For those of us who have known the Lower Columbia for the better part of a century, the little settlement of McGowan almost comes into focus as we drive the highway between the Fort Columbia tunnel and the Astoria/Megler bridge approach. Perhaps we can’t recall the long dock or the fish receiving station or cannery, and certainly not the early salmon salting operation, but the houses and the office building can still be seen in the mind’s eye. Even the bustle around the mess hall and the sound of children’s voices in the schoolyard seem just beyond hearing distance.
Located between Chinook Point and Point Ellice, McGowan was an early “company town” — a salmon settlement on the Columbia River from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-20th century. Long before that, perhaps for 1,000 centuries, the site was one of the many Chinook fishing villages along the river. Briefly, in 1805, it was one of the camps used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, now commemorated as part of the Lewis and Clark National Park and called “Middle Village/Station Camp.”
The site had also been the location of a 320-acre “mission grant” taken by Catholic missionary Father Louis Joseph Lionnet in 1848. Five years later, Irishman Patrick McGowan bought Father Lionnet’s property for $1,200 and filed a Donation Land Claim for the 320-acre site. For the next four years, McGowan lived intermittently on his claim, “proving it up” and considering his options for the future. The site was known as “McGowan’s Landing” and has been called “McGowan,” in one form or another ever since.
The southeast corner of the McGowan’s claim adjoined Washington Hall’s newly created town of Chenookville and, to the north, was bordered by Captain Scarborough’s Donation Land Claim, by then owned by Roque DuCheney, manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company Store. Apparently, McGowan toyed with the idea of also purchasing the Scarborough claim but, instead, leased it for forty dollars a year with a contractual agreement that he would “in a good and husband like manner carefully preserve from injury all the fruit trees and ornamental and useful shrubbery.”
The arrangement, however, was not to McGowan’s liking and, when his wife, Jane, fell ill in 1857, he returned with his family to his Portland, Oregon clothing business. Or at least, that is the assumption of current family generations based on various stories of those early years. And four years later, as those stories go, when Jane had fully recovered, P.J. sold his Oregon business interests and the McGowan family moved permanently to their property in the newly created Washington Territory.
No one, not even any of P.J.’s numerous descendants, is quite certain what prompted his initial interest in the salmon fishery. Very probably he had seen the seining operations of the Chin ooks right in front of his newly acquired property. As described by his contemporary, historian James Swan, in 1852: “…in seasons of plenty, great hauls are often made, and frequently a hundred fine fish of various sizes are taken at one cast of the seine.”
Additionally, two significant changes in the fledgling Columbia River salmon fishing industry were undoubtedly known to McGowan. Most significant was the 1846 signing of the Oregon Treaty which set the Canada-United States border at the 49th parallel north. Fort Vancouver and the Hudson Bay Company with its many satellite stores were now squarely within American territory. Although the treaty ensured that the HBC could continue to operate for a time, the company’s presence, including their substantial salted salmon operation, was fast disappearing from Washington Territory and, specifically, from Chenookville.
Up until McGowan’s arrival, the only other serious exporter of salted salmon had been by early pioneer entrepreneur William “Brandywine” McCarty, also an Irishman and known as the savior of the crew of the Robert Bruce. McCarty’s death by drowning in 1854 brought his business to an abrupt end. Perhaps Patrick McGowan saw an opportunity.
There are some indications that McGowan, also, did a bit of experimenting with salting salmon during the four years before he returned to Portland in 1857. In an 1887 report by the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries is a mention that “Mr. P.J. McGowan packed salted salmon in the lower portions of the river during the fifties…” It does not take too much to imagine that his return to Portland was, in part, to consider his options for the future — the relative promise of an involvement in the neophyte salmon industry versus a continuing career in the mercantile trade.
Beginnings of the town
Or, perhaps, P.J. never really “returned” in the sense of staying full-time in Portland. It was in 1860 that his commodious McGowan home was built, certainly the first substantial structure of the settlement. Eventually, the house would eventually accommodate Jane and P.J.’s family of seven children (only four of whom would live to adulthood) and, in later years, would serve as a multigenerational household until son Henry could build his own family home.
Other evidence of P.J.’s continuing residence in Pacific county is the 1860 U.S. Census for Washington Territory. Listed were four members of the McGowan family: PJ, a fisherman born in Ireland and Jane, born in New York with children Maria, age 10 months, and James H., age 5, both born in Washington Territory.
