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Fishing and Canneries of the Gorge (History)

The History of Fishing and Canneries in the Columbia River Gorge
by Stuart, Historian,

A commercial Indian fishery and aboriginal trade system has existed for thousands of years on the Columbia River. The evidence of the spread of obsidian from quarries in Central Oregon across the Plateau testify to such a trade system. In 1792, when Captain Robert Gray first passed over the Columbia River bar, he purchased salmon from the Chinooks. It was not until the 1830s that the great Indian fisheries on the Columbia were challenged. It was in that decade that the Hudsonís Bay Company employees and other entrepreneurs focused their attention on the resource. Captain John Dominis sailed into the estuary in 1829 and over the next two years while working out of a station near Deer Island, he purchased salmon from the Indians and sold them in Boston at 10 cents per pound. Other operations began such as salting, packing, and export. Captain John H. Couch sailed into the Columbia River in 1840 with the intent of starting a fish exporting business.

The Hudsonís Bay Company exploited the fishing industry on the Columbia River more ambitiously and successfully than any other company existing at the time. The company was working to get its posts in the Pacific Northwest as close to self-sufficiency as possible and the industry ran parallel with its farming and stock raising operations through its subsidiary, The Puget Sound Agricultural Company. Fisheries were operated by the Hudsonís Bay Company at Pillar Rock on the lower estuary, the falls of the Willamette, and the Cascades of the Columbia Gorge.

In the 1850s, gillnets were used at Oak Point and fisherman such as Hodgkins and Sanders sold their catch in Portland. It was not until the 1860s that a critical juncture in the salmon industry took place with the development of steam pressure cooking and the sealing of fish in soldered tin cans. This development allowed for the sale of preserved salmon on the world market. George W. Hume, William Hume, and Andrew S. Hapgood relocated from Sacramento to Cathlamet, Washington and established a cannery there in 1866. During their first year of operations, they produced 6000 cases, each holding 48 one-pound cans of salmon. It was in the Columbia River Gorge between Beacon Rock and Stevenson and between Crateís Point near The Dalles and Celilo Falls where the industry centered. Nearly 50 canneries operated along the Columbia River by the 1880s. 630,000 cases of salmon valued at $3,000,000 were packed in 1883 which was an estimated harvest of 43,000,000 pounds of Chinook. The fishing industry also saw two new developments which contributed to productivity and efficiency. Chinese workers from California were drawn to the canneries as they expanded in the 1870s. Although Euro-Americans dominated the fishing crews, it was the Chinese who were given the tedious, hard labor in the canneries. From May to October, thousands of Chinese workers cleaned fish, chopped off heads and tails, and operated the noisy machinery in the canneries.

Although fishwheels had been in use in other parts of the globe, S.W. Williams and his brother secured a patent to one in 1879 which they constructed near the Cascades. By 1881, the fishwheel harvested between 1500 and 4000 salmon and steelhead each day. The fishwheels expanded to 40 in 1889 following the sale of the Williams brothersí wheel to the Warren Canning Company. There were 57 fishwheels in operation in 1892 and 76 in 1899. Both fixed and scow wheels were constructed by the harvesters. Both operated in the same manneróthe only difference being that the scow wheels could be moved from place to place.

The yields of the fishwheels in the 1880s were quite large. In 1881, a two-dip wheel built by William Rankin McCord on Bradford Island in partnership with William S. Ladd and Frank Warren Cannery at Warrendale reported taking 10,000 salmon in a 24-hour period and on another occasion, 30 tons of sturgeon.

The Dalles was also a site where fishwheels and canneries were set up. In 1896, the Seufert brothers, who began operations at Fifteenmile Creek, dominated the industry in the upriver area. They not only processed fish in their canneries but agricultural products as well.

The 1890s saw a steady decline in the number of salmon being caught, driven in part by the efficient operations of the 79 fishwheels along the Columbia River. In 1926, fishwheels were banned in Oregon and Washington took similar action in 1934. Dam construction, pollution, over-fishing, and other factors further depleted the salmon, sturgeon, and steelhead on the Columbia River by the mid-twentieth century. In spite of this, the Indians were able to maintain their fisheries.


Beckham, Stephen Dow, Rick Minor, Kathryn Anne Toepel, and Jo Reese.†Prehistory and History of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon and Washington.†Eugene, OR. Heritage Research Associates, Inc. 1988.

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