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Salmon Canneries on the Columbia

The first salmon cannery in North America was established in 1866 near the mouth of the Columbia River by Andrew Hapgood and three brothers from a New England family--William, George, and Robert Hume. At the time, the Columbia and the Snake rivers produced the world's largest stock of chinook (king) salmon, the biggest of the salmon species. During its first year of operation, the cannery produced 4,000 cases of canned salmon, each containing 48 one-pound cans--all of which could be filled with about three average chinook. The number of canneries increased rapidly, and by 1873 eight had been established on the lower Columbia. The peak year was 1883, when 55 canneries packed nearly 630,000 cases of salmon. The value of the Columbia River pack for that year alone was $3 million.

Immigrants provided the labor in the canneries and, in the 1870s and 80s, most of the workers were Chinese. Because the salmon pack was seasonal, the workers were transient. Typically, they arrived in spring aboard sailing ships or steamers from San Francisco. These laborers handled all aspects of cleaning, packing, cooking, and boxing of the fish. However, after the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred new Chinese workers from entering the United States, the contractors were forced to find other sources of labor. The shore-side labor force was distinct from the fishermen, who were also immigrants but mainly of Scandinavian and Finnish heritage. They, too, were employed by the canneries, working out of company-owned boats. Many of the fishermen brought gill-netting experience with them and were skilled in the art of setting their nets to take advantage of currents, tides, weather, and the particular movements of the fish. They also developed a reputation for physical strength and stamina, both of which were necessary for pulling aboard water-soaked nets and rowing under extreme conditions.


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