Historic Film Captures Return of Herring to the Sea

Restored color film footage from 1935 captures alewives' incredible journey.


The movie looks like a mirage, the scenes shot in color during a black and white era. But you can tell the period is the 1930s because the men wear black tank tops and belted bathing suits in the Charles Atlas style, and the women bob their hair, decorating it in ribbons or covering it in large floppy hats.

With shovels and hoes, the bathers – men, women, and children – urge sand through a channel newly dug through South Beach, and thousands of river herring struggle against the current as it sweeps them tumbling toward the sea. Looking back on it now, a period of alewife and blueback herring scarcity, it’s a nearly unimaginable run of fish from eighty years ago.

Filmed in the summer of 1935 or 1936, the home movie, shot by Ruth and Ed Farrow, summer residents of Chilmark, is the only footage known to show the migration of river herring on Martha’s Vineyard, once a gigantic springtime industry for the Island. That it was shot in color at least two years before color film went on sale to the public is a legacy of Ed Farrow, a vice president of Eastman Kodak, who through the company had access to experimental Lenticular color stock as early as 1933.

Supervising the digging of the trench through South Beach and the release of the river herring to the Atlantic is John D. Bassett, town commissioner of the great ponds, among several other jobs and civic responsibilities. In the springtime, Bassett and a team of oxen opened a channel so that the river herring could return to spawn in their natal Chilmark pond. But in late summer, scores of Islanders and summer visitors came to the beach to help reopen it so the alewives and bluebacks could return to the ocean where they lived the rest of the year.

“Here come the herring,” said Rod Farrow as he and his wife Betty watched the film late last year. “They’re changing their mind!” he added as the fish, rushing out to sea with the freshet, fought their way back upstream. Like the herring themselves, Farrow knew what was waiting for them at the ocean end of the channel – ranks of marauding striped bass, which would cut them to bloody bits the minute they funneled into the surf.

The scenes of the herring migration are part of the Ruth and Ed Farrow Film Collection, more than thirteen hours of black and white and color footage shot around the Island between 1933 and 1942. The film was collected by the Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard project, established by the Vineyard Gazette in 2013 to find, transfer, research and present old films of the Island to modern audiences. The 1935 herring clip is presented in association with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, to whom Rod and Betty Farrow donated the original reels of the family film.

 The Island films collected by Gazette project can be viewed at For more on the state of herring on Martha's Vineyard, see The End of the Run in the May-June 2016 issue.