Crustacean Collection

February 20, 2007 11:00 pm

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

A unique, eye-catching display on the wall of Crescent City Harbor's office must be one of this area's best-kept secrets.

And the man who put it together must have had a wife with a lot of patience.

Why, you may ask?

"A lot of people don't know that it's there," said Harbormaster Richard Young. "People at our commission meetings admire it, but no one ever stops by just to see it."

The mural is all about crabs — crabs that also make their homes here.

With some exceptions and one East Coast import, a horseshoe crab, the colorful shells comprising the large display are deep-water babies — from down to 300 fathoms deep. That's 1,500 feet in landlubber terms.

But it's doubtful that anyone would ever see them unless they drag fish off the coastline. That's precisely how these crabs left their homes and became parts of the harbor's display.

The tale centers on former Harbor Commissioner Tom Stewart, a colorful man himself, who ran an auto parts store here for years.

"He had a kilt and he marched in the parades," recalled John Yingst, who sits on the harbor commission. "He may have had bagpipes too, and he was also involved with the mountain men."

Yingst described the kilt- or buckskin-clad Scotsman as "resembling Tom Selleck."

"He loved to tell stories," he said. "It was hard to keep him quiet.

Ray Dunnam, one of Stewart's friends, identified the mountain men group as the Muzzle Loaders.

Dunnam, 86, moved to Crescent City from West Virginia. He began working as a commercial fisherman in 1947.

Stewart's job, as well as his position as a harbor commissioner, put him in direct contact with a large segment of Crescent City.

"A lot of the commercial fishermen did business with him," said John Yingst. "The drag fishermen caught weird things in their nets and brought them to him."

The fishermen who noticed the varied crustaceans they winched up from the sea floor couldn't market the crabs, whose variety apparently intrigued them enough that they kept the oddities.

They would bring them in to show Stewart. Intrigued himself, he started a collection of them.

He kept the crabs — outside, of course — and dried them under cover from hungry seagulls. When they passed the whiff test, he brought them inside.

Thus was the collection born.

The collection graced Stewart's business for years before it made its way to the harbor office.

That sequence of events remains a mystery, however.

Many years have passed since Stewart ran his store and graced the area with his colorful presence, so no one can quite remember whether the collection was a gift directly bestowed to the harbor office by him or whether his family decided it should be there.

"Maybe it should be somewhere else so that more people would see it," Young said. "But if he wanted it here, we will respect his wishes."