Seth Green: The Most Important Fisherman in American History

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Seth Green’s gravesite in Mount Hope Cemetery. The women who took the picture were visiting from Hobart and William Smith College. They said I should pose as if “reeling” in the great fisherman. 9/11/16

Throughout this year, George Payne has written about and photographed the progress of the Lower Fall Foundation towards making the Lower Falls Park and Gorge a World Heritage Site.

Today’s installment highlights more features of the proposed site: the forgotten city of Carthage, Seth Green Island and Seth Green himself.

George takes us on a trek to find the surviving remains of the Carthage settlement in the Lower Falls. I’ve been to the Lower Falls on George’s public tour and also once with my friend Dean.

I look forward to George’s invitation to see Carthage and Seth Green’s Island — an expedition available to the adventure seeking.

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outside Mt. Hope Cemetery 9/11/16

When George sent the piece, I was struck by the title: “The Most Important Fisherman in American History.” That’s a big claim that certainly adds further credibility to the historical significance of the World Heritage Site.

I knew next to nothing about Green. Off the top off my head, I could think of two famous fishermen. Ernest Hemingway whose Old Man and the Sea is perhaps the most famous fishing novel (unless we count Moby Dick). And Ted Williams, who is in both the Baseball and the International Game Fish Association Halls of Fame.

But what makes Green the most important? I did read Green’s wiki page and an essay in ROCHESTER HISTORY and even consulted the reference librarian at the Pittsford Public Library, finding evidence for the claim.

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Not that Seth (comic Seth Green)

Mostly, I went back to George and he offered a spirited argument for Seth Green, the “Father of fish culture in North America.”

Writing this piece on Seth Green inspired me to think more about what makes someone the most important person in their field. Is it fame and notoriety? Is it how they influenced their craft? Is it the impact their work has had on others? Is it commercial success and monetary wealth? How do we measure this?

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20 Aug 1888 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

In my humble opinion, Green was certainly the most influential fisherman in terms of his influence on the art and science of fishing. His contribution to the study of fish propagation is immense. I read that his death was a major deal because he was seen as a man combating world hunger through his work with fish hatcheries, environmental conservation, as well as his advancements in fishing techniques and etiquette. Apparently Green’s books are considered to be seminal texts, and his work as a government administrator made new paths in the field. Last but not least, he is credited with inventing the modern fishing reel.

Without naming all of the specific accolades and international awards, it is clear to me that Green has done more than any other American fisherman to advance this ancient practice in his home

EH 1306N July 1934 Ernest Hemingway with marlin. Havana Harbor, Cuba. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

July 1934
Ernest Hemingway with marlin. Havana Harbor, Cuba.

country and abroad. All other competitors pale in comparison if we are assessing the entire spectrum of activities involved in the art and industry of fishing. Ernest Hemingway is hands down the most famous American fisherman because of his books. But these works only cover his own impressions, life stories, and ideas about the sport and culture of fishing. He may have romanticized it through his novels, but he did not revolutionize fishing the way Green did. As for Ted Williams, I admire the man’s abilities, and he was no doubt a phy_tedwilliams02_y1200spectacular fisherman just as he was a gifted hitter. But Williams was a baseball player. He was not a man who devoted his entire life to the study, cultivation, protection, and advancement of fishing. There is a major difference between someone who goes fishing and has a large following of friends to record it and someone who creates the very spaces where fish can thrive and the very fish that will thrive there: that’s Green

Now that I have opened this up for debate, I am interested to know if readers have other suggestions.

Seth Green was born dirt poor to farmers in a tiny cabin on Culver Road. The date was March 19, 1817 and Rochester was not even a city yet. After growing up in near total wilderness — for the Genesee valley was pretty much empty besides trees, bears, wolves and rattlesnakes — his parents moved to a just developing area called Carthage on the Genesee River near the Lower Falls. Transitioning from the hard life of pioneers, the Green family opened up a tavern and Seth’s life changed forever.

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Seth Green. He supposedly had the most captivating eyes imaginable. (Photo in the public domain)

As a boy Seth quickly became friends with some local Seneca Indians and over the years they taught each other hunting and fishing techniques. One legend has it that Seth Green could identify hundreds of animals just by the sounds of their footsteps.  As a young man he would catch trout, sturgeon, walleye, and bullhead, and sell them to locals and ship crews that were docked in port. Fishing became his path in life.

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Photo by George Payne. This interpretive marker can be found at the end of Seth Green Drive by the RG&E Service Station Road off St. Paul.

