Early Salmon Processing

big-chinookOne of the earliest products the Hudson’s Bay Co. attempted to develop in this area was salmon, beginning in 1823. Success was limited by the inability of the company’s employees to pack the fish properly in salt in barrels so that it would remain palatable. Lack of good sanitation plus poorly-made, leaky barrels caused spoilage. But by 1831 progress had been made in packing the fish so that a trade existed between the Columbia River and Hawai’i. Markets included Hawai’i, San Francisco, and Hudson’s Bay posts in British Columbia that did not have sufficient salmon on hand to supply their wants for the winter. Other small companies came and went during the 1830s and 1840s, shipping salt salmon to the East Coast and elsewhere, but all found the Hudson’s Bay Company too formidable a competitor. Salmon salting reached its peak in the 1860s.

In 1866 William Hume and his brothers almost single-handedly launched the historic salmon fishing boom on the Columbia River. The Humes and their friend Andrew Hapgood began canning salmon near Eagle Cliff in Wahkiakum County. Andrew Hapgood made the cans by hand, a laborious job. The bodies of the cans were cut out by shears, then formed in cylinders and the seams soldered together. The bottom of the can was cut out as a circular blank, and placed in a press to form the bottom of the can. The end was then slipped onto the cylindrical body and soldered together. Workers then filled the cans with salmon, and passed them on so the tops could be soldered on. The tops had a small vent hole in them to exhaust the steam while the fish cans cooked in a boiling water bath. After cooking for an hour, they were removed and the vent hole soldered shut. The cans were then re-cooked for another hour, removed from the boiling water, cooled, washed with soap and water to remove grease, and after several days painted with a mixture of red lead, turpentine and linseed oil.

While the Humes attempted to keep the canning process a secret, it was an impossible goal. By 1873 eight canneries were operating on the Columbia, with six more under construction. Declining salmon runs made it difficult to increase the amount of product available, while the proliferation of canneries that had occurred during the late 1880s resulted in packers struggling to purchase enough fish to make a profit. Further, the rapid growth of the cold storage and mild cure business created even more competition for the available raw product. The times seemed to encourage the formation of a salmon canners’ trust on the Columbia River. Excerpted from Flight of the Bumble Bee, by Irene Martin and Roger Tetlow