Monday, March 18, 2013

Ghost Canneries of the Lower Columbia River

 It was much more than our childhood memories of those unsavory, school-lunch salmon patties served with creamed peas that brought down the salmon cannery business along the lower Columbia.  A combination of overfishing, degradation of spawning habitat upstream, and the construction of dams on the Columbia and its tributaries combined to destroy what had been in early history, salmon runs estimated as large as 16 million annually.

For centuries, natives fished the river, preserving the salmon through smoking or drying processes. Early Europeans tried salting and packing salmon in barrels which were shipped to Hawaii and the East Coast with mixed results. However, improvements in canning methods meant the fish could be packed safely and travel all over the world.  The Hume brothers opened the first salmon cannery in 1866 in Eagle Cliff, Washington, a few miles upstream from present day Cathlamet. Their success spawned the development of more canneries along the lower Columbia River, and by the heyday of the late 1880s, there were 38 canneries in the area, packing as much as 30 million, one-pound cans a year. That’s a lot of potential salmon patties.

Pier 39, Astoria
The canneries brought jobs to the area along with a rich mix of ethnic groups whose cultures and influence have remained.  In the early days, much of the dirty work of butchering salmon was done by Chinese men supplied by labor contractors out of San Francisco.  With the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, canneries turned to Filipinos and Japanese workers, while at the same time immigrants from Scandinavia, Finland, Yugoslavia and the Mediterranean arrived to fish and labor in the canneries.

Inside the Bumble Bee Museum
Astoria, Oregon, was the center of the canning business and carried the moniker, Cannery Capital of the World. Once home to 22 canneries, it’s a good place to begin a tour of what remains of this important industry.  Nearly all the wooden cannery buildings have succumbed to old age and blustery winter storms, but a few remain in Astoria. At the end of 39th St. on the eastern end of town is Pier 39, the old Hanthorn/Bumble Bee Cannery.  It was the last operating cannery in the area, closing in 1980. Today it houses a coffee shop, pub, and the free Bumble Bee museum. Inside are wooden gill-netter boats, old cannery processing equipment, and photos of the days when Bumble Bee was Astoria’s largest employer.

Big Red, Astoria
Nearby, at the end of 31st St., is a large, hulking, red building sitting out in the river and looking a bit tattered. Known as Big Red, it served as a satellite station for Union Fishermen’s Coop where fishermen could drop off their catch and spread their nets to dry. Over 100 years old, the wooden structure lost its top story in a wind storm in 2007, but efforts are underway to save this piece of history.

Cross the Astoria-Megler Bridge to the Washington side of the river and follow Hwy 401 east to Knappton Cove. Rotting wooden posts extending out into the water are all that remain of the Eureka and Epicure Packing Co. In 1899, the federal government built a quarantine station on the site of the abandoned cannery. Ships arriving in Astoria were inspected for any signs of contagious diseases. If infected, they were directed across the river to the quarantine station, or pest house.  Ships were fumigated with burning sulfur and passengers treated for disease. Today the building houses a museum open on Saturdays during summer months.
Knappton Cove Quarantine Station

Altoona, Washington
A bit further east, a winding road leads south from Rosburg to the ghost town of Altoona. A few houses and wooden pilings in the river are all that remain of a town that was once a major port for steamers traveling between Portland and Astoria. This stretch of the river had six canneries in the early 1900s, but today it is a quiet spot in a beautiful setting.  Large rock pillars topped with hemlocks sit in the harbor, and the end-of-the-road atmosphere makes it well worth the 13-mile, round-trip detour.

In the town of Cathlamet along the riverfront, a little upstream from the boarded-up Water Rat Tap Tavern, is what remains of the Warren Cannery. Two years ago, a large part of the building collapsed and today what little remains is being salvaged. Once gone, it will join its fellow ghost canneries along the lower Columbia.
Remnants of the Warren Cannery, Cathlamet

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