Crowded river

An illustration from 1900 shows the Columbia River estuary crowded with two-person gillnet boats.

Just now, it’s raining axe handles out there; it’s the weekend of Fisher Poets in Astoria, and I’ve been reading the annual report of the U.S. Life Saving Service from the 1880s. Those Cape Disappointment reports tell of hard work, and a hard life, and a harder death. To begin with, the Life Saving reports describe the gillnet fishery of 1884:

“The boats appear to have belonged to canning establishments, of which there are [over three dozen], the business of catching and putting up salmon having become considerable on the upper part of the Pacific coast.

“The work of the catching is conducted in cat-rigged boats [small boats having a single mast far forward upholding a single sail] which with their nets and fitments are severally valued at [upwards] from $500 [—nearly $13,000 in 2019 dollars.] …

“Each boat is invariably manned by two men, often total strangers, not even knowing each other’s names, and commonly changing company every day.

“In the lower part of the Columbia River there are annually employed at least two thousand of these boats, manned by four thousand fishermen. During the season the fishing goes on day and night, and it is a common sight to see a thousand boats at a time plying their occupation at the mouth of the river.

“Formerly the men did not fish below Astoria, but gradually … tempted by the desire to make large catches, their fleet has crept down lower and lower, until finally the channels below Sand Island, …in the river’s mouth, are thickly studded with its sails, and the daring fishermen even venture over the shoals to the outer edge of the bar at the entrance, where the sea may readily and swiftly become tremendous.

“… [S]afe fishing grounds have been exchanged for others terribly perilous. In a clear atmosphere [when visibility is good] the risk is less … But in thick or foggy weather, or at night, the case is very different. When the tide turns to flood it encounters the strong flow of the river, and … although the sea may have been at dead calm a moment before, it comes all feather-white with foam.

“If at the same time … a strong west or southwest wind springs with the turn, the ocean heaps up in stupendous ridges and pours in over the bar in undulations as terrific as the eagre [a tidal bore] of the English estuaries or as a tidal wave. There may be then hundreds of boats outside.

“Unless the atmospheric conditions are such as to have enabled the fishermen on board to see the change, they find the tranquil waters upon which they were floating, suddenly exchanged for a sea yawning and cleaving in all directions, and their boats thrown in confusion in and out of the troughs of monstrous surges or overcombed [sic] by unexpected waves.

“The effect to the victims is that of an awful transformation scene. They are caught in an immense snare, almost instantaneously created for their destruction, and fortunate … are they who do not perish. How many are lost annually is not known.”

Following the money

Following that principle of western life, “follow the money,” and remembering that the California Gold Rush had happened within living memory, it was inevitable that, where the water and fish piled up in that stretch of water constricted between Clatsop Spit and Cape Disappointment, there the fishermen would be too. Fishing was great, but life sometimes hung in the balance.

These days we call it the Buoy 10 Fishery.

Incident reports

Returning to the U. S. Life Saving Reports from the season of 1887, we have:

May 3, 1887: “[This afternoon], during a southerly gale of wind and a high sea, the crew of the Cape Disappointment Station … pulled out [rowed out] into the North Channel, … and brought ashore a fishing smack [fishing boat] that was adrift with no one on board. The boat had broken loose from her moorings in Baker’s Bay and swamped. It was returned to the owner unharmed. The velocity of the wind at that time was some sixty-five miles an hour.”

Early gillnetters

Sail-powered gillnetting boats required a two-person crew — mostly male, but occasionally female. Especially in the early days, gillnetting was mainly a nighttime activity, since the heavy linen nets were visible to salmon in daylight conditions.

May 6, 1887: “The lookout of the Cape Disappointment Station … discovered in the forenoon a fishing smack with no one on board drifting ashore on Sand Island …. There was a strong southerly wind at the time, with squally weather and a high sea. The life-saving crew at once put off … in the surf-boat, and after first getting the nets and fish-gear out of harm’s way, hauled her up above tide-water mark to a safe place. They then properly secured everything and sent word to her owners in Astoria, who subsequently recovered her.”

May 13, 1887: “At about 2 [p.m.] a fishing boat containing two men turned end over end while passing through the breakers at the mouth of the Columbia River [near] … the spit where the wreck of the steamer Great Republic now lies. There was a light breeze from the westward at the time, with clear weather and a moderate sea. … In twenty minutes the [station crew] had reached the scene of the mishap in the surf-boat and succeeded in rescuing one of the fishermen found clinging to the bottom of the capsized craft …. When taken from the water he was chilled through and nearly exhausted, and could not possibly have maintained himself much longer. … [I]t is evident that his companion was … injured when the boat upset, for … he only rose to the surface once, after which he sank and was never seen again.”

