EDITOR'S NOTE: Irene Martin, the foremost historian of the Columbia River fishing industry, has written a series of articles about the Columbia River Packers Association.
The CRPA was the product of a historic merger of several of the Columbia's major salmon canners in 1899. It dominated the industry for most of the 20th century, employing thousands of individuals on both sides of the river, in Alaska and elsewhere. Eventually changing its name to Bumble Bee Seafoods, CRPA is a fascinating story of capitalism, adventure and social change.
Eventually to be gathered in a book, this series represents years of effort undertaken at the behest of Bumble Bee retirees. Originally started by historian Roger Tetlow, who before his death in 1999 lived on the Peninsula and in Hammond, Ore., the CRPA project was taken up by the Chinook Observer as part of its commitment to preserving and telling local history.
We are proud to publish this series. We will soon begin soliciting pre-sales for the richly illustrated book that we anticipate publishing in about one year.
The salmon fishermen of the CRPA were a complex mix of gillnetters, trappers, beach seiners, purse seiners, fish wheel operators, and dipnet fishermen. The competing user groups' effectiveness in any given year depended on fish run patterns, flood events and weather changes that caused fluctuations in the catches. A different proportion of fish was brought in by different gear on an annual, even seasonal basis. The Astoria Evening Budget for Aug. 24, 1920, commented:
"Of the various classes of fishermen on the river, the gillnetters did the best and it can truthfully be said to have been a gillnet year ... With a few exceptions the trappers have done but little and until the spurt near the close of the season, the catch was almost a failure for the seiners ... Outside the mouth of the river, the trollers had the poorest season since that class of fishing has been popular, but on the other hand the purse seiners and there were about 160 of that class of boats operating, gleaned a harvest. The season was marked by the complete absence of the expected run of bluebacks ... and this fact evidently shortened the catch of the wheels, seines and diver nets of the upper river."
Competition among fishermen using the same type of gear played out on an even larger scale against fishermen using different kinds of gear. Packers became adept at manipulating the owners of the different means of catching fish, by extending credit for purchase of gear and equipment or by owning and operating some of the fishing methods themselves. Despite the annual fluctuations in gear effectiveness, the largest proportion of salmon caught on the Columbia River was nearly always gillnet fish, the least under control of packers. The moves to eliminate various forms of fixed gear, often in the form of initiative petitions spearheaded by gillnetters, were their attempts to eliminate sources of supply of fish that undercut the prices the canneries offered them. If the Fishermen's Union called a strike, packers could still obtain low-cost fish for processing from traps and seines, often operations that they leased or owned outright. Frequent articles on strikes appeared in the Astoria newspapers, with fish prices as the main motivator. While seines and traps might interfere with the actual deployment of gillnets, their more dangerous function was to undercut fish prices.
The sources from which canneries procured their salmon on the Columbia River included: gillnet fishermen, trap fishermen, seiners, trollers, native dip-net fishermen and fish-wheel operators. Each gear type exploited different characteristics of salmon; each had its merits and its problems. Within gear types, fishermen competed with one another for the best sites for their fishing apparatus and the biggest catches. Further, fishermen also competed with other kinds of gear besides their own. For example, gillnetters and trappers frequently conflicted with each other over the locations of gear. Canneries tried to control the best trap and seine sites, the most competent fishermen, and the catches from the fish wheels. Disputes arose frequently between packers and gillnetters over fish prices, leading to occasional strikes called by the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union.
The earliest gear used on the Columbia by non-Indian fishermen was the drift gillnet. Commonly, in the latter part of the 19th century fishermen leased sailboats and nets from the cannery. They left the dock early in the evening, fished at night and returned to the plant in the morning with their catches. Because nets were of heavy linen, daylight fishing in early days was difficult, because the fish could see the net. With the invention of the "diver" net in the late 19th century, gillnet fishermen could fish in deep water during the daylight hours, where visibility was reduced, and thus extend their hours of operation. They began investing in their own nets, rather than relying on cannery gear, although they usually had the company purchase the twine so they could knit their own nets and paid for the twine by shipping fish to the cannery. The packers fostered a credit relationship with their fishermen, to ensure that the gillnetters remained indebted to them. This kind of pressure, they believed, ensured that fishermen were less likely to go out on strike, or to sell to competitors. A similar situation existed in Alaska where sailboats were used until 1952, when the law changed permitting gasoline engines to be used. "It was described as a conservation measure but it really wasn't. Looking back on it, the primary reason was that the processing industry could retain greater control of their fleets as long as these guys were beholding to them. It was not practical for an individual fisherman to own a sailboat ... The processing industry maintained quite a bit of pressure [on the legislature] to leave it as it was."
