Daniel Webster’s Big Trout

The Church at the South: A History of the South Haven Church. Rev. George Borthwick.
Original manuscript c. 1939; published 1989. p. 186ff.

The [Carmans] river which furnished power for [Samuel Carman’s] mills was noted for the trout it contained, and he capitalized on that. So great was the reputation of this stream among fishermen that a historian of that day states the common opinion that its trout fishery was “superior to any other in this part of the country.” Hither came groups of fishermen by stage-coach from New York City, staying during their visit in South Haven at the tavern. Of one such group, composed of Sen. Daniel Webster, Phillip Hone, Walter Bowne, Martin Van Buren, and John and Edward Stevens, is told a story the historicity of which is beyond question.

The details of this story, as they have come down through the years since that day in 1827 when it took place, have been colored by the countless tellings of one person to another. The common tradition states that Daniel Webster had tried unsuccessfully for some time to hook a huge trout which he knew was in the river. One Sunday morning, after instructing one of Sam Carman’s Negroes to watch the stream by the mill to see if he could get a glimpse of the monster, he went to the church across the way with his host. “Priest” King’s long sermon had not reached “ninthly” before the Negro had crept into the church up to the front pew in which sat Sam Carman and Senator Webster. In a whisper which excitement made so loud that it was heard by all the worshippers near the pew, he informed Mr. Webster that the fish was lazily swimming in a pool below the mill. Daniel Webster tiptoed out, and then Samuel Carman, and then boys who managed to elude the watchful eyes of their parents. Finally, curiosity overcame so many of the people that Mr. King, realizing his sermon was reaching the ears of a constantly diminishing congregation, concluded it, gave the benediction, and went over to the mill with the remainder of his flock to watch Daniel Webster catch what proved to be the second largest trout on record. It was some time before the delighted fisherman got a bite from the fish. Suddenly the Senator felt his line tighten and saw thrashing on the end of it the trout which he had long hoped to catch. It was an opportunity of which fishermen dream, but which rarely comes to them. With the excited advice of the worshippers of the South Haven Church, he played the huge fish skillfully until finally he had landed it with his net. There on the ground lay a trout, which when weighed, tipped the scales at 14.5 pounds – a quarter of a pound lighter than the present world’s record, according to the magazine FIELD AND STREAM, which carried this story. Such an event was too important to allow to pass unrecorded. As there were no cameras in that day, the fish was put up against the wall of Sam Carman’s house, and its outline was drawn there. Phillip Hone, copying it, had a weathervane cut out of cherry, one third larger than the trout, so that it would appear the natural size when seen from the ground. He gilded it, and had it placed on top of the South Haven Church spire. There for about half a century it pointed the direction of the wind and reminded the parishioners of their distinguished visitor who had performed so notably in a field in which history does not remember him. One summer’s afternoon, during a thunder-storm, a bolt of lightning struck that steeple, knocked off the wooden fish, and killed a mule that had taken shelter against the side of the church below. The fish can still be seen, weather-beaten and nicked by the storms that have blown about it, in the possession of a church member, Mr. George Miller, the great grandson of Samuel Carman, who had played host to the distinguished fisherman.

Daniel Webster, celebrating this feat with his friends that night before a blazing fire in the tavern, drank too much of Carman’s rum. Tradition states that he became so intoxicated that he could not find his way to his room upstairs, and had to be carried up by his host. The fish he caught was taken to New York City, and there at famous Delmonico’s, cooked and served at a banquet which the Senator gave for his friends. So pleased was he with his good luck, he sent Sam Carman a purse of $100 and came back again many times with his friends Phillip Hone, Walter Bowne, Martin Van Buren, and John and Edward Stevens. They later rented land on the river, hired fishing privileges from Mr. Carman, and formed the nucleus of a group which years after became known as “The Suffolk Club,” widely recognized as the wealthiest club of its size in the world. One of its famous members was Theodore Roosevelt. This organization must have been composed, at least in part, of regular church-goers, for they reserved for themselves a pew in the center of the church, with the words “Suffolk Club” engraved on it.