Eel Tongs – A Forgotten Tool
by Norman R. Ball
Probable identification of one of the “Whatsits” items in the September 197 4 issue of the Chronicle has been supplied by the Journal of a Scotch minister who taught school in Upper Canada during the 1830s. After noting the surprisingly large size of the local eels Reverend Patrick Bell mentioned an unusual method of fishing. “They are caught in immense quantities immediately below the Falls of Niagara. They run (as it is called) against the stream of the river and being opposed by the Falls are found crawling amongst the rocks beside the water and are taken with a kind of Forceps made of wood teethed with small nails that look like a pair of smiths tongs. See the figure on the left. Nasty brutes. I hate the look of them.” (1)
The figure which Patrick Bell referred to is reproduced here and the similarity to the Whatsit of Mr. Whitemore is obvious. Bell gave no size but the 20 inches of Mr. Whitemore’s iron tongs would be a handy size; long enough to keep the eels away from you but short enough so as not to be too heavy or awkward.
Various sources dealing with the catching of eels mention the use of nets, weirs, traps, hooks and lines, and spears but not the implement mentioned by Patrick Bell. This is not surprising. We are dealing with an unusual tool that could be used only at the time of the year when the eels were running and then only where they were faced with such serious obstacles as to be trapped and writhing about at the surface of the water or on the rocks.
In certain areas the eel tongs or forceps would have been a fairly common tool. At present eels are not a major part of the diet of most Canadians but during the earlier part of the nineteenth century they formed a part of the diet of the Upper Canadian pioneers (2) and one can even find recipes for their preparation. (3) It is possible that eels supplied more than food for the pioneers. A very interesting English book, Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, notes that eels were once prized by farmers for their skins. Eel skins were regarded as ideal for the making and repair of flail knots for no other leather was better or tougher for tying the swingel of the flail to the handles. (4) Whether or not this practice spread to North America is something that I do not know.
Today the eels are neither as plentiful nor as popular as they used to be although over one hundred years after Bell wrote of the eels at the foot of Niagara Falls another author mentioned that “the visitor who enters under the sheet of water at the foot of the falls in the spring and summer, will be astonished at the enormous number of young eels crawling over the slippery rocks and squirming in the seething whirlpool.” (5) The eels in the Great Lakes are regarded as a nuisance rather than a source of food and eel forceps or tongs may not seem very exciting or glamorous but they were a part of the pioneering technology of North America and for that reason deserve to be recognized and remembered.
1. Reverend Patrick Bell, L.L.D., Journal or Rather Observations Made in Upper Canada During the Years 1894-95-96 and 97. p. 61. Unpublished manuscript, reproduced by permission Aberdeen University Library, Aberdeen, Scotland. A photostat of this journal is in the Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.
2. Edwin C. Guillet, The Pioneer Farmer and Backwoodsman. Vol. 2. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970. p. 229.
3. Catharine Parr Traill, The Canadian Settler’s Guide. Toronto: 1855. Reprinted, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1969. p. 166.
4. George Ewart Evans, Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1961. p. 95.
5. Edward P. Laberge, “Eeel Fishing in Quebec,” Canadian Geographical Journal, February 1939, Vol. 18, No. 2. p. 107.