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They got the blues

Nantucket Island, off Cape Cod, Mass., was the whaling capital of the world during the first half of the 19th century. Whaling was how many a family made a living — or a fortune — sailing distant reaches of the seven seas in hardy, no-frills ships in pursuit of some of the largest creatures in the world.

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Though dependent upon the bounty of the sea, the islanders didn’t always have to go to such lengths; sometimes fish came right up to the beach. The caption under this engraving from the Aug. 31, 1879, edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper reads: “Massachusetts — attractions of the summer season at Nantucket — catching blue-fish from Syasconset [sic] Beach.”

Beginning in June and lasting through the summer, the annual bluefish run was a favorite activity that involved the entire family. When conditions were right, word would spread. The men would come out from their boat shops and fishing shanties and head for Siasconset on the island’s east end. They picked a spot, drove a stake into the sand to anchor their line and began casting into the surf. The boys would collect the fish and load them into the wagon as the women watched, waiting to clean and cook the catch back home.

Leslie’s publication was one of the most popular in the country, featuring engravings of on-the-spot drawings that gave readers a real sense of immediacy. In this image, drawn by “our special artist,” the wheeling birds and flying surf, the eager fishermen and soaring clouds convey the excitement of a Nantucket bluefish run in high summer.

June 2013 issue