It seems clear that P.J. was already working in the salmon industry in some capacity and that his daughter had been born in Washington Territory, probably at his DLC, during the very period of time that some accounts put him back in Portland pursuing his business as a shopkeeper. Whatever else had transpired in the first decade following his property purchase from Father Lionnet, the McGowan family has always credited 1861 with the functional beginning of P.J.’s salmon salting operation and his establishment of the first salmon packing company in Washington Territory.
In those early years, the fish were caught almost entirely by Indians who were usually paid about $40 per month or 10 cents per fish, depending upon the arrangement with the buyer. At first there was no dock and fishermen delivered their catch directly to the saltery which was built near the shore. According to Chinook tribal lore, despite a comfortable working relationship, McGowan would not allow any Native Americans on his property — not even to collect unwanted fish heads or other unused salmon parts.
The salting process
At the saltery, the “butchers” chose the largest, fattest, unbruised salmon, eviscerated them, removed their heads leaving part of the bony shoulder girdle for ease in handling the fish. Body cavities were carefully cleaned of blood and the outside of the fish lightly scored with a sharp knife to permit the salt pickle to penetrate during curing. The butchers were the most skilled of the saltery crew. A good butcher could remove fins, head, tail, and entrails with eight knife strokes and dress up to 2,000 salmon in a 10-hour day
As the butcher finished his job, the fish went to the “splitter” who used a sharp knife to remove the backbone and split the fish into halves. Proceeding to the “salter,” the salmon halves were placed on the salting table, the flesh rubbed gently with salt, then placed skin side down on two or three additional handfuls of salt. Layer after layer of the filleted fish, amply salted between layers, filled large wooden vats called tierces that could hold 300 to 400 pounds of fish.
Ultimately, the fish were transferred to 30-gallon barrels, which were filled to capacity with the fish extending above the open top by a third of the barrel’s depth. They were then forced tightly into the casks by the barrel head which was pushed down by means of a screw and then nailed into place. This assured an airtight, spoilage-free method of transporting the fish to ports as distant as the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii.)
Although there was a potential market for the salted fish on the East Coast as well as in England, shipping logistics in the 1860s still required sailing through the Tropics and around Cape Horn, the high temperatures during the voyage almost a guarantee of a spoiled cargo. It wasn’t until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 and shipments could be made via San Francisco that those wider markets could be tapped.
The Cooper (and his wife)
Shipping containers of various sizes were made by a cooper and, depending on need, might be tierces, half-barrels holding 100 pounds; or kilos holding 25 to 50 pounds of the salted fish. The cooper was a skilled technician, fashioning the containers from raw wood through many processes. Of all of McGowan’s earliest workers, only the name of his cooper, a Mr. Norton, is known, and all because of an accident that set McGowan’s business back for a time.
In early September 1868, neighbor Joe McNamee was burning brush when a southwest breeze came up, spreading the fire toward his home as well as toward the McGowan and Norton places. McGowan backfired to protect his property but, after four days, the wind shifted, uniting the two blazes and fanning them downriver.
The saltery, along with sheds, fences, barrels of fish, tools, staves, and cooper shop went up in flames. No lives were lost, though the cooper Norton’s wife, who was unable to move quickly, had a narrow escape. The story was long told that she managed to flee to a small stream in which she sat and was “basted” with dippers of water until the fire moved on.
Gradually, both the McGowan Company and the town, itself, grew. In addition to the saltery and packing shed, McGowan also owned seining grounds on the river, installed and operated pound nets (known as “fish traps”) and built boats which were leased to fishermen who fished for the company on shares. Several small, one-story cottages such as the Norton place were located near the office building and it wouldn’t be long until accommodations for single workers would be supplied, as well.
Salmon canning begins
In 1866, the first salmon canning operation on the Columbia, the Eagle Cliff Cannery, began in Wahkiakum County, just 60 miles upriver from McGowan’s place. Soon canneries proliferated along the lower river but, even so, McGowan stuck with his saltery operation for another eighteen years waiting for the fledgling canning industry to settle down. Among other difficulties, hand-made tins had a tendency to explode, solder to fail, and glass containers often broke in transit.
It was not until 1884 that P.J. finally changed over to a canning operation. At that time, he admitted his four sons as partners and changed the name of the business to P.J. McGowan and Sons with each son taking charge of a cannery. Three were located in Washington at McGowan, Ilwaco, and North Cove; the fourth in Oregon at Warrendale. Headquarters for the business remained at McGowan.
A 350-foot dock was built just at the bend along the shoreline in front of the property, conveniently located near the deep-water channel. At dock’s end was a salmon receiving station where fishermen delivered their fish for transport by rail cars along the dock to the cannery which was located approximately 75 feet beyond the shoreline. The river bank was protected, then as now, by a rock embankment.
