It’s hard to find, unless you’re an awed duck hunter idling your boat up on a fall afternoon, or a sea lion venturing among the makeshift posts that replaced rotted pilings. Pillar Rock Packing Co., possibly the best-preserved 19th-century cannery complex on the Washington bank of the Columbia, was never too chummy with overland traffic and is more than 10 miles of winding back road from State Route 4 in Western Wahkiakum County, still lovingly tended by a single family since 1978.
Leon Gollersrud and his family purchased the near-ghost town of Pillar Rock 101 years after Englishman John T. M. Harrington founded the cannery — and town — in 1877. The cannery building was raised from old-growth timber with such fine mortise-work that window sashes were constructed without nails. At its height, the hamlet was home to about 200 packers, fishermen, other workers and family members, including a large proportion of Chinese immigrant workers.
Bygone scenes come to life
As I interviewed Mr. Gollersrud on a sunny September afternoon, the bygone scenes bustled again.
The huge receiving room over the water was sometimes knee deep in salmon, which the fish hoist drew up in dripping loads for the gutting machine, known rather unkindly as the ‘Iron Chink,’ which also removed head, tail and fins. Salmon carcasses passed under the darting knives of skilled Chinese fish butchers on the “Slime Line.”
After 1921, cans were largely packed by women workers.
Before 1877, the Hudson’s Bay Co. had salted fish here, but Harrington’s enterprise was at the cutting edge of the canning boom, one of 29 canneries on the Columbia the year it was built. Overhead in the packing room, part of the iron chute is still intact down which the last cans rolled in 1945, as Pillar Rock abandoned packing operations, continuing to buy fish for external processing until the late 1970s.
Rough and tumble
While this community thrived, it was a complex, sometimes unsavory one. There was little police intervention here during the early decades. On one occasion, the general manager heard of a drunken would-be assassin coming for him on the Altoona boat. Mr. Gollersrud recounted the story with relish.
“The manager’s family was on the same boat,” he said, “and the manager was warned by telegraph.” Apparently, this plucky gentleman waited coolly on the broad ramp leading to the large double doors of the cargo entrance, and when the (slightly compromised) rascal appeared, shoved him to his demise in the murky green water, “and everybody on the boat saw it happen.” A rusty revolver found under the cargo ramp may be a relic of the incident. Other disreputable behaviors at Pillar Rock are indicated by vast numbers of old wine and beer bottles found in the area, by tiny opium vials and a peculiar opium pipe probably imported by Chinese workers, and by the conspicuous absence of a place of worship.
Personnel of many nationalities worked here, including various Scandinavians and even Slovenian immigrants. But among the bunkhouses and family dwellings on the hill, Chinese workers were segregated to the east end, where they maintained a small store — and, reputedly, an opium den.
Gillnetters delivered fish for nets, food, lumber and moorage, receiving only the surplus in cash, and the company store, post office, telegraph and steamer ticket sales did good business. Many cannery-employed families worked here only in summer, returning to homes in Astoria, Portland, or even San Francisco for the winters. As a sample of the cannery’s output, during the 1924 season Pillar Rock produced 25,000 48-can cases of salmon.
But times changed. Before World War I, gasoline engines began to replace sale-power in gillnetting, while the telegraph lines to Pillar Rock gave way to telephone. In 1926, the Pillar Rock Packing Co. leased the cannery to a partnership called the Pillar Rock Co., and in 1930 the New England Fish Company took over operations. The Washington bank’s many canneries — Brookfield, Altoona, Ilwaco, Chinook and Cathlamet, among others — didn’t have much longer to thrive. Gollersrud speculates that the incursion of highways from Longview helped make the local factories obsolete, as fish could be trucked out to processing. Also, as local historian Carlton Appelo noted, the Columbia salmon runs were declining at that time.
After the New England Fish Co. suspended canning at Pillar Rock the year Japan surrendered, the facility passed through several hands. When its last commercial owner, canned-food giant Del Monte, sold the Pillar Rock location in ’78, six remaining fishermen were deeded with the enterprise, still delivering salmon for goods and services. Three were stragglers from the defunct gillnetting enterprise at Brookfield.
People don’t last like old-growth timber, and the aging caretaker I interviewed will not be able to maintain the site indefinitely. “We want to get a nonprofit going,” he told me, but seemed skeptical of the prospects. Unless interest and funding appear, the present writing may describe the structure at the high point of its preservation in the 21st century. Small intriguing details persist almost unchanged, such as the wooden roller by which, after packing was suspended, nets were pulled into the former can-storage loft for repair — or beams in the former ice room, half-rotted by moisture rising from the ice blocks once preserved here in sawdust.
The south door of the can loft affords a magnificent view of the blue river, distant Oregon mountains, and the eponymous pillar-like rock rising 80 feet from the riverbed to show its head above the surface. (It was from the vicinity of Pillar Rock where in November 1805 the Lewis and Clark Expedition first observed ocean breakers on the Columbia River bar and thus knew they were near the westward end of their long journey.)
It also reveals one factor of the changed world that stranded the cannery — log ships and container ships wending up the channel to Longview or Portland, symbols of a global economy even enterprising John T. M. Harrington could hardly have imagined.
Special thanks to Mr. Leon Gollersrud, and the Naselle Timberland Library.