The Pearl Craze In Passaic County

PCHS Bulletin, Nov. 1956

Mankind has ever been inquisitive.  Throughout the ages, a constant search for Nature’s secrets, hidden within the mountains and waters of the earth, has been in progress.  Today, thousands of Americans are invading the areas of old mountains with their Geiger counters while one hundred years ago, people crossed the expanses of wilderness plain, mountain and desert in the great Gold Rush.  During the year 1857 and a few years following, Passaic County was in the midst of a Pearl Mania.

The Paterson, New Jersey Guardian of April 6, 1857 states “Quite an excitement has, for the past fortnight, existed in the upper part of this city owing to a sort of Pearl Mania.

Off and on over many years, boys and men of Passaic County who loved to roam in the great out-of-doors, occasionally frequented the brooks and streams of the county.  They were aware of the presence of mussels in muddy bottoms and sides of the streams and knew that sometimes “pretty stones” could be found inside their shells.  One of the boys who frequented Notch Brook as early as 1815 was named Quackenbush.  By 1857 one of his son, Jacob, married and lived at 180 Marshall Street; and another son was John, who lived at 103 N. Main Street, Paterson.  Both brothers were pearl hunters.

Jacob and John Quackenbush often went to Notch Brook to collect mussels but, as was quite customary, seldom found any containing pearls.  Remembering the stories often told by their father of the man persons who found “pretty stones” in the lowly mussel, the Quackenbush brothers persisted in their search.  One day, Jacob Quackenbush* was rewarded.  He found a pearl, magnificently shaped and large.  It was a pink beauty.

Taking the gem to the jewelry store of Charles L. Tiffany of Warren Street, New York for inspection, Quackenbush was surprised to learn from Mr. Tiffany that it was indeed a gem.  Jacob Quackenbush was asked for his price for the pearl, but not knowing its worth, he sold it to Mr. Tiffany.  The exact price which Quackenbush received for the pearl is somewhat obscure.  The Paterson Guardian of May 1, 1857, carrying the store of the great pearl discovery from a recent issue of the New York Tribune, says that the price was $1,000.  In an issue of the Paterson Press of March 25, 1897 appeared the pearl story wherein a New York jeweler was reported to have told Mr. Quackenbush that the pearl was very valuable.  The jeweler told Mr. Quackenbush it was worth more than he had cash to pay for it but he counted out nine $100 bills and in addition gave him three silver watches and some other assorted jewelry amounting to a total value of $1,000.  Mr. G. F. Kunz, an author of a book on gems, said in recounting the same story that John Quackenbush was paid $1,500 in cash and a quantity of assorted jewelry.  Whichever version is historically accurate, Mr. Quackenbush was underpaid.  Within a short time, the pearl was sent to France, purchased by a jeweler there for $2,500 and presently became a possession of Empress Eugenie.  Forever afterward, it was known as the Queen Pearl.

Quackenbush brothers continued their search for pearls for a while rather secretly but after finding the choice pearl, the story became known and many others joined in the quest for the hidden gems.  At one time as many as three hundred persons were seen about Notch Brook all hunting for pearls.  The favorite method was to wade in the brook and when the feet felt a mussel shell, it was brought up and opened.  Many pearls were obtained from Notch Brook although they were usually small ones about the size of a garden pea or smaller.

Other brooks in the county as well as those in Bergen County were visited and searched.  The Rock Road Brook, the Godwinville Brook yielded some pearls which sold for prices ranging from $40 to $100 while some very nice ones were obtained from the Cherry Lane Brook.  On occasion pearls were taken from muskrats which frequented the streams a hundred years ago.  This animal was very fond of the tasty mussel.

During the pearl-hunting craze, the Quackenbush brothers became very adept in valuing the gems.  Another well-known connoisseur of pearls was Paterson’s first mayor, John J. Brown.  Mayor Brown possessed several large pearls of great beauty; and General Thomas D. Hoxey had a large Notch Brook pearl, mounted on a tiepin, which he wore for many years in his cravat.

Perhaps the most interesting story concerning pearls in Passaic County is the one attributed to a South Paterson citizen.  One account names him as a poor shoemaker, living near the bridge which crossed the old Morris Canal in the vicinity of Mill Street—one David Hower.  Another source names him as Daniel Howell, carpenter who lived at 289 Mill Street.  But, regardless of the person, the story is the same.  One of these men decided to have a mess of mussels for dinner.  He went to Notch Brook, secured enough mussels for a meal and boiled them.  Finding them too tough to eat, he removed them from the shell and placed them in a hot skillet with plenty of lard and fried them.  As he was enjoying the edible mussels, he bit into a pearl.  It was one of unusually large size, weighing 400 grains, but too much booking had ruined it.  Had this large gem pearl been discovered earlier, it would have brought as much as $25,000 for it was, by far, the largest pearl ever found in fresh water mussels.

Within a short space of years, Passaic County and its entire surrounding area had been entirely divested of mussels—thus eliminating for all time the pearl industry.  It was great fun while it lasted and many people were handsomely rewarded.

*Paterson Press, March 25, 1897 gave name as John Quackenbush.