ASTORIA — In a museum along the river bank in Astoria, Oregon, union history buffs gathered March 14 for a look back in time. The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association could hardly have picked a more fitting conference site than the Columbia River Maritime Museum: It memorializes the oldest U.S. settlement west of the Rockies, a faded waterfront boomtown with a radical immigrant past.
Astoria was founded in 1811 as a fur-trading outpost, back when the U.S. flag had 17 stars, and California was a colony of Spain. The settlement was named for its funder, New York fur tycoon John Jacob Astor, who was then the richest man in America. In 1836, Astor commissioned Rip Van Winkle author Washington Irving to write a book about his outpost, entitled Astoria. A bestseller at the time, it’s now forgotten. So is the continent-wide trade in beaver pelts, which was already well into decline from over-trapping when Oregon became a state in 1859.
Astoria’s labor story begins with a salmon canning boom in the 1870s. Astoria became the salmon canning capital of the world within a single decade, and it’s easy to see why. It sits next to a four-mile-wide channel near the mouth of the Columbia River, through which millions of full-grown salmon must pass through in order to return to their spawning grounds in an area from Idaho to British Columbia. Fortunes were to be made, for cannery owners. But not for those catching the fish, or those canning it.
Overwhelmingly, Astoria’s salmon catch came from independent gill-netters, mostly Scandinavian immigrants with fishing experience in their home countries. Gill-netters operated their own small boats in crews of one or two. At the peak, as many as 2,000 gill-netting vessels plied the Columbia, says author and historian Irene Martin, a panelist at the labor history conference.
Gill-netting at the mouth of the Columbia was a dangerous trade. Weather could change quickly, and the sandbars and shallows where some of the best fish could be caught were unpredictable and dangerous. Boats capsized, and drownings were common. To pay death benefits to the widows, gill-netters formed the The Columbia River Fishermen’s Beneficial Aid Society in 1875.
Soon after, the group began to push for higher prices from the canneries, and changed its name to the Columbia River Fisherman’s Protective Union. In 1886, it affiliated with the newly formed American Federation of Labor (AFL). But the gill-netters had no feelings of solidarity for workers on the cannery “slime line” — the several thousand Chinese who chopped, canned, and cooked the fish.
When canneries sprung up along Astoria’s waterfront in the 1870s, labor was in short supply: Native American populations had been decimated by disease, and few settlers had yet arrived. So Chinese labor brokers stepped in to supply contract labor, and brought hundreds of male workers from Guangdong Province, in the Pearl River Delta. By 1880, there were 2,317 Chinese in Clatsop County, a third of the population. Nearly all worked in Astoria’s canneries, which were built on wooden pilings over the water. During salmon season, which lasted from April 1 to Aug. 1, cannery workers toiled 11 hours a day, and slept in crowded wooden bunk houses provided by their employers. Sanborn Company fire insurance maps from that era show a densely-packed Chinatown, right alongside row after row of “Female Boarding,” the maps’ euphemism for brothels. The Chinese worked extremely hard: Some could clean a 40-pound salmon in 45 seconds, and 1,700 fish in a day.
But in the 1880s, a wave of anti-Asian feeling spread through the western United States. It led in 1882 to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred further immigration. In 1885, the anti-Chinese movement culminated in massacres, riots, and forcible expulsions in towns and mining camps all over the West.
Astoria was tolerant compared to other West Coast towns at the time, says conference panelist Regan Watjus, who wrote her University of Oregon masters thesis on the Astoria Chinese. True, newspapers like the Daily Astorian were full of racist rhetoric about “yellow men,” and “heathenish celestial brutes.” But the need to keep canneries running prevented Astoria from following the example of towns like Tacoma and Oregon City, where white mobs attacked Chinese in the dead of night and forced them to leave town.
At the height of the anti-Chinese movement, the biggest worker organization was not the AFL, but the Knights of Labor. Its primary demand was for the eight-hour work day, and in the East it sometimes stood for racial equality. But in the West, it was an active part of the anti-Chinese movement.
In Astoria, members of the Knights of Labor organized anti-Chinese meetings. In February 1886, they got 18 cannery owners to sign an agreement not to employ Chinese workers once that year’s salmon season ended. The agreement didn’t hold, and the Knights of Labor went into rapid decline soon after.
Exclusion and hostility took a toll on the Astoria Chinese. Workers returned to China, or stayed in other cities instead of returning to Astoria for salmon season. By 1890, Astoria’s Chinese population was 925, and by 1900, 601.
Columbia River salmon runs also began to decline as early as the 1880s, due to pollution and overfishing. At the industry’s peak, Astoria had 17 canneries packing 12 million pounds of salmon a year. But towns and lumber mills up and down the tributary Willamette River were using the river as an open sewer. Fish pulled in by gill-netters were fewer and smaller than before, and canneries began to talk about starting hatcheries.
