As much as I’ve written about seeing Amelia Island by land, the only true way to experience Amelia Island is by water. It is by water that many of Amelia Island’s earliest residents arrived and made their living on the island. And it is through water that the town has endured. Since 1879 (maybe even earlier), the port of Fernandina has been a very lively place. The docks were once “piled high with cross ties, lumber, and naval stores products awaiting shipment to ports around the world. (Hardee, S).”
By comparison, Amelia Island’s shrimping industry got off to a slower start. Fishermen were still using rowboats and cast nets to catch shrimp back then. This restricted them to the shallows and to nighttime shrimping, when more shrimp were close to shore. A shrimper back then would bring in 3 or 4 bushels of shrimp (1 bushel = 8 gallons/40 lbs. of shrimp) a day, on average. They would then boil and dry their catch before shipping them off. In 1879, a total of 300 bushels of dried shrimp, about 12,000 pounds, were shipped up the east coast. It was a lot back then, but the number would soon grow.
In 1898, a hurricane drove a Sicilian merchant seaman by the name of Sollicito Salvatore into the port of Fernandina. Lucky for Fernandina, he decided to stay, for he would soon go on to revolutionize the shrimping industry in Fernandina and beyond. He quickly replaced cast nets with haul seines, and rowboats with powerboats. And in 1906, he started looking for ways store and transport shrimp under refrigeration, thus bypassing the boil and dry routine. In 1913, the nets got even better thanks to Salvatore Tringali, another European transplant bringing European fishing technologies to Fernandina. These new nets were called Otter trawls, and they are still the most popular nets for industrial shrimping. With these new nets, annual shrimp production exceeded 2 million pounds, and shrimping took its rightful place as Fernandina’s “most significant” industry. It is because of these innovations that Fernandina is often referred to as “the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry.”
Although many of the industries which relied upon this port have come and gone, shrimping, shipping, and lumber still remain. As the naval stores business declined in the 1930’s, Fernandina’s lumber resources were re-appropriated to fuel the newly-built Rayonier and Container Paper Mills. Cruising down the Amelia River at sunset, you experience the heart and soul of Fernandina as you see the Rayonier paper mill, the loaded freighters, and the many shrimp boats docked and ready for the next day’s catch.
My friends and I cruised the Amelia River via Amelia River Cruises. They have a lot of different sightseeing cruises to choose from, including the sunset tour that we took, a Cumberland Island tour, and a shrimping tour. All of them depart from the Fernandina Harbor marina. Reservations recommended.