers with live steam which released the oil from the bodies. Presses would extract water and oil, and remains would be dried in kilns to be converted into fish flour. This flour would the basis for fertilizer and animal feed.
The fish factory was shut down around WWI according to several people who worked and lived in the area. To continue operations and to continue to provide fertilizer to the local farms, garbage was brought in by boat from Atlantic City where it was composted. The factory was owned by the Fish products Company, and was one of a dozen factories producing similar products. The factories location was both a blessing and a curse. It’s proximity to the ocean meant the fishing boats could unload their catch with ease, but getting the final product to the rail lines was obviously more difficult, with the nearest railine being 20 miles away in Barnegat.
In January 1974 the factory was purchased by Seacoast Products of Port Monmouth. The company had similar factories in Delaware, Louisiana and Port Monmouth. Within a few years though, the factory was shut down because of economic reasons and in 1979 the state began looking to acquire the property thru the Green Acres Program. Once acquired there was no attempt to demolish the buildings, although it appears they did remove the ladder that led to the top of the water tower. The dock made a convenient place to moor pleasure boats, and over the next decade many families would stop at the dock so they could have a picnic lunch on the island. It was an unusual place to bring a family, but eventually the place would become unsuitable to friendly family exploring. As the building shed its exterior, reeds and poison ivy overgrew the buildings. There was a serious fire in the late 80’s and another in the early 90’s, which severely damaged the piers and main factory building. The grotesquely large warehouse and processing center grew more rundown, and eventually the metal sheets that covered the roof blew off in storms, or fell within the building. The metal exoskeleton and large water tank remain a stark contrast to the traditional backdrop at your average marina or ocean scene.
As a result of the damage and the overgrowth of reeds, poison ivy and other plant life, most human traffic to the island stopped at this point. But not all. Vandals and scavengers came to the island and quietly stripped various pieces of piping and machinery including bronze cutoff valves for several large oil tanks. The scrap metal probably fetched around $3, a small price compared to the damage their salvaging did.
In October 1994 boaters reported an oil slick near the island and DEP investigators discovered two 100,00 gallon oil tanks which had never been drained and were now leaking oil into the bay. The tanks still contained almost 18,000 gallons of oil which was the consistency of tar. The oil was contained and the 12 months later a full cleanup was conducted. The plan was to bring pump trucks out to the island and suck the oil from the tanks but the oil was too thick for this to be effective. Lengths of pipe were laid in the oil and hot steam sent thru them which melted the oil allowed for its removal. It took several hours to get to the island, fill the 2300 pump truck with oil and return to the mainland. The removal took weeks. The tank were scrubbed clean and only then was the operational considered complete, taking 14 weeks from start to finish.
A 1996 article about the cleanup states that the DEP has no plans to demolish the factory, though they clearly would like to. One official said that the island is an “attractive nuisance” which attracted the curious and mischievous. Its remote location and the necessity of having a boat insulate the property fairly well from all but the most determined explorers. The Marks from Weird NJ didn’t even visit it until many years after they knew of its existence.