Vacationing Among Oregon’s Salmon Canneries

After they’re done visiting the horse canning factory, Frank and Nell explore a salmon canning facility. Apparently they were really interested in the industrial food processing in the Pacific Northwest! In this section Frank goes into detail about the procedure of cutting, canning, and boiling salmon that his New York cousins probably bought and ate. In the late 19th century, Oregon canneries employed thousands of Chinese workers, who worked long and dangerous hours for little pay or respect. Frank does seem to be a little impressed with their efficiency and hard work though. After this, they return to admiring the sights in northern Oregon- they’re most impressed with the Columbia River. The Felters are almost done with the continental U.S., they’ll be in Alaska soon!

Scandanavian Salmon
Columbia River Salmon label (canned in Astoria, Oregon), 1885. Oregon Blue Book.

Passing on by the Horse Cannery, we see between here and Astoria a great many Salmon Canneries, and Salmon wheels, which latter, huge affairs cost come $4000.00 each. The wheels revolve in the water by action of the current and as they turn around lift up and empty into a trough or chute any and all salmon foolish enough to try to pass up stream at this point. The Salmon are also caught in the sein or net, and millions of dollars are invested in this industry of the Columbia. This season is an unprofitable one for the canneries.

Columbia River Salmon
Seining on the Upper Columbia, c. 1906. Library of Congress.

The price demanded for the chinooks 7-1/2 to 10 cents per pound of gross weight, as compared with 4 cents per pound paid by the Canneries last year. We spend a couple of hours in one of these Canneries at Astoria, and was surprised at the cleanliness shown in the process. A large Cannery may employ as many as One Thousand chinamen.

The fish are weighed in huge boxes and then emptied where a man is stationed, who cuts off the head, rips open and tears out the offal, passes the fish along to the next chinaman and commences on another fish, the whole operation taking less than five seconds. Just as rapidly does the next man do his part and pass along to the third who does likewise, until eventually the salmon are canned, nicely wrapped and put in cases ready to ship. A few points were impressed on my mind, so much that I will repeat them.

Chinese Workers in Oregon Cannery.jpg
Chinese Workers in Astoria Cannery, circa 1900. Oregon Historical Society.

First, the fish are thoroughly washed but are never scaled. Second, the cans are soldered by machinery. Third, the fish are not cooked until after being sealed up. Iron trays on wheels holding from 500 to 1000 cans are shoved into a boiler where they are kept two or three hours, in steam sufficiently hot to cook the fish. Fourth, the flat cans are filled with the choicest parts of the fish, and the tall cans are mostly filled with the scraps and small pieces. Fifth, you probably knew all this before, so I will put the subject aside.

Celilo Salmon
Celilo Salmon label, 1890. Oregon Blue Book.

At Astoria, Ten miles above its mouth, the Columbia river is nine (9) miles wide and some distance further ’tis (17) seventeen miles across.

A few days following our trip to Astoria, we started out to travel the upper Columbia as far as the steamers navigate, about 100 miles East of Portland. At 7-45 on this morning, we find ourselves opposite the town of Vancouver, and now we have the beautiful view of Mount Hood, to the right of us, 11,000 feet high: and on our left are Mount Rainier 14,448,- Mount St. Helens 9700: and Mount Adams 12400 feet high, each and all being covered with snow at their summit.

Below its junction with the Williamette, the Columbia is bordered mostly with low lands covered with trees and grasses, while some distance above the junction it is entirely different in character, and the trip is rightly said to be one of surprises, each bend of the river showing up new and wonderful formations.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.

The Dalles and Mt. Hood from the North Side of the Columbia River, 1912. Library of Congress.

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