May 20, 1887: “At 8 [p.m.]… the life-saving crew put off in the surf-boat to the rescue of two fishermen whose smack had capsized in the breakers near the east end of Sand Island. They had gone but a short distance … when their attention was attracted by the recall-signal at the station, and another smack was discovered in danger on Peacock spit, three miles to the southeastward. At once changing their course, the surfmen started to the assistance of the latter craft and, on arriving at the edge of the breakers, found that four men were on board who were trying to keep from being carried by the strong flood-tide onto the shore. … they were in imminent peril of being swamped in the heavy surf. The station crew … pulled through the breakers and succeeded … in … [towing] them safely into smooth water. … The smack that the life-savers first started for was assisted out of danger by some fishing boats which were close by.”

June 6, 1887: “Towards evening … the watch … discovered a fishing smack with two men on board, coming ashore through the surf a quarter of a mile west of the station. The keeper and crew hurried to the scene and arrived just as the boat struck. They … discharged a portion of the cargo of fish so that she [the boat] would be easier to handle … after which they ran an anchor out as far as possible to prevent her working farther up on the beach during the flood-tide. … As soon as she was clear [of water aboard] several of the station crew jumped aboard and attempted to run her out through the breakers, but thrice she was driven back, filling each time. The labor was beginning to tell upon the men when … [reinforcements arrived], three of whom bailed constantly with buckets, [and] managed to get her off the beach into smooth water and sailed her to the station. The fishermen were sheltered overnight, and the next day the life-savers helped to bring the portion of the cargo that had been removed the previous day to the wharf where the vessel could reload it. Later on she proceeded to Clifton, Oregon, with her catch, not being any the worse for her accident.”

June 9, 1887: “At 10 [p.m.]… the lookout … gave the alarm that a fishing smack had apparently swamped in the breakers on Peacock Spit …. The crew … [launched] the surf boat … . The night was very dark, with a stiff wind and ugly, threatening weather. Reaching the breakers the men shouted as loudly as they could to attract attention … Nothing could be seen twenty yards distant and every sound seemed almost instantly to be drowned by the roar of the sea. Finally … a voice faintly calling for help was heard above the tumult of the waters. The surfmen took fresh heart and pulled with all possible speed in the direction indicated … They … reached the smack and found two men almost exhausted clinging to her. Both were quickly rescued from their perilous position and taken into the surf boat, after which the latter was bailed out, and the life-savers, with the smack in tow, made a start for the shore. The craft surged so in the heavy seas that she twice parted the tow-line, but the station crew got hold of her again … and … managed to arrive safely in smooth water. They then returned to the station without further trouble. The rescued men were sheltered the rest of the night, their clothing was dried, and at daylight, after having breakfast, proceeded to their fish-packing establishment nearby, very grateful for their fortunate escape.”

Fishing methods

A 19th century graphic shows the primary methods of fishing with nets.

June 11, 1887: “The crew … were called out at 2 [p.m.] to go to the rescue of two fishermen whose smack had swamped in the breakers on Peacock Spit …. They were found clinging to the bottom of their boat, which was plunging through the heavy surf towards the bluff. Although there were numerous fishing craft in the vicinity they were unable to afford assistance on account of the dangerous rocks on the shoal. The surfmen managed to get alongside the smack in safety, took off the two men, and landed them on the beach. As soon as their boat washed within reach the life-savers righted her. They then ran out an anchor and … succeeded, by heaving on the anchor-line and at the same time towing the surf-boat, in getting the craft through the breakers into deep water. This was only accomplished, however, with considerable difficulty and risk, the smack capsizing and throwing all hands out before she finally went clear.”

June 17, 1887: “Shortly past 8 [a.m.]… the crew … launched the surf-boat and put off to the rescue of two fishermen whose smack had swamped in the breakers on Peacock spit … . The surf was breaking heavily on the shoals, but the life-savers pulled through in safety … and finally reached the scene just as one of the imperiled men, from sheer exhaustion, lost his hold on the vessel and was swept into the raging waters. Fortunately … a sea carried the surf-boat right alongside of him and the keeper reached down and grabbed him as he was sinking out of sight, while two of the surfmen helped to get him into the boat. … The other man was still clinging to the nearly submerged craft, and the station men … threw him a line, but he also was well-nigh exhausted and could not hold on to it. The surf-boat was shipping considerable water … but … the surfmen watched their chance, skillfully ran within reach, and the bow oarsmen caught the man and held him fast over the side until he could be pulled aboard. A huge breaker swept the boats apart and a start was immediately made for the shore. Two hands kept constantly bailing, and the life-savers succeeded in reaching the station without mishap. The rescued men were given breakfast, and when their clothes were dry took the steamer for Astoria. The smack, although subsequently recovered, was badly damaged.”

