On the Water

Commercial Fishers: Columbia River Salmon

Columbia River Salmon

The Columbia is the largest river of the American West, and its annual migrations of Chinook salmon were once spectacles of nature. These prized fish, some weighing more than 70 pounds, churned the waters as they returned upstream to reproduce.

For centuries, salmon have been central to the diet, economy, and culture of the river’s native peoples. In the 1860s, American entrepreneurs established canneries on the river and brought the taste of salmon to people from England to Australia. But decades of commercial fishing and canning also brought dramatic change to the region’s landscape, environment, and culture.

The River

The Columbia River flows 1,200 miles from southeastern British Columbia to the Pacific. It forms the border between Oregon and Washington.

Salmon Exports

In the late 1800s, over half of the output of Columbia River packers was exported to Great Britain and Australia. Can labels with brand names like “Globe,” “Empire,” and “Royal,” and depicting English royalty and flags of many nations, reflected the global reach of the most prized species: Chinook, coho, and sockeye.

Courtesy of the Columbia River Maritime Museum

From John N. Cobb, “Pacific Salmon Fisheries.” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), 1921

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Pacific Salmon

The North Pacific is home to five species of salmon and steelhead, a migratory form of trout. Each kind of salmon is known by different names: Chinook (king), sockeye (red), coho (silver), chum (dog), and pink (humpback). All are commercially valuable, but the Chinook were the prize of the Columbia River system.

Some 2,500,000 cans of salmon nearly filled a cannery’s store room in Astoria, Oregon, in the late 1800s.

Courtesy of the Columbia River Maritime Museum

Columbia River Canneries

Fresh, salted, dried, and smoked—these were the options for preserving and eating salmon before the spread of canning technology in the mid-1800s. William Hume, his brother George, and their friend Andrew Hapgood established the first cannery on the Columbia River in 1866.

Other companies followed, as did fishermen, laborers, and merchants. By 1883, there were 55 canneries on the Columbia, and the Pacific salmon industry was among the most valuable fisheries in the world. That year, the best ever, the canneries piled up 630,000 cases of salmon—30.2 million one-pound cans.

Courtesy of Kent and Irene Martin

A Monument to Salmon

Beacon Brand salmon from Astoria borrowed the most famous American beacon of all, the Statue of Liberty, for its label. Lady Liberty is shown in New York Harbor holding a big salmon in one hand and a can in the other.

Courtesy of the Columbia River Maritime Museum

Little Scandinavia

The Pacific Northwest’s logging, fishing, and maritime industries attracted many Scandinavian immigrants. Fishermen from Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark settled around the mouth of the Columbia River to work in the salmon industry. The Scandinavian influence on these communities was reflected in boat design and construction, foodways, language, and other cultural forms of expression.

The river has become a perfect web of nets.
—D. S. Jordan and C. H. Gilbert, The Salmon Fishing and Canning Interests of the Pacific Coast, 1887

Courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Fishing at the Falls

Between 1850 and 1900, the Indian population along the Columbia declined by 95 percent due to disease, death, and displacement. The non-native population increased 1,000 percent. Native peoples held onto some of their traditional fishing sites, including Celilo Falls. They used dip nets to capture fish, keeping some for food and selling the rest to the canneries.

Chinese Workers

In the canneries, gangs of butchers beheaded, cleaned, and cut the fish into pieces. On the Columbia River after 1872, this work was done exclusively by Chinese men, who were supplied by Chinese labor contractors based in San Francisco. The expert cutters could clean 1,700 fish a day.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited new Chinese laborers from entering the United States, and by the 1890s the canneries felt the shortage of skilled laborers. They recruited Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican laborers to fill the gap, but many cannery owners insisted the Chinese butchers were the best in the business.

Courtesy of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

A Mechanical Fish Dresser

Cannery operators mechanized as many aspects of canning as possible to increase production with fewer laborers. But butchering and cleaning the fish remained hand work, which created a production bottleneck during heavy runs of fish. In 1903, Edmund Smith of Seattle introduced his “machine for dressing fish,” and its success marked the beginning of the end for Chinese fish butchers.

“Iron Chink”

The common name for Smith’s machine was the “Iron Chink,” a term that acknowledged the superior skills of Chinese butchers and insulted them with an ethnic slur. The machines were installed at canneries along much of the coast.

Courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry, Seattle

Courtesy of the Library of Congress


Most fishermen used gill nets to fish on the lower Columbia. Set by fishermen working out of small boats, these walls of netting snared fish by the gills as they swam upstream. Other types of gear—purse seines, stationary traps, and fishwheels—were also used on the river, but Scandinavian fishermen favored the gill net.

Lent by Iris Hamm

Gill Net Mesh Board

A typical Columbia River gill net from 1880 was made of linen. It was 900 feet long and required 300 cedar corks and about 150 lead weights to keep the net hanging properly in the water. Knitting the nets, mending tears, and hanging cork and lead lines were all hand work. Gillnetters used mesh boards like this to make sure the mesh opening was the right size.

This mesh board was carved in 1881 by Erick Martin, a Columbia River gillnetter born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1851. The different types of wood and the bone inlays reflect Martin’s skills as a craftsman and his occupational pride.

Needles and Twine

Fisherman used these netting needles and twine to make and repair gill nets on the Columbia River.

Lent by Kent and Irene Martin

Ship Model, Columbia River Salmon Boat [before 1876]
Ship Model, Columbia River Salmon Boat

Columbia River Salmon Boat, 1876

View Object Record

The first commercial salmon boats used on the Columbia were sturdy sailing craft, and most were owned by canneries. Like this model, they were rigged with a simple spritsail and had a round bottom. These 25-foot-long open boats proved ideal for setting and fishing gillnets in the powerful waters near the mouth of the river.

Gift of Livingston Stone

Night on the River

When staying on the river overnight, the two-man crew of a gillnetter rigged the sail over the deck for protection against the elements.

Lent by the Columbia River Maritime Museum

Cannery Basket

Cannery workers made the tin cans for packing the salmon. The cans were stored and carried in baskets like this.

From R. D. Hume, Salmon of the Pacific Coast, 1893

Courtesy of the Columbia River Maritime Museum

From Pacific Fisherman, Annual Review, 1909

Courtesy of the Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, Fisheries-Oceanography Library of the University of Washington

North to Alaska

In the late 1800s, cannery owners discovered the riches of the salmon stocks in Alaska. The Alaska Packers Association formed in 1893, and its members built or secured floating canneries at Cook Inlet, Kodiak Island, Bristol Bay, and many other areas.

Ship Model, Steam Schooner Royal [1891]
Ship Model, Steam Schooner Royal

Steam schooner Royal

Gift of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries

The Royal

View Object Record

The Royal, built by Matthew Turner in Benicia, California in 1891, transported laborers and supplies to canneries in Alaska. It was also used for carrying canned fish to markets.

What Happened to Columbia River Salmon?

In the mid-1800s, stocks of salmon on the Columbia River began to diminish quickly. Scientists advocated a hatchery program in the 1870s, but the dwindling salmon runs were not solely due to too many fishermen and too few fish.

As the region grew, spawning areas upstream were affected by mining, agriculture, logging, urbanization, and industry. Hydroelectric dams on the river provided power to vast areas of the American West at the price of disrupting annual migrations of fish. Most of the Pacific wild salmon available in the United States today are from Alaska.

Salmon Memories

At the turn of the 21st century, fishing on the Columbia River was commemorated by fishermen, their families, and communities.

Gill Net Float [ca 1955]
Gill Net Float

Float Photo

Gift of Frankye Thompson

Remembering the butterfly fleet

View Object Record

Astoria native Frankye Thompson made this object to call attention to her community’s past. The photo shows the fleet of sailing gillnetters around the turn of the 20th century. Called the “Butterfly Fleet” by Astorians, these vessels symbolize the town’s fishing heritage. The photo is mounted on half of a cedar net float. Ms. Thompson makes souvenirs from surplus floats for the growing tourist trade.

Fisher Poets

Gift of the Columbia River Maritime Museum

Remembering the fishing

In 1997 a group of poets, writers, teachers, and artists organized the first Fisher Poets gathering. Modeled after the annual Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada, the Fisher Poets event is held every February in Astoria, Oregon, and features readings, music, art, and camaraderie dedicated to fish and the fishing life. This flyer, button, and booklet are from the 2005 gathering at the Wet Dog Café in downtown Astoria.

Button, Fisher Poets Gathering [2005]
Button, Fisher Poets Gathering
View Object Record
Flyer, Fisher Poets Gathering [2005]
Flyer, Fisher Poets Gathering
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