With the development of the gasoline engine in the beginning of the 20th century, canneries began converting their sailboat fleet to a motorized fleet. As a former machinist for the CRPA explained, "The CRPA boats were all equipped with six horse power engines and the boats had a white strip on the upper side right near the guards. They had a white strip so you could identify their boat [as belonging to CRPA]." In this way, cannery owners could watch to see if their boats shipped to another cannery, which would result in cutting off the fisherman's credit. From earliest days, the relationship of gillnetters to cannery operators was one of mutual interdependence, with the processors needing to obtain salmon and the fishermen's need for boats, equipment or credit.
The first salmon traps on the river appeared in Baker Bay, near Chinook in 1879, owned and operated by Oliver Graham. Salmon followed the heavy web "leads" into the pot of the trap, and could not find their way out again. At one time there were as many as 500 traps in the bay, which meant it was impossible to gillnet there, as a net would foul on the pilings needed to hold the traps in place. A report by Capt. Charles Powell of the Corps of Engineers in Feb. 23, 1887, described the traps of Bakers Bay as follows:
"They are, in effect, permeable dikes, which check the current and cause more or less of a fill. They contract the waterway and deflect the current on account of the obstacle to the flow which form in themselves and on account of the fills made by them... This contraction and deflection is apt to be injurious to the channel, and therefore obstructive to navigation. The traps are also obstructions in another view, and that is, that a vessel may, in darkness or fog, run into the trap and suffer damage, be delayed, or be thrown out of her compass course."
Traps were a substantial investment, and individual owners frequently sold their property to one of the larger companies when they were ready to retire, as they were the only ones with sufficient capital to purchase. For example a bill of sale from Sept. 27, 1890, from G.L. Graham indicates that he sold two traps, a skiff with oars and oarlocks, an anchor and all the piling plus the ground staked off by him on Sand Island to Samuel Elmore, the fish packer, for $1,650, a lot of money in those days. A receipt dated July 6, 1891 indicates Samuel Elmore's purchase of the trap of C.A. Hall, also on Sand Island, with a first payment of $750. Clearly, Samuel Elmore knew that the Sand Island sites were high producers of fish and was prepared to pay handsomely for them.
Angry confrontations between gillnetters and trappers occurred, due to competition over access to prime fishing areas. These conflicts escalated as individual trappers sold out their locations and equipment to the large companies. Of particular concern was Sand Island, which migrated frequently due to floods and the construction of the South Jetty in 1895. Complicating matters still further, court cases were filed to determine whether the boundary between Washington and Oregon was to the north or south of Sand Island. Eventually the decision rendered was that while the island was physically adjacent to Washington it came under Oregon jurisdiction, except for certain federal claims. The southern side of the island had been a favored place for gillnetting, but trappers began driving pilings for traps in the area. Further, the trappers were willing to sell their fish for less money than the gillnetters, in part because a number of them leased their trap sites from fish packing companies and thus were not in a position to pursue price negotiations. A strike called by the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union in 1896 resulted in the Washington and Oregon National Guards being called out to gain control of the situation, an indication of the high feelings of the rivals.
In 1899, when Samuel Elmore signed over his property to the Columbia River Packers Association, six fish traps were included. Several other packers also transferred trap ownership at that time. And the discord went on. The Astoria Daily Budget of April 17, 1905, reported that "According to the Chinook Observer a miniature war is in progress on the north side of the river over the location of fish traps [pilings had been driven near Pt. Ellice at Megler's Station] ... The gillnetters claim that the locations the trappers intend to cover are their favorite drifting grounds and resort in bad weather." Traps were legislated out of business in Washington in 1935 and Oregon in 1948.
Seining required a long sloping sand beach. A seine skiff towed the net from shore into deep water in a semicircle, and horses hauled it back to shore. The crew removed any fish trapped in it. Bunkhouses and stables for horses were built adjacent to seining grounds, often on pilings over the water. Because of the fixed location, seiners were very much at the mercy of local conditions. An example in the Daily Astorian, June 6, 1899, discusses Kearage Sands.
