Note: I compiled this history from many online sources.
Salmon was a dietary staple of Northwest aboriginal people. Large, tasty, and available at predictable times and places, the fish were an ideal source of protein, easily caught with basic fishing technologies such as spears, baskets, nets, and brush weirs. Natives harvested salmon all across western Oregon and the Columbia River Basin. Salmon were so important that Native peoples featured them in oral traditions as spiritually powerful beings. Of these tales, anthropologist Dell Hymes observed that it was salmon “who determines future destinies.”
Beginning with Robert Gray’s 1792 visit to the Columbia River, aboriginal fishers sold fresh salmon to traders, explorers, trappers, and settlers. For these EuroAmericans, salmon was also a fish of destiny, nourishing famished bodies and occasionally ameliorating scurvy. Salmon’s material and cultural importance declined with agrarian resettlement. The fish were important food and trade items for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1820s and 1830s, and they would continue to matter to industrial fishers.
The Columbia River non-Indian commercial salmon fishery traces its roots back to the mid-19th century. Following the development of the salmon canning process, Columbia River salmon were introduced to a growing world market. The first Columbia River cannery was operated by the Hume family at Eagle Cliff, Wahkiakum County, Washington, in 1866.
Extending to the Willamette, Snake, and coastal streams by 1890, industrial fishers deployed an array of technologies—hooks, gillnets, seines, weirs, traps, and fishwheels—to intercept adult salmon returning from the ocean to their spawning grounds. These harvests were substantial but not significantly greater than pre-contact takes. The devastation instead came from the combination of intensive harvests and extensive losses to spawning and rearing habitat.
By the 1880s, immigrant fishermen from Finland, Scandinavia, and the Mediterranean established new homes in the region, stabilizing the workforce, and organizing fishermen for mutual benefit, as well as to advocate for conservation of the fishery resource. As the fishery grew, the fishing industry became proactive on behalf of the fish resource. Fishermen organized the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union in 1884, and this group is still in existence today.
The CRFPU pushed for higher prices for fish and worked on issues of safety, navigation, and the conservation of salmon. On April 17, 1880, the Daily Astorian printed this notice: “We, the undersigned fishermen of the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union hereby pledge ourselves not to fish for less than sixty (60) cents per fish, and if any one of the members of this union be discharged on account of this resolution, we all agree to leave in a body. We also request every fisherman on this river to follow our example.” The notice was signed by more than 400 fishermen. The union also built a steam snag scow, the Pathfinder, to pull debris from the river bottom that could entangle and damage nets.
In 1886, the union allied with the American Federation of Labor. At all of the canneries along the Columbia, the union had representatives whose job it was to sign up members and represent them at union meetings. In the small fishing communities along the lower Columbia, immigrants spoke a variety of languages, including Croatian, Finnish, Norwegian, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Greek and German. There were few roads, and nearly all transportation between communities was by water. With no telephones and few newspapers, CRFPU representatives were frequently a major source of information about the wider world.
In 1896, the CRFPU led a bitter strike against the Columbia River packers to try to get a higher price for fish. Before the strike was over, the National Guard in Oregon and Washington was called out. Fishermen finally settled for four and a half cents per pound. Once the fishers were back at work, however, the packers reduced the price to two cents per pound and put a 500-pound daily limit on each boat. In response, 200 fishermen pooled their resources and formed the Union Fishermen’s Cooperative Packing Company. The coop was highly successful and lasted into the late 1940s, when it was sold.
At the height of the salmon canning boom, there were 38 canneries on the lower Columbia River, 22 of which were in Astoria alone. But, following the boom-and-bust pattern typical of 19th century extractive industries, the cannery system was dramatically over-capitalized and excessively wasteful.
Before the turn of the century, the industry called for the formation of fish commissions to regulate harvests. Canners responded with their own cartels, including the Alaska Packers Association (1893) and the Columbia River Packers Association (1899).
In 1898, however, businessman A.B. Hammond (for whom the town of Hammond, Oregon, is named) built a railroad from Goble west to Astoria. This connection with Northern Pacific Railway provided the Astoria salmon packers with a link to Portland and eastern markets, and they began shipping canned salmon east. Hammond recognized that the salmon industry was over-capitalized and in 1899 began buying, organizing, and consolidating packing companies into the Columbia River Packers Association (CRPA), sometimes known as “The Combine.”
Hammond’s agent, Edwin Stone, acquired the Aberdeen Packing Company, Eureka and Epicure, Columbia River Canneries Company, Astoria Packing Co., Fishermen’s Packing Co., and the J.W. and V. Cook and the Samuel Elmore facilities, as well as trap and seine sites, cans, labels, and trademarks. The first board of directors consisted of Samuel Elmore, George H. George, J.O. Hanthorn, B.A. Seaborg, J.W. Cook, M.J. Kinney, A.B. Hammond, T.B. McGovern, Edwin Stone, C.W. Fulton, G.C. Fulton, and William Gosselin. William Barker was named superintendent of canneries, with Samuel Elmore as company manager.