Still dangerous

Nearly a century later, in 1975, the Chinook Observer reported another episode which shows nothing in the fishing life gets easier.

“A long time Bristol Bay fisherman spotted [gillnetter] Les Clark of Chinook [profiled in the April 3, 2019 Observer] on Wednesday, Sept. 17, and asked if he could shake his hand. ‘You’re the only man I’ve ever heard about … who got caught in his net reel and came out of it alive.’ Mr. Clark shook the man’s hand heartily.

“The evening before, Tuesday, Sept. 16, Les caught his left leg and left arm in his net, was pulled onto the power reel and was trapped for somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes as the reel pulled in 1440 feet of netting. …

“‘When the other fishermen hear about this,’ said Clark, ‘it’s not going to bother them. They’ll still go out and some will drown, some will get injured, some won’t come back. You don’t think about it or you’ll never be a good fisherman. … It’s your life and it’s always going to be dangerous. … But I’ll tell you one thing, you won’t find me getting too close to that reel again.’

“On Tuesday evening, Les was aboard his 29-ft. stern-puller [gillnetter], the St. Frances, just off the Chinook jetty in the middle of the Columbia River around 7 p.m. when he decided to bring in the 240 fathoms of net with intentions to lay the net down again.

Salmon label detail

A salmon can label from about a century ago honored hardworking gillnet fishermen of the Lower Columbia River.

“As he was pulling in the net with his power reel, he caught the roll of his glove in the cork line … He instantly tried to jerk his hand back, but the power reel had him.

“He wrapped himself around the reel so he wouldn’t be crushed and began his frightening trip around and around. A pedal was supposed to disengage the reel from the engine when his foot left it, but it failed to pop up all the way. The reel and engine chugged on.

“‘I immediately thought I was done for,’ said Clark. ‘I figured fishing finally had done me in. I started to panic and was hollering each time the reel rolled me on top. I knew darn well no one was going to hear me while I was on the bottom.’ No one heard his cries. He was fishing alone that night. ‘I knew I was done for anyway so I figured panicking wouldn’t help any,’ recalled Clark.

“He found out, as he spun, that only his left leg and left arm were pinned down by the ever-tightening cork line, so he decided to work with the situation. With his free right hand, he guided the incoming cork line away from his body … The net webbing didn’t bother him … It was the heavy cork line, 1440 feet of it, that bothered him.

“‘If you panic you’re dead,’ said Clark. ‘I had to calm myself down and keep my wits and keep working at it.’ A loose line from the net pulled the throttle of the engine wide open and the reel spun faster, bringing in the heavy net and line with it. … [A]round he went with the weight and strain of the lines on his arm and leg growing.

“‘When I saw the end of the net coming up ... I knew I had it made.’ But when all the net was in, the reel again speeded up. That went on for about 10 minutes. The hydraulic pressure from the engine running at top speed finally knocked the control pedal all the way up, stopping the reel. The engine continued on wide open and a governor allowed it to roar at top speed without blowing. Fortunately the reel stopped with Clark on top.

“A nearby fisherman, … Gary Viuhkola of Clatskanie, heard the engine and came over to check. Seeing Clark motionless on the reel, Viuhkola thought for sure Clark was dead. ‘I hollered “Get aboard and bring a knife to cut me out of here,” ‘ said Clark. ‘That got him to life real quick. He had to cut through all that net and cut me out of my raincoat. My arm and leg were flat, just flat. …’

“Clark said he rubbed the circulation back into his limbs and walked around his boat. He brought his boat in, drove back to his home in Chinook and said hello to his wife.

“Clark said his wife insisted he go to the doctor the next day. … No broken bones were found, but many bruises were located. The doctor told him to take it easy for a few days and gave him medication to dissolve blood clots.

“On Wednesday he said he felt fine, but on Thursday said he ached all over. Since then, Clark remarked, he has thought up dozens of ways to stop the reel if something like that happened again.

“‘Well, [Clark concluded] body and net should be mended enough by Sunday to go back fishing.’”

“Beginning is always difficult, work is our joy, and industry overcomes bad luck,” Columbia River gillnetter Matt Korpela said in 1896.

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