Astoria was once the salmon fishing and canning capital of the world. That legacy is still visible: along the waterfront, within the local culture, and in repurposed buildings
Story by SUSAN G. HAUSER • Photos by JOSHUA BESSEX
Long before Michael Powell went into the book business, he was a commercial salmon fisherman on the Columbia River. Many a fishing season passed before his own enterprise grew into one of the largest new and used bookstores in the world and, incidentally, a huge tourist attraction in Portland.
Now, with his daughter, Emily, in charge of Powell’s Books, Powell has more time to reminisce about the happy days spent on his grandfather’s boat and to talk of his personal efforts to preserve the history of fishing and canning along the Columbia.
“My grandfather’s father was the first generation of fishermen in the family,” says Powell. The Reed family (his mother’s side) had migrated from Nebraska to Astoria in the early 1880s and several years later moved up the river to what was later called Reed Island. Their farm there was lost in the Great Flood of 1894, and the Reeds settled in nearby Corbett.
From age 14, Powell spent seven summers working on the gillnetter his grandfather moored there, from high school through college. He got excused from school during fall Chinook season and, he recalls, “I would spend my Christmas vacation, spring vacation, and weekends making nets.”
As the years passed, large-scale commercial salmon fishing on the Columbia became a fading memory for Powell and, sadly, for many others. But before the river scenes of his youth were lost forever, Powell commissioned a photographer to record the daily activities of Astoria fishermen. The photos were shown at the Columbia River Maritime Museum and the Oregon History Center and now grace the walls of the Bumble Bee Cannery Museum on Astoria’s Pier 39. Powell also funded an annual $3,000 fellowship to support original research on Columbia Basin topics.
Today there are no more than about 175 active commercial fishermen on the Columbia River, according to Steve Fick, owner of Astoria’s Fishhawk Fisheries. In spite of the reduced size of the industry, especially compared to the glory days of the late 1800s when Astoria was considered the salmon fishing and canning capitol of the world, the appeal of Astoria as a picturesque fishing town has not diminished. “It’s a reason why tourists come here,” says Fick.
To give visitors a feel for how Astoria used to be — when the river’s shores were lined with dozens of fish canneries and millions of huge salmon were being caught yearly in nets, fish wheels, and fish traps — Fick suggests doing what he does every morning with his dog: Walk the length of Astoria’s Riverwalk (or ride the 3-mile trolley line for $1) just to see what remains from those good old days. Jutting up from the water is a multitude of pilings easily seen from the shore for mile after mile.
“There were canneries on all those pilings,” says Shirley Tinner, one of the many Astorians who spent her high school summers working in a fish cannery. Tinner worked at the Van Camp cannery during the summers of 1952 and 1953, when already the main product had switched from salmon to tuna. Her job was to pack the cans into boxes for shipping.
A good starting point for learning more about Astoria’s fishing history is the world-class Columbia River Maritime Museum. Extensive exhibits trace the period between the opening of the city’s first commercial fish cannery in 1874 to the closing in 1980 of the final holdout, Bumble Bee Seafoods. A recent addition to the museum is the Barbey Maritime Center for Research & Industry, where classes and workshops are held to preserve traditional boat building and other maritime skills.
Bumble Bee’s frozen fish and processing plant, in a building on Pier 39 that dates from 1875, is now the home of another, smaller museum. Built on pilings 120 feet from shore, the plant had foot-thick walls and heavy doors to insulate the cannery’s freezer facility. “These rooms were just stacked to the roof with frozen tuna,” says Peter Marsh, curator of the Bumble Bee Cannery Museum.
Marsh created exhibits and information displays that tell how salmon and tuna were caught on the Columbia River and how they were canned. Among the exhibits are antique canning equipment and three wooden gillnetters, the wide-beamed fishing sailboats that were originally built by Scandinavian immigrants to replicate the boats they used in their native Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Admission is free, and after touring the museum, says Marsh, most visitors stop at the adjoining Coffee Girl, a cafe with a peerless view of river traffic, named to honor those who provided refreshment to cannery workers.
Every August since 2004, during the Astoria Regatta, Marsh and Pier 39’s owner, Floyd Holcom, have hosted a reunion of people who worked in Astoria’s canneries. One wall just outside the museum is covered with signatures of those who attended the first reunion.
Donna Gustavson is one who wrote her name on the wall. She remembers that her summer job was considered part of the war effort, and when she graduated from Astoria High School in 1945, she had earned enough money to attend college. Wearing a rubber apron with her hair tucked under a white bandana, she worked at the Columbia River Packers Association cannery. She stood across a table from a Chinese man, who would deftly butcher the salmon before passing it on to her for cleaning.
“They were huge salmon, 40 to 50 pounds or bigger,” she recalls. “We cut the backbone, got the blood out, and cleaned the inside.”
Joe Bakkenson, who is the former owner of Barbey Cannery and the Union Fishermen’s Cooperative Packing Co., remembers when the latter business occupied the pilings upon which the luxurious Cannery Pier Hotel now sits, and when the popular Bridgewater Bistro, also perched on pilings, was the company’s machine shop and boat repair shop for gillnetters.
Other structures from the city’s past have been similarly refashioned. Andrew Bornstein of Bornstein Seafoods was happy to see a former fish plant owned by his family’s company converted into Buoy Beer Co. in 2014. “You can sit where we used to offload fish and have a beer,” says Bornstein. “We preserved some of the old fish ladders and old artifacts, and we put in a glass floor so you can see the sea lions underneath.”
Although most of the poets who perform at Astoria’s FisherPoets Gathering (held every February) hail from Alaska, visitors who attend the poetry readings will come away with a better understanding of the fisherman’s life. Even Michael Powell, who admittedly is no poet, remarked that any poem he wrote would have tried to capture the sounds of fishing on the Columbia River. These are the sounds that have nestled in his memory and gently return to his senses even when he’s on dry land, standing among the shelves of a vast bookstore.
“Because there were some distinctive sounds,” says Powell, “as you laid the net out and you brought the fish in, and the motor and the water … ”