In the early 1900s, Tiverton was well-known for the stench of rotting fish. One local writer described the odor wafting from the menhaden factories along the Sakonnet River as “Rhode Island’s most famous smell. Even the strongest and bravest were known to wilt before it.”
Much of the stink emanated from the Menhaden Fishing Company across the river in Portsmouth, but Tiverton fishermen owned most of the steam boats that supplied that plant and others with millions of the fish, processed for fish oil and fertilizer. Menhaden—known locally as pogy—comes from the Narragansett word munnawhatteaug, and pogy from the word pauhagen. Both loosely translate to “fertilizer.” Pogies are likely the fish that Squanto taught the Pilgrims to bury alongside their corn seed.
In the days of sail, small pogy works consisting of a few iron boilers dotted the Tiverton shore from Stone Bridge to Fogland. Fishermen used seines—nets weighted at the bottom and buoyed at the top –to snag the menhaden feeding in Mount Hope Bay. One quadrant of Tiverton’s town seal shows a blue shield with a gold seine net stretched across it, evidence of the town’s past as a fishing village.
After the Civil War, the seven Church brothers dominated the menhaden trade. Two foundation holes at the northern edge of “The Gut,” where Sin and Flesh Brook flows into Nannaquaket Pond, mark the locations of the house where the brothers grew up and the “seine house” where they stashed their first nets for trapping pogy. The brothers banded together to charter a business in 1870, built the Menhaden Fishing Company plant in 1878, and for decades employed hundreds of workers processing menhaden and food fish shipped fresh via steamer to New York.
The town put the bridge in Bridgeport in 1883, when it built a wooden span to the northern tip of Nannaquaket Neck, where Nathaniel B. Church built a huge house that later served as a convent before being replaced with a modern mansion. Crews have replaced the bridge to the neck several times since, most recently pouring a concrete span atop granite pillars in 1958.
Some of the pogy fleet plying the bay at the turn of the 20th century tied up to the piers behind the “Bridgeport Block,” a ramshackle building sided in weather-beaten shingles that housed a half-dozen families and George Manchester’s general store. A sign outside the store read: “Old Trust is dead/Poor Pay killed him.” The Manchester family razed that building around 1900 and replaced it with a big shellfish processing plant that grew into Manchester Seafoods, where “Rhode Island’s most famous smell,” the scent of fish being processed, lingered into the 1980s.
Today, Menhaden have declined in numbers to as little as 10% of historic levels, a result of unrestricted industrial fishing. Plants process the fish into products from chicken feed to pet food. Locally, menhaden are popular bail for striped bass. The Manchester Seafood building hit the real estate market in 2012 with an asking price of $1.75 million. A realtor described the site as a “unique waterfront opportunity” with “approvals in hand for Inn and Spa.” Without a buyer soon for this abandoned building, it might also become endangered.