The Cannery Era

The boom in the salmon canning industry along the Columbia River was short lived. It lasted from 1866 when the first cannery was established at Eagle Cliff, Washington, approximately 40 miles upriver from Astoria, until the mid 1930s as both the salmon population and the US economy suffered serious decline. There was early, mostly unheeded, recognition that the salmon runs were being depleted in an unsustainable way by over fishing. In a report by the US Commissioner of Fish & Fisheries, Marshall McDonald, in 1894 the observation was made that:

There is no reason to doubt - indeed, the fact is beyond question - that the number of salmon now reaching the headwaters of streams in the Columbia River basin is insignificant in comparison with the numbers that some years ago annually visited and spawned in these waters....We must look to the great commercial fisheries presented in the lower river for an explanation of this decrease, which portends inevitable disaster to these fisheries if the conditions which have brought it about are permitted to continue.1

Cannery Map
Click map to enlarge

The commercial fisheries took in salmon by the hundreds of thousands per year in the lower reaches of the Columbia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Early methods incorporated those used by natives including the use of fish traps, or weirs, but also came to include the use of large gill and seine nets and both stationary and floating fish wheels. The canneries themselves were located near the most plentiful source of fish near the mouth of the Columbia as the map at right suggests.

These early canneries, like the first at Eagle Cliff, were labor intensive operations, often taking advantage of the availability of cheap Chinese contract labor. These workers were the first to be displaced as mechanization in the form of equipment like this fish cleaning machine were brought into the canneries.

Oregon salmon from the Columbia was shipped world-wide, although by far the largest portion went to Great Britain for shipment throughout the British Empire.2 Warehouses of fish ready for shipment were literally filled to the gills during the height of the season.

Salmon production went from zero in 1866 to a peak of over 600,000 forty eight pound cases in 1883. The graph below provides a picture of production in the Columbia canneries from 1866 to 1928 during the industries most profitable years and as it leveled off during the depression of the 1930s:


Columbia River Cannery Production 1866 - 1928

Data for Chinook salmon available beginning in 1866 when the first cannery opened;
Sockeye and Steelhead were first canned in 18893

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  • 1) The number of canneries declined from a peak in the early 1880s. How many were there in 1892 according to the data in the map?

    2) Most of the canneries on the Columbia were within how many miles of the mouth of the river? Identify the cannery furthest upstream and how far it is from the Pacific.

  • 3) Click on the Salmon Imports bookmark to switch to a world view. Change the symbols so that the import data in the map uses colors to display the data in 5 quantiles (groups of roughly equal number). Describe the world wide pattern of salmon distribution that you see. Where do the largest exports of salmon go from the United States and what do these countries have in common?

  • 4) Compare the graphs for chinook, sockeye, and steelhead. Why do you suppose sockeye and steelhead began to be canned beginning in 1889?

    5) Make two generalizations about the change from 1883 to 1928 in the numbers of the three species of salmon shown in the graph.

    6) Assuming a price of about $0.13 per pound, what was the approximate value of the two pound cans of salmon pictured in this Astoria warehouse?

    7) Study the pictures of the fishing methods used to supply the canneries, do any additional research needed about each method, and compare and contrast each approach in terms of the labor involved and its productivity.

1Marshall McDonald, "The Salmon Fisheries of the Columbia River Basin," Washington D.C.: U.S. Commission of Fish & Fisheries, 1894.

2John N. Cobb, "Pacific Salmon Fisheries, Bureau of Fisheries Document No. 1092,Washington D.C.: US Department of Commerce, 1930.

3John N. Cobb, "Pacific Salmon Fisheries, Bureau of Fisheries Document No. 1092,Washington D.C.: US Department of Commerce, 1930.

Last modified in January, 2013 by Rick Thomas