This Nest of Dangers 
‘A gran’ fine day’ to die

Crossing the bar.

Several years ago, as Columbia-Pacific Heritage Museum Curator Barbara Minard and I were talking about the many losses of small fishing boats in those days before motors, she stated, with emphasis, “These boats are very important.”

Ever since, when I see a reference to one of these boats, Barbara’s admonition echoes in my ear.

This incomplete chronology comes from the Astorian, unless otherwise noted in parentheses, and suggests why she said what she did.

1879: “The sorry experiences of fishing this year, although it has cost many lives and the loss of much property in boats and nets, has demonstrated that the best place to catch fish, and the finest fish, is as close as possible to the bar at the entrance of the Columbia river. One thing besides that has been learned, and that is that the boats used are adapted to fishing in that locality. If the business is to be carried on hereafter, it will be necessary to provide sea-going craft to take the place of the little fishing boats. We need but refer to the list of disasters, day after day, to show the urgency of this suggestion. Tug-boats like the Brenham, the Astoria or the Columbia, should be used, with nets much longer and deeper that the ones in use, and the nets should be taken up by steam power.”

1881: “One of the prettiest scenes in Oregon is the fishing fleet returning homeward to Astoria from the Cape Saturday evenings on a fair tide, with a leading wind. Yesterday we counted 173 boats under canvas. There were many more, but they were so close together that all could not be counted.”

1881: “The body of Enerico Marin, who was drowned near Wood island May 23d, was found near Brownsport slough. He was brought to Astoria and will be buried from Franklin’s undertakers shop this forenoon at ten o’clock.”

1881: “Two men fishing for James Quinn came in through the surf on the north … beach in front of Mr. L.A. Loomis’s place Sunday night, after drifting about on the ocean for fourteen hours. Their boat had capsized in the breakers, but the net hung to it, and they hung to the boat and net; being towed, tangled as they were in the meshes of the net, a great part of the time. They came to the city on Monday. The boat and net were also saved. It is certainly a miraculous escape from death.”

1883: “Two men, one named Fred Anderson, owner of a fishing boat and his boat-puller named Pete, were drowned opposite P.J. McGowan’s place Wednesday evening. The boat and net were found in Mr. McGowan’s fish trap Thursday morning. It is supposed that they were lying at anchor and were caught be some drift and upset; the boat was somewhat injured. The bodies of the men were found in the trap and brought to this city yesterday morning. The funeral will take place from the Weston Hotel at two o’clock this afternoon.”

1886: “Portland, Ore. July 8 — A special from Astoria says that during a gale which prevailed off Columbia river entrance night before last, several fishermen were drowned. The name of only one of the unfortunates could be learned, Wm. G. Steaff. Four men were engulfed in breakers directly beneath the lighthouse on Cape Hancock, which is a precipitous rock two hundred feet high. The storm was so violent that it was impossible to render aid. The fishing boats were smashing the rocks.”

1887: “Nils Hansen, of the West Coast Packing Co., drifted out through the south channel last Tuesday morning, about three o’clock, and into the breakers, where the boat upset and the net went adrift. He clambered onto the capsized boat, drifting to sea, and at three o’clock that afternoon was picked up twenty miles out to sea, by the government steamer McArthur, and carried to Shoalwater bay, from whence he arrived in safety yesterday afternoon. He bewails the loss of his boat and net, but is thankful that he escaped with his life. It is no unusual experience for Columbia river fishermen to thus drift out on the trackless ocean, out of sight of land or seeming hope of rescue, and it is only by the fortunate passing of a vessel that the rescue is made.”

1887: “At 8 o’clock A. M. the life crew saved two men from a swamped fishing boat on Peacock Spit. Boat belonged to Jos. Hume. … A boat belonging to the Aberdeen Packing Co. was swamped at 6 a.m. by a blind breaker, while the men were throwing out their net. They hung on to the boat until the life crew came out with usual promptitude and rescued them. The boat and net drifted out, but are expected back on the flood tide.”