Many years later, in 1908, when the Peninsula’s narrow-gauge railroad Ilwaco-to-Megler extension opened, the rails ran along the river side of the cannery. A gravel road ran between the tracks and the cannery building. Today’s highway occupies both the old railbed and road area. Still later, the dock served as a gas depot for fishing boats, a staging area for boat rentals, and as a ‘landing’ for all of the McGowan river-based business. In April 1921, the Astoria-McGowan Ferry Company was incorporated by Capt. Fritz S. Elving. Within a month, a small diesel ferry, the Tourist, was launched — the beginning of a ferry service which continued (eventually from Megler) until the Astoria-Megler Bridge was opened in 1966.
Company and community
By 1905, P.J. McGowan and Sons had become streamlined under the management of the four brothers with Jim overseeing the seining grounds; John, the cannery; Charlie, the fish traps; and Henry, who ran the office out of the large building at McGowan, not far from the cannery. In addition, the office building housed a small store, which sold staples such as coffee, sugar, dry goods, and coal oil. Also given workspace in the office building were a bookkeeper and a tailor.
In 1901 the McGowan Post Office opened. The first postmaster was Edmond Noonan who served until 1905. Henry McGowan then served until the Post Office was discontinued in 1939. Adjoining the office, to the east, was the one-story residence where Horace Thyng and his wife, Zetta lived. Horace was bookkeeper for the company and, also, as assistant to the official postmaster, he took care of the mail that came and went by way of the narrow-gauge railroad.
Two other small, McGowan-owned cottages were located to the west of the cannery. During the heyday of P.J. McGowan and Sons, they were the residences of the Grove and Coyle families. Mr. Grove was employed by Henry McGowan and was referred to as “the farmer.” He took care of two milk cows and a team of horses, chickens and the vegetable garden and fruit orchard for the McGowan family. Tom Coyle worked on McGowan fish traps until they were outlawed in 1934; later he became Pacific County sheriff.
Additionally, there was a large dormitory housing some 30 to 40 men — cannery workers in the early years and, later, boat builders and other company workmen. A large vegetable garden for the workers was located nearby. As was the custom of the times, Chinese cannery workers were housed in their own dormitory, which also had a sizeable garden extending to the base of the hill behind the settlement.
In a 2016 article in this newspaper, Editor Matt Winters wrote of a recently discovered McGowan Company ledger from 1905 which gives a closer look at the McGowan business operation and, in particular, at the value placed upon their workforce: “The early 20th century was a time rife with racial prejudice against the Chinese, who were seen as competing for blue-collar jobs. But the McGowan records show individual workmen by name and occupation, and indicate they were well paid by the standards of the time, when the average American man made about $400 a year. For instance, Go Way, a mender, appears to have earned $482.60 plus $8.71 overtime between August and December 1905. Leog Die, a butcher, made nearly $575 in half a year. Lee Lum, the top can filler, did 90,459 cans in August, for which he was paid $175…”
McGowan family members were community-minded and public-spirited, particularly with regard to environmental impacts by the fishing industry of which they were an important part. When Alfred E. Houchen, who had been experimenting successfully with fish culture on his Bear River tideland farm since 1885, moved his hatchery to the Chinook River property of Jasper Prest some ten years later, John McGowan worked with them to construct an improved facility which became the site of the first official Washington State hatchery . Later, from 1909 to 1911, Henry McGowan served as Senator in the Washington State legislature, representing Pacific and Wahkiakum Counties and paying particular attention to the concerns of his constituents regarding fisheries.
Fresh water was supplied by the reservoir on the hill behind the town. Running water, necessary to the cannery operation, (but still considered a luxury in most homes during those years) was always available for business and residential needs at McGowan. Today, the reservoir continues to supply the water for the four current dwelling units on the property. Most prominent of these is the Henry McGowan house which was built in 1911, just a five-minute walk east of the McGowan office building.
Henry insisted that the Craftsman-style house be built using local materials even though building contractors discouraged using the sandstone from the nearby quarry, claiming that it would not hold up. However, Portland architect, Ellis Lawrence thought it would be fine and the plans went forward. An inspection of the structure almost a century later revealed that the house remained in perfectly sound condition.
Until the house was built, Henry and his family had lived with P.J. McGowan in his home. Henry had his new home designed with a suite on the first floor which had a bedroom, bathroom, and sitting room for his aging father, plus a room for P.J.’s nurse. To accommodate the patriarch’s wheelchair, a boardwalk was built leading from the steps, across the grounds and out to the road.
