Back in the 1880s, The West Shore magazine provided flattering portraits of the growing towns and industries of the Pacific Northwest. I've been enjoying the October 1888 issue, which includes articles about salmon fishing on the Columbia River, hunting the fur seal and a history of the saw mill, among other topics.
The fascination of early publications is that they lack most of the layers of misconceptions that build up around any subject with passing time. They have their own prejudices - The West Shore was virulently anti-Chinese, for example - but read with significant skepticism, early periodicals are a valuable course in how things really were, as opposed to how we think they were.
About salmon, I was interested to read that "Beside the Chinook salmon, there are nine distinct varieties in the Columbia, only three of which, the Blue Back (average weight five pounds), the Steel Head (five pounds), and the Weak Toothed (12 pounds), have any commercial value, none of which approach the Chinook in quality, value or quantity."
It interests me that even at the early date of 1888 there was a perception of so many different varieties of salmon on the river, though the author doesn't specify exactly what they were. Considering one had to be dog or chum salmon, that still leaves five unaccounted for.
I've long been under the impression that blue backs, or Columbia River sockeye, were considered something of a gourmet salmon. This is partly based on the fact that the Columbia River Packers Association reserved its Bumble Bee brand exclusively for blue backs for years, before changing the company's name to Bumble Bee in the early 1960s. Other companies also had fancy labels for blue backs, and only packed them in half-pound cans, the practice a century ago for expensive fish - the usual goal was to keep the cost of a can at a dime.
And yet maybe all the fancy packaging was nothing but marketing hype designed to fob second-rate fish off on unsuspecting Easterners. It appears that only early-run Chinook were considered to be the real article: "The spring and summer shipment to the east consist of genuine Chinook salmon, but the later shipments are generally Steel Heads and Blue Backs, smaller and much inferior varieties."
As we all know, this is the world capital of salmon fishing. "Astoria is the headquarters of the canning business, three-quarters of the canneries being located at that point.... Fully a million salmon were canned the present season, which is but little more than half the pack of some former seasons."
In 1888, as in 2004, "A most important question now before the fishermen is the maintenance of an adequate supply of fish. With the mouth of the river literally blockaded by traps and more than four hundred miles of gill nets, it is a wonder that any considerable number of fish succeed in entering the stream at all."
Largely unenforced Sunday closures of the fishing season were combined with the first feeble experiments with artificial propagation in hatcheries in the initial efforts to keep salmon runs healthy. (By the way, this year's spring Chinook run brought about 700,000 fish past Bonneville; the fall run stands at 432,000.)
Fishing is still a dangerous activity here at the mouth of the Columbia, but nothing like it was in 1888. "Skill and bravery are both required by the bar fishermen, and annually half a hundred of them lose their lives among the breakers. In their rivalry to get the first chance at the fish as they enter the river, they crowd down upon the very verge of the bar, and every few days a boat is swamped in the breakers. Occasionally the luckless men are rescued by the crew of the life boat at Cape Hancock (now called Cape Disappointment), but the majority pay for their temerity with their lives."
The pay scale was a little different back then as well. "Some fishermen own their own boats and nets, worth about $400, and others operate boats belonging to the canneries; the former receiving about one dollar each for their fish, and the latter sixty cents."
I think I paid $6 or $7 a pound for this week's "inferior" fall Chinook, and I thought it tasted just fine. But imagine the horror and awe the old fishermen would have felt at that price for a piece of fish. The world moves on, but thank goodness the salmon still run strong in the Columbia.
Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer