1890s Adirondack Freshwater Pearl Fever

Freshwater Pearls (photo by Kari)

Freshwater Pearls (photo by Kari)

In the Adirondacks and foothills, pearl fever struck in the 1890s, and is generally credited to Malcolm Row of Russell in St. Lawrence County. While Row would become the most prolific pearl harvester in northern New York, and the revelation of his success launched a clam-hunting craze that lasted for years, he was preceded slightly by others, including a jeweler from Malone. In 1880, Charles York and his two brothers had purchased a watchmaking and jewelry business that operated under the name of York Brothers. Later, while working on his own (and it’s a nice coincidence that he lived on Pearl Street), Charles paid a visit to one of his brothers in Gouverneur in spring 1891, and brought along a collection of pearls he had harvested from the Salmon River at Malone.

The story of his pearls circulated through several North Country newspapers, mentioning that one valued at $20 was “as large as an average pea,” and that another person had earned $60 after two weeks of “pearl fishing.” York himself sold several pearls “for good prices — one to Tiffany of New York brought $65.”

That summer, another pearl hunter, George Johnson of Rome, collected several pearls from Kasoag, about 25 miles west of Boonville. It was about a year later when Malcolm Row found his first pearl near Russell. While he may have read about York’s earlier success, Row described his own discovery as serendipitous: after out of bait while fishing in Frost Brook, he used a clam’s innards, and in doing so found a pearl about the size of a pea.

His story was repeated in newspapers, a few magazines, and was cited in state fisheries reports. (Frost Brook does not exist on present or early maps, but it may have been a local name for a small stream … or Row may have given it a false name to keep his success a secret.) Either way, he kept the story quiet and reportedly sent the pearl off to Tiffany’s in New York City, who offered $50 for it. Recognizing his good fortune, and the likelihood of competition if the story got out, Row abandoned his spruce-gum operations and paid a few trusted individuals to collect clams from Frost Brook. By season’s end he had netted several hundred dollars in profit (around $12,000 today).

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