Forgotten amidst the eerie stillness of the bay, the notorious abandoned fish factory harkens back to the early days of Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Located on Crab Island, one of the seven islands that make up the Great Bay, the factory sticks out like a sore thumb, surrounded by stretches of protected wetlands. Even from a distance, the smell is unmistakable, giving rise to its nickname, “The Stinkhouse,” coined by the local residents and fishermen. The origins of the old fish factory, however, are still being debated today. Some claim it has existed as far back as 1846 while others argue it was built sometime around 1902. Regardless, the history of this decaying eyesore is quite fascinating, and, fortunately for us, many older folks continue to share their memories of the factory’s glory days
Those who grew up in the area in the first half of the 20th century can often recall the activity that occurred on Crab Island. According to Hayes Parker, a resident of Mystic Island, the plant was temporarily shut down during WW1. Other recollections confirmed this, as one man described when he saw the lifeless bodies of horses waiting to be incinerated on the docks. Leftover residue from the garbage that was processed through the factory was also dumped into the bay. Unsurprisingly, these disturbing actions lead to the decrease in wildlife populations, and according to a 1922 environmental report, the factory was forced to stop dumping harmful waste.
The property experienced numerous ownership transfers and name changes throughout its operation, although for most of its existence it was known simply as “The Fish Products Company.” From 1910 to 1926, the island was owned by a fertilizer business. Because the fish were considered too oily and bony for consumption, they were instead processed through the plant and sold as compost. Shortly after the environmental report was made, however, the factory went bankrupt and in 1935 it was purchased for $5,771.04 by J. Howard Smith. In the time that he owned the property, he replaced many of the old buildings with new ones, repairing much of what had been neglected during the war. In 1944, the factory was finally reopened and the workers returned, who lived on the island for a period of time before the fishing season ended every November.
The men who worked at the fish factory slept in bunkers, waking early in the morning and working twelve hour shifts during the day. The boats, which were operated by the Menhaden Fleet, were made from wood until around 1950 when they were replaced with steel. Altogether there were six boats: the Barnegat, the Beach Haven, the Seagerth, the Texas, the Manasquan, and the Palm Beach. Each day the workers would set out in these boats and use enormous nets, most of which were ninety feet wide and nine-hundred feet long, to catch the fish and haul them back to the factory to be processed. In the early 1970s, the factory eventually closed down after its activity had peaked, where as many as one hundred employees had worked. Overfishing had significantly reduced the amount of production, and so in 1974 it was bought by the New Jersey Department of Environmental protection.
Despite its long-lasting untouched state, the fish factory remains an iconic piece of Little Egg Harbor’s history. Its distant silhouette continues to haunt the open landscape of the Great Bay area, and it leaves us to question its uncertain future. Will the factory simply rot away with time, or will it be destroyed and reclaimed back into tidal marsh? Whatever happens, one thing is certain: that place gives us the creeps.