1892: “The City of Topeka today brought to Seattle two fishermen who had been picked up at sea 12 miles off the Columbia river bar. They were Austin Small, aged 24, and Isaac Larson, aged 30, and told a story of perilous adventure. At 8 o’clock Wednesday afternoon, Small and Larson left Astoria in a salmon-fishing boat, rowing down toward the bar. They set their net and drifted up the river on the flood tide. Then, on the tide turning, they drifted back to sea. Before they began to haul their net, they had gone too far, and soon they were on the bar with the ebb tide running madly. There was a little wind and the men set sail, but could make no headway and were carried into the breakers on the bar, in which the boat was tossed for an hour and a half, being steadily carried out to sea. At 2 o’clock a dense fog settled on the water, so that the fishermen could see only a few feet. At 3 o’clock a great billow split the boat and filled it with water. Fortunately, the corks in the net were tangled with the boat and were sufficient to keep it afloat, but Larson, who could not swim, was up to his chest in water, and the spray was continuously dashing over him. Small contrived to keep himself above water by raising the mast and hanging on to it. He also hung a flag of distress on it. At 6 o’clock the fog lifted, but the men could see no sail or land. Larson was well nigh dead from cold and fatigue, but Small thought of his wife and baby and retained hope. He, too, was beginning to despair when about 8 o’clock Thursday morning he sighted the City of Topeka. The steamer came alongside and tossed ropes to the men and took them aboard, where they were kindly treated.” [Oregonian.]

1893: “Sunshine, April 18, 1893 — Capt. Harry Finely while crossing the bay from Sealand to Sunshine [on Shoalwater Bay] last Thursday with the mail sacks in his fish boat was capsized and came near drowning. A sudden squall had come up and a heavy sea was running; the boat would not answer to the helm and before he could get the sail down the boat swamped. When she turned over Mr. Finely climbed up on the bottom but was washed off by a heavy swell. He again swam to the boat and lashing himself to it clung to the boat’s bottom for three hours benumbed with cold and with little hope of getting ashore alive. The boat finally got on a bar near Ellen Sands and the Captain was trying to wade ashore when he saw a boat coming out from Sealand and he signaled her. It proved to be the sloop Genevra [sic] and J. L. Stout, her owner, rescued him from his perilous position. There was a deep sink separating Captain Finely from the Ellen Sands and but for Mr. Stout’s fortunate appearance he would probably have perished from cold and exhaustion before morning. Throughout all of his peril he clung fast to the mail sacks and saved them, their contents being but little the worse for the wetting they had received. On the following day Mr. Stout took him to Sunshine.” (South Bend Journal.)

1893: “THE DEADLY COLUMBIA. Six Men Drowned in That Stream Within as Many Days. Astoria, OR., May 18 — During the past week there have been six fatalities among fishermen. Yesterday two nets were picked up on Sand Island. They belonged to men in the employ of the Cutting Packing Company. The boats and their occupants have been missing since Monday. A boat belonging to the A. Booth Packing Company was picked up yesterday on Desdemona Sands. Nothing has been heard of the men.” (San Francisco Call.)

1893: “The town was startled and shocked Wednesday afternoon by the sad news that J.W. Cook and Andrew Hegstrom, members of a fishing party, had been drowned. The party composed of Geo. Myers, W.N. Box, J.W. Cook and Andrew Hegstrom, were returning from a fishing excursion up North River in Miller’s [sic] large fish boat. They had reached the mouth of the river and had started to cross the bay toward South Bend when a sudden squall struck them, the reefed sail bellied and shipped water and the boat was capsized in a trice. All succeeded in gaining the boat and all but Cook stripped to pants and shirt. The stern of the boat sank, the ballast having shifted and only the mast and main mast stays remained out of water, to which stays the ship wrecked party clung.

“… [Box] finally reached shore impeded though he was by his wooden leg. Utterly exhausted he could hardly crawl up the bank but finally reached the top and waved his hands to George Trott, who, by good fortune, was in sight and saw him beckoning. Will Crouch and George launched a boat and started to the rescue. Meanwhile Hegstrom, seeing that Box had succeeded in reaching shore, abandoned the boat in turn and struck out for shore. When but thirty feet away from the boat he suddenly sank and was seen no more. It is supposed that he was taken with cramps as he complained of slight cramps in his legs before leaving the boat.

“Geo. Myers clung to the stays and to Cook who had become exhausted and was losing his strength rapidly. The latter had his face to the opposite shore from Sea Haven and did not see Box reach the land but happened to turn his head just in time to see Hegstrom sink. His head then fell on his chest and he became limp. Exhausted as he was the sight of the drowning man, bringing as it did before his mind his own probable fate, undoubtedly hastened his death. Still clinging to the dead body and holding bravely to the ropes Geo. Myers kept his head and husbanded his fast failing strength until his rescuers reached him and took him and his human burden into the boat when he fainted.

“The boat capsized about 9 a.m. and for nearly three full hours Myers had held on amid cold rain and dashing waves and with a cold and strong wind which cut like a knife. Fifteen minutes more and Myers would have gone the way of his dead companion.

“Dr. Gruwell went to Sea Haven in Larson’s dray and soon brought Myers around all right. The dead body of Mr. Cook was brought up town to the Murdock building. The drowned man, Andrew Hegstrom, has been employed for years by L.W. Bristol in the lumber business. He was unmarried and has no relatives on the coast, but has a sister living in St. Paul., Minn.

