In the 1970s we lived on Old York Road in New Hope with John and Barbara Paglione. Particularly on weekends we tried to avoid the “tourist” town and began to cross the bridge exploring Lambertville. It was still pretty much a working class community, it reminded John and me of Bristol.
Our “go to” restaurant in Lambertville for years was Phil and Dan’s, small Italian, tables set up in what was once a living room in a typical row house. The dishes were traditional at a price we could afford. Amazing but their grand daughter showed up in one of my Holy Family College classes in the 90s, Phil and Dan had sold the restaurant. Several years ago when Paglione’s were visiting, we returned — then it was called Rick’s, but looked and tasted the same. Rick’s has since closed.
Occasionally we splurged and went to the Lambertville House, Lambertville Station or Hamilton’s Grill (we actually lived around the corner from Jim Hamilton). There was also a large ACME grocery and stationary store that we frequented. But the town was changing, quaint shops, galleries and restaurants began to transform the downtown. NYC or a bit of New Hope gentrified Lambertville. We even considered buying an run down Victorian with ivy growing inside through the bricks. Someone turned it into a beautifully restored B and B. Fortunately I think Lambertville maintained some of the small town vibe and is today much more interesting to us than New Hope.
Hamilton’s Grill became one of our favorite restaurants, anniversaries, New Jersey night, Oyster night, special dinners hosted by Jim in his nearby apartment. Unfortunately Jim died last year, ending an era.
We go to quite a few other Lambertville restaurants, The Boathouse (small bar across Pig Alley from the Grill), The Swan is a classic bar restaurant we’ve gone to since the 70s (Anton’s at the Swan is the main room, expensive dining), El Tule (Mexican and Peruvian), Under the Moon (tapas), Inn of the Hawke, Cafe Galleria (trendy), Marhaba (Middle Eastern), Tortugas Cocina (Aztlan Mexican Grill today). We ate at Brian’s once (the new owner of Hamilton’s) but have avoided Lambertville Station (too touristy, although their raw bar might be worth trying again.) We recently had a nice lunch at the Lambertville House (hadn’t been there in years); spent a memorable New Year’s Eve with HGPs Gallaghers and Chapmans so many years ago.
We go to Lambertville to walk Nala along the canal, the views through town are always interesting. We’ve spent many “gallery days” exploring local art.
This year we did the street tour of Halloween decorations (amazing, inspired by a local art teacher). I did a historic walking tour a few years ago.
And then there is the Shad festival celebrating the spring shad run. We would have gone this year but it was overcast with showers. Instead I read “Another Haul: narrative, stewardship, and cultural sustainability at the Lewis family fishery,” by Charlie Groth. The title is a clue that this is a very academic book, pages devoted to folklore, culture, storytelling, hundreds of in-text citations. The author however spent a decade or more observing, interviewing and eventually volunteering as a crew member at the Lewis fishery.
For generations, since the end of the 19th century, the Lewis family has had a license to net Delaware River shad from an an island (named Lewis today) north of the bridge. Bill and his wife Mamie were the first. In 1890, 3,500 shad were caught. Their son, Fred (and his wife Nell) took over and ran the fishery (the only one left) for decades. His daughter Muriel Lewis Merserve and her husband David are now in charge.
By the 1950s pollution had all but ended the return migration of the shad to spawn upstream. I remember reading how ship’s hulls in Philadelphia were a chemical rainbow of colors. For several years the shad catch in Lambertville was zero. Fred lobbied to have the river cleaned up. By the 1970s the haul was back into the hundreds, in a good year the thousands. I remember the return of recreational shad fisherman in the late 70s and early 80s when we lived on the river in Yardley. One year I went fishing, gold hook, no bait, and I pulled in a half dozen migrating herring (not shad). I pickled them; our Danish friend Ragna Hamilton declared them “delicious.” But unfortunately it was a one time thing. In 2017, the Lewis seasonal take was just over 1,200. That was with 43 hauls in 34 days of seine net fishing.
We’ve crossed the small bridge to the island several times. But sadly have only viewed a haul once or twice despite the number of times we’ve gone to the Shad Festival . I remember buying cooked shad from a truck for several years. We were told it was Connecticut shad since the Delaware River shad was too muddy tasting. Until reading “Another Haul” I didn’t know the Lewis’s sold their catch from the first floor of the crew house, one of two buildings on the island. Many years they have to ration; more customers than shad. In recent years at the Festival, Hamilton’s chef, Mark, distributed free small pieces of shad in front on the restaurant. Delicious. I bought shad and shad roe several years from McCaffrey’s but Diane didn’t like it very much. I’d like to try again.
There may have been years when the Lewis family made a small profit running the fishery but now it’s done for family, tradition, the community, for the love of shad. Despite the ethnographic academics in “Another Haul,” Groth provides a lot of interesting detail about the river, flooding, seine net fishing, shad, the Lewis family and Lambertville. Some details new to me; some that reflects my personal experience. The shad run can last till June. Hauls on the Jersey Shore happen in the evening. I’m hoping to get to the island in the next few weeks and look for shad (maybe roe) in a fish market.
At home I can enjoy the painting “The Weir, Delaware Shad,” a Dave Sears painting we treasure.