Shrinking salmon runs put pressure on the fishermen. In 1896, the Columbia River Fisherman’s Protective Union led a strike against the packers. The strike was ended when cannery owners agreed to pay four-and-a-half cents per pound. But once the gill-netters were back to work, the cannery owners reneged on the deal, and offered just two cents per pound. In response, a group of about 200 fishermen pooled resources to form their own cannery: the Union Fishermen’s Cooperative Packing Co. Formed in 1897, the co-op was highly successful, and led competing canneries to join together in the Columbia River Packers Association.
Of the immigrant communities of turn-of-the-century Astoria, Finns were the most numerous, and the most radical, says Liisa Penner, archivist at the Clatsop County Historical Society. Most lived in a neighborhood known as Uniontown, named after the short-lived Union Cannery, which had been founded by Finnish fishermen in 1882. In 1904, members of Astoria’s Finnish community founded the Astoria Finnish Socialist Club, which soon became an important economic and social institution locally. They also began a Finnish-language socialist newspaper, Toveri, in 1907, which peaked in 1916 at a daily circulation of 4,000, larger than any other Astoria newspaper. The jewel of the Astorian Finnish socialists was a magnificent four-story hall built in 1910. It included a clothing and tobacco store, a library, a labor office where people could go to find work, a space for meetings and performances, and a pool hall. The socialist club also set up sports groups, a choir and orchestra, and theater groups.
Astoria’s socialist community was a part of a growing national socialist movement led by former railroad union leader Eugene V. Debs. The party called for publicly-sponsored unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, and compensation for injured workers; and a graduated income tax, public ownership of utilities, and women’s right to vote. Most of those things are law today, but the Socialist Party that first proposed them was hounded and harassed into obscurity during and after World War I. The party opposed the war, and once the United States entered the war in April 1917, socialists all across the country faced government repression and vigilante violence.
In Astoria, four employees of Toveri were arrested under the Espionage Act, accused of inciting rebellion among soldiers and sailors. Two were convicted in U.S. District Court in Portland, and served a year in Washington’s McNeil Island Penitentiary until a pardon by President Woodrow Wilson. And the American Legion — formed by returning soldiers to target political radicals who had protested the war — established a post in Astoria in 1919. Its first act was to wage a boycott of advertising in Toveri.
In the decades after the war, Chinese cannery workers, radical Finns, and people in general disappeared from Astoria — along with the salmon that brought them. Astoria’s population peaked in 1920 at about 14,000. Since then, while Oregon’s population has more than quadrupled, Astoria’s has fallen steadily, and today it has fewer than 10,000 inhabitants.
The Astoria Finnish Socialist Club building was destroyed in 1923 by a fire, the cause of which was never determined. Where it once stood today sits the Dunes Motel on Marine Drive.
A Labor Temple constructed in 1924 still provides office space to AFSCME Local 2746 and Teamsters Local 58, and meeting space for local members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But it’s best known locally as a dive bar featuring video poker and karaoke. Staff there were union members once upon a time, but no more.
Salmon runs, already in decline from over-fishing, irrigation, and small hydroelectric dams, were decimated by the big dams constructed in the 1930s and 1940s. And in the upper Columbia stretching into Canada, salmon runs were wiped out altogether by the Grand Coulee Dam, completed in 1942 without fish ladders.
In 1950, the cannery owned by the Union Fishermen’s Cooperative Packing Company was sold to Peter Pan Seafoods. It closed, and was later destroyed by fire. Where the cannery once stood, today sits a luxury boutique hotel, with rooms starting at $179-a-night. The Cannery Pier Hotel features an authentic Finnish sauna and an indoor museum about Astoria’s cannery heyday.
The Columbia River Fisherman’s Protective Union survives as a group promoting conservation.
The Columbia River Packers Association — the employer group formed to compete with the cooperative cannery — lives on after multiple corporate mergers in the name of one of its brands, Bumble Bee. Just not in Astoria. Bumble Bee, Astoria’s last working cannery, closed in 1980. A run-down free-admission museum commemorates it now, on Pier 39 at the east end of Astoria, along with a wall bearing the signatures of hundreds of Astorians who used to work there.
By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, Astoria’s Chinese numbered just over 100. The last Chinatown buildings on Bond Street were torn down in August 1941 to construct U.S. Route 30. In 2012, the City of Astoria constructed the Garden of Surging Waves, a monument to commemorate the contributions of the Chinese to Astoria’s history. It’s located at the intersection of 11th Street and Duane, next to the American Legion hall.
Today, scattered through Astoria’s historic downtown, public trash cans are decorated with images from old-time salmon can labels. The town’s biggest industry is tourism. And its waterfront past is part of the allure.