The Salmon Wars
Fish canning on the Columbia River was coming on strong, precipitating a massive rush and heightened competition to harvest Coho and King Salmon. Indeed, the salmon rush was a veritable gold rush for fish flesh resulting in mounds of dollars that increasingly and largely were due to the practice of canning. Now the tasty red flesh could be shipped farther distances with a long shelf life, increasing demand from distant places - purchases from across the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and the Orient.
The salmon gold rush towns were Astoria, Oregon, and across the river, Chinook and Ilwaco, Washington. Ilwaco was positioned at the heart of what folks were calling Salmon Wars. It was here that States of Oregon and Washington were tussling over the legal ownership of Sand Island as the federal government demanded authority over it as well. Sand Island, a meager four miles long in the shape of an “I”, and at the most a quarter-mile wide, was covered with drift logs and other debris.
Here, too, Federal Troops and Washington State Militia came face to face. Washington State politicians wanted to insure fish traps and trap fishermen, who had been repeatedly attacked by Oregon gillnet fishermen, were protected. The federal government was intent on establishing its authority as the island was part of a military reservation that included Fort Canby.
While nothing more than a glorified sand spit, Sand Island represented money, big money. Here the salmon gold rush, mostly fish traps and seiners, was its richest. And that meant power, politics, and law enforcement were all in full play due to the civil unrest and outlaw violence.
Fish traps populated the sand bars of the lower river in what appeared to be a hap hazard sort of way. However, they were situated for tactical advantage to net large quantities of salmon as the “finners” worked their way via the channels through which flowed strong currents, especially at the time of peak flood and ebb tides.
Scores of small and large cannery operations were scattered across the massive river’s shores, some fifty in total, canning 20-30 million cans of the rich meat per year.
Tenders and fishing vessels, oar and sail powered, interrupted by sea going barks, schooners, steamships, and smaller local coastal steamers, salt and peppered the waters with a scurry of activity. At one count there were some 2,000 fishing boats on the lower river.
Most of the harvesting took place between May and September, when bars, brothels, and general stores along with fishermen supply houses bustled with activity.
Upon our arrival, the Lower Columbia River was thrust into the midst of a massive gillnet fishermen’s strike that pitted cannery operators against gillnet fishermen, and gillnet fishermen against trap fisherman. Fights on and off the water broke out everywhere.
It was indeed a milieu of competing fishing rights, including racial and legal tensions and conflicts. To which was added fishermen union strikes versus fishing industry goons, rampant, often violent crime, financial booms and busts at the national level and local level as fishing seasons sea sawed in the amount of salmon available to all who battled for the reward of the catch.
And the battlers kept coming - in waves. more to come