Those freshwater pearl collectors searching Plumb Brook and other small tributaries (near Russell in St. Lawrence County) did so by the standard method of wading, hunched over, with pail in hand, and plucking clams from the gravelly streambed. The varying depths of the Grass River required more complex methods that were used in clamming operations elsewhere. Similar to how spruce-gum pickers used a spud (a long pole with a scraper attached to remove deposits from high in the trees), pearl fishers used spuds with a set of nippers that were used to clasp and retrieve clams from a riverbed. The catch was then deposited in a perforated pail worn around the neck.
In shallow currents, where visibility suffered, pearl fishers wore what was called a “glass”—a wooden box big enough to fit around the wearer’s head. While the top was open, the bottom had a glass plate, allowing the user to view the riverbed, snorkel-like, by pressing the glass-covered portion into the water.
In sections where river depths ranged from three to ten feet, rafts and “water telescopes” were employed. The user floated on the raft and anchored it over possible clam beds. The “telescopes,” consisting of lengthy wooden tubes with glass at one end, were pressed into the depths. Users peered down the tube at the riverbed, and when clams were seen, a spud with nippers was used to retrieve the prize.
Among the dozens of pearl fishers near Russell in 1894 were eight men who had earned their living on the Grass River for the past two years. Among them, but head and shoulders above the others, was Malcolm Row, mentioned in newspaper articles as “father of the industry” and “the pearl king.” He regularly employed five to ten pearl fishers per season, paying them $1.50 to $2 per day (equal to about $50 in 2017). By paying the modern equivalent of $400 per day in wages, he harvested many hundreds of pearls, which were sold primarily to two New York City firms, one of them Tiffany & Company.
Using the hands-on methods employed at Russell, one man could process 500 clams in a day, but the financial yield varied widely. Depending on certain factors, pearls a tenth of an inch in diameter sold for a few cents each, while a pink one of that size went for about $5. Eighth-inch pearls brought $10 to $15, while those a quarter inch to a half inch were valued at $30 to $60. However, perfectly round pearls of any size were highly prized. A pink one three-fourths of an inch in diameter earned $850 for Malcolm Row. During a decade of harvesting pearls, he claimed to possess several that were worth more than $1,000 each. But among those he regularly collected and sold, the price generally ranged from $5 to $125.
As news of the Russell pearl business spread, others in northern regions pursued clam harvesting as well. Many pearls were taken from the Salmon River in Malone, and in late 1894, The Fishing Gazette reported that freshwater clam captures at Ogdensburg had resulted in two standout returns: one man sold four pearls for $800, while another turned down $1,200 for an especially fine specimen.
Other than Russell, the only pearl-fishing hot spot that developed up north was in Lewis County. About ten miles west of Boonville, area resident Henry Kirk and Harry Ackley of Rome were the two primary harvesters on Fish Creek. Between spring and mid-summer 1895, Ackley collected more than 200 pearls worth an estimated $200 ($6,000 today). Among the most valuable was a large specimen varying from light purple to light blue in color.
Even more prolific was Kirk, who counted many excellent pearls among his collection of 300, including two larges ones that were considered the best pair taken thus far. The two men weren’t alone: fortune hunters abounded and the competition was fierce. The “gold-rush” mentality of these men was shortsighted and made the pearl-harvesting business a finite undertaking. The results at Lewis County and Russell paralleled those at many locations across the United States: the unabated killing of clams depleted the population to such a level that finding valuable pearls soon became a futile pursuit. Within a short time, the fever subsided, leaving the pearl fishery to the few experts—like the so-called pearl king, Malcolm Row, who speculated in mining and other endeavors, but continued harvesting and selling valuable pearls for at least another 25 years.
Beyond the late 1890s, the Adirondack pearl business was seldom mentioned, making headlines only occasionally when men (usually Row) scored a specimen of rare quality and value. But the discovery of extremely valuable pearls at other locations, especially in the Mississippi River, sometimes caused renewed interest, usually among locals seeking to strike it rich.
An exception occurred in 1904 when Major Henry Dorr of the exclusive Beacon Hill section of Boston made plans to search for freshwater pearls in Lake Massawepie and surrounding bodies of water. Dorr owned a large, beautiful property in Childwold (northwest of Tupper Lake), and was familiar with the success of regional pearl hunters like Malcolm Row. And Dorr was a heavy hitter with deep pockets: he had been a diamond merchant in South Africa and was involved in pearl fisheries on the Mississippi.
A friend of Dorr’s, Charles Crossman, was a trader and manufacturer in pearl jewelry, and in the past had purchased many Adirondack pearls. He discouraged Dorr from carrying his plans to fruition, stating that some very good pearls could be found in the Adirondacks, but “it will never be a paying occupation as it has been in the Western rivers, where the shells are used for button making and the finding of the pearls is a secondary matter. As the shells in New York State rivers are not thick enough or of a good enough color, they could not be used for button making.”
The intense pearl harvesting of the 1890s never enjoyed a resurgence, and of all the people who had been involved, Malcolm Row of Russell was the most prominent and enduring harvester. Through a set of fortunate circumstances, at least one item of jewelry made from the famous Russell clam beds still exists today. A stick pin decorated with 21 small pearls was acquired in 1977 by the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake. Follow the link for a look at the pin and to read the brief story behind its donation by Leland Conant of Heuvelton.
Photos: A collection of freshwater pearls (karipearls.com); using a water telescope (from Fresh-water Pearls and Pearl Fisheries of the United States, by George F. Kunz, 1898)