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 coming months.
Subscribe to the Chinook Observer today to read the serialized version of the CRPA history: P.O. Box 427, Long Beach, WA 98631, or call 1-800-643-3703.
Fish begin to deteriorate as soon as they come out of the water. Bacteria and enzyme action on flesh accelerates at higher temperatures, and, conversely, slows at lower temperatures. Two centuries of experimentation have provided us with information about optimum conditions for preservation of fish. The early processors did not have the advantage of today's food science discoveries, and relied heavily on their own recipes as to how fish should be prepared and canned. However, they knew well that the sooner they dealt with the raw fish, the better product they would have.
In the 1870s fishing boats used oars or sails so getting fish to the packer might take considerable time, causing deterioration of the fish. Packers used a variety of ways to speed up transportation, including motorized salmon tenders that picked up the fish from the fishermen on the grounds and hauled it to the canneries. They also built fish receiving stations along the river where fishermen could unload, and where salmon could be kept cold and damp until they could be picked up by cannery tenders. However, none of these methods were foolproof, and a spell of hot weather or a large catch of fish might overwhelm the facilities. In the 1880s the use of cold and ice began.
Mild winters are the norm on the lower Columbia, so natural ice is seldom available. Transporting ice from other areas was too expensive. The packers realized they would have to make their own ice if they were to maximize the freshness of the catch. Ice making facilities eventually became an integral part of every salmon cannery. Frozen in 300-pound blocks, it could be taken to receiving stations, or crushed and used in the tenders. It was also used in mild-curing or pickling salmon, to keep the product cold while absorbing brine.
But the early ice units were not designed to freeze fish. Freezing a whole salmon into a solid frozen fish involved a much larger investment than most of the early canneries could afford. Since very few of the local canneries had enough vacant space to install a complete freezing operation, many invested in new buildings especially designed for this purpose. In addition to freezing, the cold storage plants took over the mild cure operation as well, since the tierces of pickled salmon kept much better in a cold storage room.
Mild cure salmonEven though salmon salted in casks had been one of the earliest methods of preserving Columbia River salmon, industrial production of mild cured of salmon really began in Astoria in 1897 when S. Schmidt and Company moved to Astoria from its former Portland location in order to have more access to the large Chinook salmon needed for the mild cure process. The company used cold rooms to keep the pickled salmon in prime condition until time to ship it out to customers. In their first year, Schmidt Company put up 160 tons of mild cured salmon, which they sold easily to the European markets. The big casks, which held about 800 pounds of salmon each, were barged to Portland and then sent east by rail, arriving in excellent condition. Until this point, mild curing was a sideline to the canning operation, but it captured the packers' attention due to the high prices the fish fetched.
It was the late 1890s before the packers paid serious attention to the production of frozen salmon. The Schmidt Company had sent frozen sturgeon east to New York from Portland in 1888, the first of its kind. The fish were frozen by the ice and salt method, but mechanical freezing soon became the norm. The construction of the Astoria and Columbia River Railroad by A.B. Hammond connected Astoria with Portland in 1898. The Schmidt Company's new plant was completed by then. The newspaper described the Schmidt operation:
"The new cold storage plant of Schmidt Bros. is now under cover and some idea of its size can be received. It is larger than any cannery on the river and is very substantially built... The main building is 226 feet long and 70 feet six inches wide. It is of two stories... To really appreciate the size of the building it must be seen and examined."
The Schmidt Company specialized in pickled or mild cured and frozen fish, and had a large trade in Europe.
Just before the 1902 salmon season began on the Columbia, Samuel Elmore proposed that CRPA enter the frozen and mild-cured salmon business on a large scale. While they did have a small freezing unit and a cold storage plant at the Elmore and Kinney facilities, Elmore made plans to build a much larger plant in the unused Hanthorn cannery at Astoria, so that all of the cold storage and freezing operations could be carried out in a single local plant.
Elmore had several reasons for this decision. The state of New York had passed a law requiring that all salmon destined for the New York market to be shipped frozen just as they were from the water, without removal of entrails and before being cut in any way. This health precaution sought to avoid decomposition, which was believed to set in where the knife had been used. Further, one of CRPA's buyers, Rud Kanzow of Hamburg, Germany, who was a major customer for mild cure salmon, was requesting frozen salmon, specifically steelhead which was prized in Europe, though not marketed much in the U.S.
Elmore appointed Sandford Butts in charge of the frozen steelhead operation. He contracted with Blue Mountain Ice Company in Portland to do the actual cold storage part of the operation. Butts' duties consisted of receiving the steelhead at the dock, preparing them for freezing and then supervising Blue Mountain in that operation, boxing the frozen fish and shipping them out by refrigerated rail cars. The cars went to New York where the frozen salmon were either sent to the local market or transferred to a ship with refrigeration facilities which delivered them to Hamburg. The entire procedure took about six months.