In 1904, P.J. McGowan had donated the land and the funds to build a small church on his property which is still known affectionately throughout the area as “The McGowan Church.” It was dedicated as St. Mary’s Catholic Church on May 20, 1906, and is a familiar north shore Columbia River landmark, especially beloved by fisherman. In keeping with long tradition at the little church, a “fisherman’s mass” is held on several Sunday nights each year between Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Family lifeAt one time there was also a school at McGowan, but when the railroad tunnel went through in the early 1900s and transportation to Chinook was easier, the school was discontinued and children attended the Chinook School. Almost a century later, in 2003, P.J.’s granddaughter, Catherine “Kay” McGowan Garvin, recalled the trip into Chinook:
“We drove up and over the Fort Columbia hill,” she said. “At first we went in a Model T Ford that had curtains of isinglass. Yitz Herring drove. It was a lousy road — just one lane wide with pull-outs every now and then. There wasn’t much traffic, but if you did meet another vehicle, one car had to back up or down until they reached a pull-out so the other car could pass. Riding to school must have frightened me because I wrote a will… just in case. I was about six.”
Another of Kay’s vivid childhood memories occurred a few years later, on Dec. 8, 1922. She was ten when the family was wakened in the middle of the night by the red glow of fire from across the river. Astoria was burning! Thirty blocks in the city center were destroyed with 2,500 residents losing their homes. The fire’s rapid spread was caused by flames traveling rapidly beneath city, attacking the creosoted pilings that supported the pavement. The fire is considered to be one of the worst in Oregon’s history.
During those years, there were a number of children in McGowan and, in addition to Kay, children from the Lindstrom, Coyle, and Wicken children rode over the hill to school and back each day. Their homes were located west of St. Mary’s, near the base of the wooded hill, which formed the easterly boundary of Ft. Columbia — a complex of three houses with adjoining small barns, chicken coops and sheds and surrounded by trees and vegetation. Old photographs reveal elevated wooden boardwalks leading to various buildings over the low (and often wet) areas of the property.
In one house lived Marie and Charles Wicken with their four children. Charles tended fish traps for the McGowan operation. In the adjoining house lived the Jack Coyle family with five children (the oldest son, Tom, would later live in one of the small cottages with his own family) and although Mr. Coyle died early on, the family managed to stay together, the older children working in various capacities for the McGowan Company. Eric and Hilda Lindstrom and their twelve children lived in the third house until 1918 when they moved to Chinook. Eric Lindstrom was in charge of the McGowan horse-seining operation at Jetty Sands. Descendants of these families and others who lived and worked at McGowan take pride in the stories passed down by their great-grandparents and grandparents — stories that tell of a unique settlement in Pacific County.
An era ends
P.J. kept his hand in the business operations of P.J. McGowan & Sons until his death in 1912, a few months shy of his 96th birthday. Reported the Observer on Oct. 4 that year: “…P.J. McGowan was remarkable in character and achievement…he played fair with his fishermen and succeeded in retaining them when others failed. He helped those who showed a disposition to help themselves. He was plain and unassuming in dress, kind and gentle in manner, an enthusiastic and entertaining talker, possessed of an immense fund of information and reminiscence, a voracious and careful reader of current events, of simple, economic and frugal habits as a liver, immensely practical, self-respecting and self-reliant.”
Under the management by P.J.’s sons, the company continued to thrive and was recognized as among the top ten on the Columbia River. In the 1920s and ‘30s, all of the McGowan canning operations were consolidated in Ilwaco under son John. Ultimately, Henry was the last surviving son and he continued to manage the overall operation from the office at McGowan until his death in 1945. At that time the company was sold, marking the end of the family’s commercial enterprises on the Columbia.
In November 1947, the Seattle Sunday Times ran an article by author/historian Lucile McDonald about “the demolition of the weathered cannery buildings on the North Shore of the Columbia River…” She told of a returned G.I. who had leased the buildings to obtain materials for construction of a small cabin camp and fishing resort. “He wasn’t aware,” McDonald wrote, “that he was rubbing out another ghost town. Neither did he know that the boxes of tattered and mildewed papers he was tossing on the rubbish heap had been records of this state’s oldest salmon fishery…”
Nowadays, St. Mary’s and the Henry McGowan House are the most visible evidence of the town that was once McGowan. Still and all… a glimpse of a few eroded pilings near the riverbank or, perhaps, the discovery of an old house foundation between shore and tree line are enough to remind us of the prosperous little settlement along the Columbia. McGowan yet remains just on the edge of memory.