Anglers formed clubs, and in 1908 they began to use Oregon’s and Washington’s voter initiative processes to outlaw commercial netting. Like many Oregonians, anglers regarded the largely ethnic gillnet fishery as “ruthless” wasters, but they also coveted the rivers as their own private “sportsmen’s paradise.”
The industry’s initial boom lasted until 1884, but then falling harvests and market saturation severely depressed prices. The decline of salmon canneries was propelled by social and natural developments. The next two decades were a period of consolidation, as a few companies broke or absorbed their weaker competitors. Eventually, a few consortia controlled most of the market. In 1893, the Alaska Packers Association formed a coalition in Alaska Territory.
Consolidation did ease the industry’s self-destructive impulses, but it could not completely forestall other forces that were undermining the canned salmon market. From the 1860s to 1900, the fishery was confined to the lower Columbia, but eventually nearly every space in the lower river had been claimed as a quasi-private gillnet, poundnet, or seining ground. As runs declined, water became turf; and as tensions grew, independent fishers found themselves blocked from most fishing areas.
From 1899 to 1924, the CRPA expanded upriver and into Alaska. When Elmore died in 1910, George H. George became manager. Fred Barker, William Barker’s brother, became manager in 1913.
At about the same time boat technology changed. The fishery had originally been powered by sail, but by the 1890s captains began to install internal combustion engines, liberating them from dependence on the wind. Early successes induced more fishers to switch to gasoline-powered engines made by Clay or Palmer. The shift was slow but unmistakable.
In 1914, Columbia River packers canned nearly 22 million pounds and froze not quite 700,000 pounds of salmon; by 1935, the canned pack had fallen 6 million pounds, but the frozen fish grew by another 100,000 pounds. Refrigerated trucks and trains took ever more of the harvest directly to consumers rather than to canneries.
Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers had been working for several decades to tame the dangerous bar at the mouth of the Columbia. By 1893, the South Jetty substantially ameliorated the vicious currents that had terrified mariners for a century.
Within this social, technological, and environmental context, recently arrived Norwegians took their gasoline-powered boats across the bar and trolled for salmon in the ocean. What they found posed new problems for canneries. Ocean-caught salmon are usually not mature. Their bodies are smaller and have less fat than an adult salmon on its spawning run. These natural contingencies converged with three technological developments: improved refrigeration, flash-freezing, and better transportation.
The result opened new markets. It made little sense to can troll-caught salmon, partly because low fat content warranted a lower grade and partly because it was possible to sell these fish fresh in North American and European markets. Only the choicest specimens were used, but urban consumers were willing to pay higher prices even for Coho, the predominant species of the ocean fishery.
In 1924, the CRPA re-organized as the Columbia River Packers Association, Inc., with William L. “Tule” Thompson, W.A. Tyler, and A.B. Thompson as the incorporating officers. In the early years of the Great Depression, several Alaska salmon runs that the company depended on failed and there was a drastic drop in market prices, which resulted in serious financial losses for the company.
In 1935, CRPA obtained a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and other reorganization strategies began to pay off. By 1937, the company was showing favorable balances, and a year later the company began canning albacore tuna. By mid-twentieth century, the company had diversified into crab, bottomfish, and other species.
In 1946, Transamerica Corporation acquired a controlling interest in CRPA, Inc. Tom Sandoz became president of the company in 1950, beginning a period of rapid expansion in both markets and packing facilities. With a partnership with Wards Cove Packing Company in 1959, the firm became the world’s largest salmon packer. Castle and Cooke acquired the company by merger in 1961 and changed its name to Bumble Bee Seafoods, Inc., taking advantage of its most famous brand name. Tom Sandoz became chairman of the board in 1963, with John S. McGowan as president.
By the 1950s, only gillnetters could still work the lower Columbia River. Fishers in almost every other stream and bay had been evicted to the ocean, and with them had gone both the lifeblood of the canneries and any possibility of matching harvest to individual stocks of salmon. Anglers exacerbated these trends by using a series of bills and voter initiatives to drive net fishers from Oregon’s and Washington’s rivers.
Continued globalization of the fish industry sometimes resulted in the sale of corporate assets. The Bumble Bee company downsized by selling its physical plants and fishing fleets, putting its emphasis on its brand name and reputation for quality. In 1975, the company headquarters moved from Astoria to San Francisco and later to San Diego. The Astoria canning facility closed in 1980. The company, now known as Bumble Bee Seafoods, LLC, is currently owned by Connors Brothers of Toronto, Canada.
CRPA employees and managers established the Hanthorn Cannery Foundation in 2003. This organization seeks to preserve canning industry history and establish an interpretive center in Astoria. The foundation also maintains the Hanthorn Cannery building, the oldest extant waterfront structure in Oregon (built 1875), and the last original CRPA cannery.