Elmore had arranged for all CRPA's receiving stations on the river to ship all the steelhead they caught to Portland and deliver them to the Blue Mountain dock. He also purchased steelhead from other companies to maintain a constant flow of the fish to Butts' operation. Once the steelhead arrived at the plant, they were washed and then frozen at about 25 degrees below zero. They were then removed from the freezer and glazed by dipping them in ice cold water, wrapped in a parchment-like paper and moved to cold rooms to await shipment. The fish were frozen in the round. When the whole salmon arrived at the markets in Germany, they were thawed and put on display in markets, where they looked as if they had just been caught. The European customers would clean them and serve them whole, usually stuffed and baked.
Butts was overwhelmed with the amount of work. On July 2, 1902, he wrote to Elmore, saying, "I have been working day and night lately till I haven't time to do any writing. Last night I was here until after twelve o'clock getting the fish put away, and Monday night I was working until 11:30 and if the fish still comes tomorrow as they have, it will be another midnight job for me. My right-hand man is in the hospital with typhoid fever so I have to fill his place and try to fill my own so I have more than my hands full."
Elmore arranged to have Charles Trescott of the Trescott Packing Co. of Portland assist Butts with the first shipment of frozen steelheads. Trescott had packed steelheads on the Sacramento and had experience with both frozen and mild cure salmon. They shipped out the first railroad car filled with 113 boxes of frozen steelheads on July 9. The boxes were insulated with sawdust for the trip to New York. Work continued for the rest of the year, with the last shipments being made Dec. 22, 1902.
German marketing effortMeanwhile, Elmore had made an arrangement with Trescott to go to Germany and drum up more frozen and mild cure salmon business with Rud Kanzow. Trescott was actually going on his own initiative, paying his own expenses and receiving a commission on all the fish he could sell. He encouraged Elmore in the cold storage enterprise: "Don't forget to put in a cold storage room fully twice the size of what you have now. You will surely need it. The cold storage business has come to stay and will be more of a factor on the river each year. And the proper thing for you to do is to be in it with both feet." Trescott's European trip was also his honeymoon. On Jan. 5, 1903, Elmore sent a letter to him, saying "The paper from St. Louis was duly received, announcing your renunciation of single blessedness, and we take this opportunity to congratulate you and extend to you all sorts of good wishes."
Trescott and his new bride sailed for Europe on Jan. 7, 1903, where he proceeded to meet Rud Kanzow. In letters to Elmore he described methods to improve the quality of both the frozen and mild cure salmon. He finally informed Elmore triumphantly that he had obtained an order from Kanzow for 1,500 casks of pickled fish and from 150 to 200 tons of frozen. He encouraged Elmore to think big when it came to a freezing operation:
"You are making the right sort of thing, putting up a first class freezer and I will see that you get all of the business. What you want to do is get large scows and many of them and the right sort of boats so that you can handle the fish properly when they come thick and fast. Fish, at the end of the season, must be handled quickly and with ice - and lots of it.
You must fix up your ice room to enable you to pack 150 casks every 24 hours. Put on a night and day crew. Have sufficient tables, tanks, etc. so that the work can be done well and properly. Have lots of ice, some good big scows with ice boxes on them, some good big boats that can carry boxes on deck and you are all set to keep your men going night and day, and pack your fish as soon as they are received and you can put up some good cheap fish you can make some money on. Put your money in boats and scows and buy your fish for nothing."
Trescott's trip sparked a wave of similar expeditions by the other packers. Elmore wrote to him, saying, "We suppose you have heard that Mr. Warren is on his way to Germany, and you know when you were here that Wm. B. Tallant was intending to go. We learn now that Mr. Geo. Sanborn will leave here about the first of the week for the East, with the expectation of going over to Germany also. Our German friends will have quite a number of Columbia River dealers to entertain or turn down."
Trescott wrote back reassuringly, "Under present arrangements with Kanzow, I have all of the American business in my hands. All business through another season must be done through me. Not a fish will be received by Kanzow that has not been arranged for and ordered out by me. No business is to be done direct with Hamburg.... Next season I want you to put up 2,000 casks of pickled salmon, but only 600 casks of the early fish."
Cold storage plantMeanwhile, work on the Hanthorn cold storage plant was progressing slowly. CRPA had found out that the Hanthorn cannery building was not large enough to handle the amount of freezing and cold storage needed. The cannery was usable, but needed an addition. By the end of 1903, Elmore informed Butts that future fish freezing would take place in Astoria, and offered him the job of managing the plant. Bids were opened for the new structure on Jan. 5, 1904, and Ferguson & Houston, a local contracting firm, won the bid with an offer of $5,811.
Elmore kept everyone informed of progress on the building.