"Mr. Kearage has not yet commenced work on his grounds but expects to do so next week. The freshet in the river this season, he thinks, will seriously affect seining and he looks for it to begin the latter part of June. In such case there is no hope for seiners occupying low grounds and the muddy water produced by the freshet will render it impossible for much to be done by anyone. The seiners will have to depend on the latter part of the season this year to make any money."
The CRPA later operated Kearage Sands, and wrote "There are very few seining grounds where you can take both the spring and ... fall salmon but this seining ground is successful both in the Spring and Fall. It produces each year from $40,000 to $50,000 worth of fish." Seining grounds were mostly owned or leased by packers, due to investment required for both gear and crew. The CRPA leased Kaboth Sands from George Kaboth. A letter of Aug. 22, 1925, from CRPA stated terms when the renewal of the lease came up: "It is satisfactory to us to renew this lease for a period of five years, to cover the fishing seasons of 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930, for the sum of TWENTY FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS ($25,000.00) for the five years, payable $1,250.00 quarterly, other terms and conditions remain the same." This was a large sum of money in the 1920s.
A letter from CRPA June 1, 1920, to Mr. George Perkin, summarized seining ground ownership on the Columbia River. Of the 29 active seining grounds, CRPA owned or controlled nine, Sanborn-Cutting seven, McGowan's four, Seufert and Pillar Rock Packing Co. three each, Tallant-Grant two, and Booth and Warren one each. Sand Island in particular became a controversial area. Owned by the state of Oregon, claimed by the state of Washington, and controlled by the federal government, five seining sites were located there. For years, the island was used by permit for seining but in 1905 the War Department changed the procedure by introducing competitive bidding for permits. The large companies thus could more easily outbid individuals. The latter had to rely on the profits of the seining ground only, while the former also had profits from the processed fish to provide capital. The CRPA controlled most of the Sand Island sites for years, but in 1924 Henry Barbey outbid them and gained a five-year lease on all five sites. In 1930, Barbey and CRPA joined together and again obtained rights to fish there for five more years. Seines were legislated out of business in 1949 in Oregon.
According to Courtland Smith, William Graham of Ilwaco began using a purse seine on the Columbia River in 1905. The purse seine was a long net with floats on the top that was laid out from a vessel in a circle around a school of salmon. A draw-line on the bottom "pursed" or closed the bottom of the net, which was then winched back on the boat and the fish brailed out. Conflicts arose with gillnetters for fishing locations. In 1912 CRPA contracted with four men, Joseph Vitalich, Nick Vitalich, Nick Mardesich and Nick Reskusich, for two purse seine vessels which were under construction, to fish for them in Chignik and on the Columbia River. The contract read "... it is understood that the operation of the purse seine ... as to the Columbia River and Bar and the ocean, is in an experimental stage and neither party hereto knows whether the same can be successfully operated with a profit to the operators." This method of fishing on the river was outlawed in 1921.
Fish wheels were an upriver phenomenon, requiring swift water to operate. They were very site specific, dependent, in realtors' terms, on location, location, location. They resembled a watermill, with wire baskets on the wheel that turned in the swift current. As they dipped in the water they caught fish there, which emptied out automatically as the wheel turned. They fished best in muddy water conditions, when the fish could not see them. Fishwheels were a constant source of friction between the have and have-not companies. The headline for Morning Astorian on April 21, 1901 read "New York paper predicts a bitter fight."
"A bitter war has already begun between the Columbia River Packers Association and the outside packers, and no one in the trade can tell what the outcome will be ... The fight on the river this year was precipitated by the action of the Columbia River Packers Association in trying to get a bill through the Oregon legislature making the use of fish-wheels illegal. The canneries operating these fish-wheels are located on the upper Columbia, and, by reason of these devices, the upriver packers are able to secure their fish at comparatively slight cost, while the association is compelled to pay a high cost per pound for the fish it uses for canning...All the outside canners, particularly those operating fish-wheels, apparently are agreed to wage a bitter war against the association. One well known canner writes to the Commercial to say that 'there will be no letup in the fight until such time as the combine disappears from the river. It is going to be a fight to the finish.'"
In succeeding years, the Columbia River Packers Association reversed its stand, and eventually owned or leased wheels. The actual finish occurred in 1926 in Oregon, when an initiative petition eliminated the gear, and in 1934, when Washington banned fishwheels from the river.