Eventually he found himself with enough business to open a shop on Front Street, near the High Falls. The new shop became very successful. By 1857 Green was considered the largest producer of fish in NY. His team of 100 men was reeling in anywhere from 12 to 25 tons of fish a month.
In 1864,  he sought out some experimenting grounds. Fed by fresh springs and with a consistently cold temperature of 45-60 degrees, Caledonia Creek was perfect for hatching brook trout free of season-limitations and pollution.

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The water’s edge by the Seth Green Trail. Photo by George Payne

Soon there were large buildings packed along the creek and the Caledonia Fish Hatchery was born. Inside were huge tanks where Green began his famous research in fish hatching and where he would ultimately perfect the field of Artificial Propagation.

use-twoAlthough I have not been there myself, Seth Green’s Caledonia Hatchery in Livingston County is the oldest hatchery in New York State as well as the nation. Caledonia Hatchery rears brown trout along with a limited number of splake (from speckled trout and lake trout). A considerable number of the two-year-old brown trout used in the New York State DEC’s stocking program, for 13-15 inch trout, are produced at the Caledonia Hatchery. Annually, the production of brown trout and splake is approximately 170,000 pounds.

– editorial content courtesy of New York State Department of Conservation

Green received many awards for his contributions to society. In addition to his own island, the Seth Green Trail in Rochester is named after him. Green has been also credited for inventing the fishing reel.

He died on August 18, 1888, and is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery.

ROCHESTER HISTORY

use-5The Forgotten Settlement of Carthageuse

Rochesterville and Carthage were rivals, of a sort. Both communities boasted flour mills powered by the water power of the Genesee and its high, multiple falls in this area, as it descends into a magnificent gorge for the last few miles before it empties into Lake Ontario. These same waterfalls would prevent direct water navigation from the lakefront to Rochesterville, seven miles to the south. Carthage was fortutiously located at the farthest inland point to which lake boats could travel, hence its strategic importance in a period when water travel was the lifeline of Western New York State, which despite its lusty growth, had not quite outgrown its all-too-recent frontier status. Rochesterville, on the other hand, was located at the point where the vitally important Erie Canal crossed the Genesee River on an impressive aqueduct.

The coming of steam railroads would soon change all of this, and with the use-2decline in importance of canal and lake boat shipping, Carthage would cease to exist as a separate community, and evenutually be subsumed under the rapid expansion of the new city of Rochester.

The Carthage Railroad

use-1The pictures were shot on a personal trek to find the surviving remains of the Carthage settlement in the Lower Falls. I was surprised to stumble across such large quantities of building material, including brick facades, metal piping, concrete foundations, old appliances, and other intriguing artifacts. If you are interested in walking through a forgotten industrial settlement which almost became the most powerful municipality in Western New York, this trail is for you. (Fair warning, this trail is somewhat off the beaten path.)

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from the shores of Seth Green Island

Seth Green Island – Rochester, New York 

Named after Green, the undisputed father of Pisciculture and Aquaculture, this island is accessible from the banks of the Seth Green Trail near the remains of Carthage. If the water is low enough you can walk across the river on the exposed rocks and stones. As I reached the island by foot, I actually startled a green heron from its perch. The view of the river from the center of the island is incredible.

Timeline

1864: In 1864 he located a small hatchery in Caledonia, New York along a spring creek.

1867: In 1867–1869 he experimented and pioneered methods to successfully propagate American shad in the Connecticut River near Holyoke, Massachusetts.

1870: In 1870, Green resigned his position as fish commissioner and the governor appointed him Superintendent of Fisheries.

1871: In early 1871, at the request of the California Fish Commission, Green transported over 12,000 American Shad fry to Sacramento, California to plant in the Sacramento River.IMG_20160520_111242493

1872: In 1872 and 1875 the Imperiale d’Acclimatation of France awarded Green solid gold medals for his work in pisciculture.IMG_20160520_114252610

Furthermore, I am pleased to report that at least one Rochester city school believes in the importance of Green’s legacy. 4th grade students from Roberto Clemente School # 8 made his life’s work a part of their expeditionary curriculum last fall. The school plans to use the Seth Green Trail again this year. The Lower Falls Foundation was excited to help lead this innovative new outdoor teaching program.

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  1. Stephanie Hranjec

    Thank you for the interesting article on Seth Green: The Most Important Fisherman in American History. I love history, but never heard about him before.