"Our cold storage plant started in the Hanthorn Cannery started up the day I arrived back from California, having just been completed. I think we have a very economical plant and it comes up to my expectations in every respect. We charged it yesterday for the first time, and with only 45 pounds of steam pressure, we ran the temperature of the rooms down to 28 degrees, which is at least 15 degrees lower than we require for the present and this morning the thermometer indicated that the temperature had gone up only 14 degrees which shows remarkably well constructed and insulated storage rooms."
At the end of the 1903 fishing and packing season, CRPA's four operating canneries had packed 97,000 cases of salmon. Its new cold storage operation packed 1,800 tierces of salmon. All the other cold storage plants in the area, including Warren, Tallant-Grant, Lindenberger, Vendsysell Packing Co., S. Schmidt & Co., M. Both, and Fishermen's cooperative put up a total of 4,900 tierces, so CRPA, even with its limited facilities, had put up a respectable pack, and would do even better once the Hanthorn plant was in full operation.
Arnie "Chink" Curtis, former manager of CRPA's cold storage facility, described the mild cure operation.
"You'd take the head then the fins off and then split the fish. We had some master splitters that had huge knives and they would make two little slits right where the rear end is on the fish and then go up in the neck and come down right along that bone and they'd split that backbone right in two...you'd have two huge sides, and you'd handle them just like a little baby and lay them on the table and then the women would kinda scrape that blood and stuff off the insides. Do it very tenderly so you didn't split that fish. And then we'd take them ... and put each side in salt and roll it over and you'd put it down in the cask...and they'd leave them in that salt for about two days ... and then they would fill them with about 80-90 per cent brine ... and roll them into the cold room where we held them at about 38 degrees. [Later] you'd repack them ... when you repacked you always had a representative of the company that was interested in buying these fish, watching that process ... checking the weights and checking the quality of that fish ... we had a reputation of having number one stuff."
The CRPA became very successful in both its mild-cure and frozen operations. In 1912 CRPA renewed its contract with Rud Kanzow for 1,200 tierces of mild-cured spring Chinook salmon. However, with the beginning of World War I the market dropped precipitously. In 1926 CRPA's output of mild cured salmon was 159 tierces, with a total river and Oregon coastal pack of 2260 tierces. By 1936, the entire mild-cure pack from all the packers on the river was 1,128 tierces. It dwindled from there until World War II closed its European markets, and the decline of the summer Chinook salmon due to dams closed its supply of raw materials.
CRPA's cold storage facility was instrumental in processing new company product lines, such as frozen crab, shrimp and bottomfish to replace mild cured salmon. Clarence Demase, a gillnetter from Clifton, described the beginning of the crab fishery. He explained: "Bumble Bee approached me about fishing crab, and they furnished me with a boat, the Brookfield. That was in 1968 and I pioneered crabbing at Elmore. I loved crabbing, though I was sometimes out in weather I shouldn't have been in." An annual catch might run as high as a quarter of a million pounds of dungeness crab, which the company froze in cans.
New product lines also provided new opportunities for employment for women, who did much of the bottomfish filleting and crab shaking needed to prepare the seafood for market. The "Bumble Bee ladies," as they were called, were renowned for their expertise in producing top quality boneless fillets. The secret lay in having a razor sharp knife, and the company employed a man to do nothing all day but sharpen the filleters' knives.
Recently, a brief article on the Hanthorn Cannery, which became the CRPA/Bumble Bee Cold Storage, notes that the building has gained a new owner, NBSD, LLC, and a new purpose, with the formation of the Hanthorn Cannery Foundation, dedicated to preserving the memories and history of cannery workers, the fishing industry and fishermen of the Columbia. The building is being renovated as office and retail space.
Great care must be taken in handling the fresh salmon that are to be mild-cured. The fish must be iced when delivered, and there should be no bruised or broken flesh. The fish is carefully butchered, cleaned and then split into two sides. Any blood remaining is removed and the sides are washed. The sides then go to the salter, who gently rubs the flesh with salt and then lifts the side, so that any excess salt falls off, and places it, skin side down, on a layer of salt in the bottom of a barrel, or tierce. The fish are layered in the barrel, with a layer of salt between them, until the tierce is full. Then a salt solution, called pickle, is poured in, the barrel is closed and the tierce taken to a cold storage room, with a temperature of 35 to 38 degrees. A low temperature is of importance in order to avoid the oil of the fish escaping the flesh and getting into the pickle. Fish are held in storage for 20 to 90 days, after which they are removed, cleaned, weighed, graded and repacked in barrels with fresh pickle. They then go back to cold storage, where the pickle is replenished as needed. If properly cured and regularly inspected, they will keep for months. The European market purchases them, primarily for smoking. The best fish for this purpose are large Chinooks.