“Mr. Cook came here about three months ago from Ballard, and was engineer at the shingle mill. He leaves a wife and many friends to mourn his death. He was about forty-nine years of age, and a Mason in good standing. He was formerly a fireman on the Chicago & Northwestern R.R. and was originally from Lyons, Ia. His remains will be taken to Seattle today for burial.” (South Bend Journal.)

1894: Grave fears are entertained for the safety of “Big” John Mattson, otherwise known as the “Lucky Fisherman,” and his boat-puller, Dave Howard. Late Saturday evening his boat was seen in the breakers, and late yesterday afternoon the men had not come home, and the wife of Mattson was almost prostrated from the mental anxiety she was undergoing from his long absence. It is possible that the men have drifted out to sea and been picked up by some craft, but there is room for serious apprehension in regard to their safety.

1894: “Boat No. 59, belonging to Samuel Elmore’s cannery, was accidentally capsized in the south channel yesterday, midway between Fort Stevens and the end of the jetty. Captain Wilson and his boat puller managed to get hold of the upturned craft and held on until another fishboat came to the rescue. The men were taken aboard, and the greater part of the net was saved by cutting it. The boat and the balance of the net drifted out to No. 10 buoy, where they were picked up by the Point Adams life crew and turned over to the steamer Elmore which happened along at the time on her way in from Tillamook. It is supposed that the two men were intoxicated at the time of the accident and their boat became unmanageable.”

1894: “August Nelson, while out in a small boat yesterday afternoon, in the vicinity of Booth’s cannery, came into rough water and had his boat capsized. Nelson was considered a good swimmer, but when within five yards of the net-racks sank beneath the waves and did not again appear. It is supposed that he was seized with cramps. Nelson was a single man, and his relatives here are three brothers and one sister.”

1895: “Yesterday was a perfect summer day, and Irish like, the common greeting on the street was ‘It’s a gran’ fine day.’ An inspiring sight was presented on the bay in the late afternoon. A stiff breeze sprung up and almost the entire fishing fleet, some 800 boats, started out at the same time, all apparently making for a common point in Baker’s Bay, listed to the same side and dashing the spray right and left, truly made a picture well worth remembering.

“The declining sun lighted up the scene and made the white sails of the rapidly retreating boats stand out like cameos in a setting of gold.

1897: Gus Snugg and Andrew Becker lost their nets yesterday morning at Clatsop spit. The nets were carried behind the government jetty and could not be recovered. Alex. Sutton’s net got away from him and drifted out into the ocean. He followed it and recovered it off the lightship. The water was smooth outside.”

1897: “Proof was brought in yesterday by one of the fishermen of the drowning in the breakers at the mouth of the river of two Finnish fishermen. The accident happened Wednesday night. Their names could not be learned, but it is known they belonged to the Union Co-operative Cannery. The boat was swamped in the breakers and the men went down for the last time before help could reach them. The sea outside was smooth. Two other boats are reported as swamped, but the men recovered the boats and succeeded in righting them.”

1899: “About one o’clock Friday morning four fishing boats drifted out over the bar. The Fort Canby life-saving crew put out to save the men and succeeded in rescuing the crew of two of the boats. The other two boats drifted out to sea and, in the darkness, could not be found by the life-saving crew. The nets of all the boats were in the water and as soon as the tide commenced to flood they drifted back again. The gear belonging to the rescued men were saved and the missing boats also returned safely from their hazardous trip.”

1899: “The steamer Fulton arrived in yesterday from San Francisco and way points. … She reported that while outside about three or four miles from shore, near the lightship, she came across a fish boat with two occupants, who signaled the steamer, and a line was thrown to them, the Fulton towing them well inside the harbor. The boat was No. 204, manned by William Carl and Lewis Williams, who fish for the Columbia River Packers Association. They had drifted out with the ebb tide Wednesday night and yesterday the wind being contrary, they were beating back to the harbor, but were making slow progress when the Fulton was sighted. As one of the fishermen said, ‘We might have made it and we might not.’”

•••

They further expressed themselves as determined to not fish any farther out than Sand Island hereafter. While this experience is a common one to Astoria fishermen, taking such chances is at all times dangerous, and like risks should not be incurred by the fishermen unless willing someday to pay for their recklessness by filling a watery grave.”

The commercial fishermen of the Columbia River have never had an easy life. As I look out my window and watch the main stem of the river, I cannot imagine how they did it, or how they would do it now, if only the governors of Oregon and Washington would let them.

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