When gasoline engines came into widespread use at the beginning of the 20th century, gillnetters took advantage of the weekly closed period on the river, which was designed to allow some of the fish to pass through safely to the spawning beds. The fishermen reconfigured their boats as trollers and fished with hook and line off the mouth of the river. The Astoria Daily Budget for Aug. 6, 1912 reported:
"As a result of the success attained by the men who have been trolling for salmon outside the mouth of the river during the present season, quite an industry in that line is promised for this fall and several boats are now being rigged for that particular class of fishing. The crafts that are to be used are simply Columbia River power fishing boats, but are decked over with a small cockpit left at the stern for the men, the idea being that such a craft will be able to stay outside even in heavy weather. The claim is made that as the boats will fish well off shore in the vicinity of the lightship they will not be subject to the state laws governing the fisheries and can thus operate during the closed season on the river."
The Astoria Daily Budget of Aug. 1, 1913 noted that "Since the closed season began large numbers of gillnetters have been trolling outside the mouth of the river and are meeting with good success." In due time regulation of this expanding fishery began. In 1917, a ruling was made that "salmon caught off the Columbia River bar, but outside the three mile limit, may not be sold anywhere in the State of Washington during the closed season on the Columbia River." However, fish could still be sold in Oregon. A further article in the Astoria Daily Budget for Mar. 16, 1928 noted that "A number of the larger Columbia river trolling boats are operating at sea off the Columbia river whenever the weather permits, taking advantage of the high prices prevailing for fresh salmon during the closed season period. Fishing outside the three-mile limit, the trollers are not restrained by the closed season on the Columbia and, while they make only small catches at this time of year, the high prices paid for the fresh fish makes operations profitable." In that same year, a fleet of trollers from the Columbia River headed for Southeast Alaska for the first time.
The trollers diversified into albacore fishing in the 1930s when the albacore tuna appeared off the Oregon Coast. As one troller put it:
"[Tuna fishing] is "fun" because the few nice days find you out in the open on cloudless summer days with warm water and few or no boats around and then at night there are stars right down to the horizon and it is warm because of the water and the fish are right on top and you don't have to clean them. By the same token you are way off shore (12 hours some times) and when it blows it is not fun and you have to decide to stay or run and waste fuel."
In order to expand the amount of fish it could obtain, CRPA developed coastal facilities for receiving troll fish. The Astoria Daily Budget noted that "Announcement was made today by the Columbia River Packers Association of the extension of its troll fish operations by erection of a large cold storage plant at North Bend, Ore., designed to serve the needs of trollers operating along the coast from Crescent City, California, north.... The fish carrier Unga, brought from the company's Alaskan fishing grounds and extensively remodeled, will serve the coast stations together with the C.R.P.A. No. 2." The company also had receiving stations at Umpqua and Newport, as well as other locales.
The native American dipnet fishery occurred upriver at the Cascades of the Columbia and at Celilo Falls. CRPA purchased fish and processed them at the Ellsworth facility near Vancouver, Washington. The company also helped improve facilities at Celilo by installing cables for crossing the river. John Supple mentioned sending fish boxes by cable to pick up Indian fish "and the load limit - I forget what it was but about two or three hundred pounds - and when there was fish aboard it, there was a sign - No Riders - well, the next thing we knew, here comes that thing across the rapids [Celilo] with two or three Indians aboard and four or five hundred pounds of fish. It was something else. So that was my initiation into the fish business."
The dip net consisted of a net attached to a pole. The fisherman, standing on a platform above fast moving water, dips the net into the current. He then pushes the net downstream as quickly as possible in order to capture the fish. In only a few locations can the fish be seen; the fisherman fishes blind most of the time. When a fish enters the net a leather thong holding the net open releases, and the net purses or collapses around the fish, capturing it until the fisherman can pull the net up. Fishermen tied themselves to the platform for safety's sake. When the Cascades were inundated due to Bonneville Dam (1938) and Celilo was flooded out due to construction of the Dalles Dam (1957), a large part of the Indian dipnet fishery came to an end.
The ways in which conflict emerged on the Columbia River included lawsuits, such as those filed regarding Sand Island; strikes generally called by the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union; legislation, usually promulgated by one group of packers against another; and initiative petitions, frequently brought by groups of fishermen and occasional allies. The complexities of developing working relations between fishers and packers in such a dynamic, constantly shifting social environment must have been enormous. At the current time, the means of gear available on the Columbia River consist of the drift gillnet, employed below Bonneville Dam by gillnetters, and the dip and set net, utilized by native fishers above Bonneville Dam. Trollers also fish off the coasts of Alaska, British Columbia, California, Oregon and Washington on Columbia River salmon stocks.