In the winter time, after the Saco River froze over, a city of tents, shacks and shanties would appear around “the Narrows” of the river, between Biddeford and Saco. The occupants of this city were fishermen, who annually set up to fish the smelts and other winter fish which were bountiful and helped a man earn a living or just feed the family (or himself).
The winter ice fishery seems to have spanned back as far as white people lived in these parts (perhaps before with Indigenous residents?), but the first print record referring to the area known locally as “Smelt City” is from the local paper in 1884.
It seems that the rise of Smelt City on the river was a regular, annual event right through the 1930’s – and were actually an important source of income and food during the worst days of the Great Depression.
But the fishery was already waning in the 1920’s and 30’s, and every year the catches were smaller and smaller. In 1929, there were some regulations that were to have an effect on the fishery apparently, plus the catches were greatly reduced (due apparently to a mixture of overfishing at the mouth of the river and effects of sewage waste pollution in the river.)
Before the end of WWII, Smelt City and the days of annual winter fishing on the Saco River were quickly beccoming the stuff of local legend and memory. It was also reduced in value, no longer a valid means of getting by, but now as just a fun winter hobby or sport for old timers and outdoorsy youngsters.
After the 1943 article above, the only mention of Smelt City or smelt fishing on the Saco, are in the “10-20-30 years ago” or “Remember When?” articles gleaned from the newspaper archives.
Smelt fishing is tightly regulated in Maine, but still lives on – though more organized from the Midcoast and north to Downeast Maine. You can read about the rules and regulations at the State of Maine Department of Marine Resources, and get a taste of modern smelt fishing in Maine from the Bangor Daily News. As far as I know, we don’t have any images showing Smelt City, but I’ll be on the lookout, now that I know what I’m looking for.
Smelt City (Biddeford and Saco), Maine – an incomplete history in newsprint:
Page 2 of Biddeford Weekly Journal,published in Biddeford, Maine on Friday, January 18th, 1901