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Fish wheels a legacy of Columbia’s salmon days

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By Finn J.D. John
September 11, 2016

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in November 2008, which you’ll find here.

IF YOU GET out on the Columbia River in the more inland reaches – past the Beacon Rock area – you’ll often notice that there are lines of rotting, weatherbeaten posts leading out into the waters.

These posts are all that’s left of what was once one of Oregon’s biggest industries: Salmon canning. Specifically, they are the mortal remains of riverside canneries with their adjacent fish wheels.

Another hand-tinted postcard image of a fish wheel, this one showing the weir (underwater fence) built to guide as many salmon as possible through the fish-wheel chute to their doom. (Image: Postcard)

Your basic fish wheel is a diabolically simple device. It’s like a big water wheel with scoops instead of paddles. As a salmon swims upstream toward its spawning grounds, it encounters the scoop, which is moving the opposite direction, driven by the current. The scoop picks the fish up out of the water, and at the top of its turn rotates past a chute that allows the fish to slide out of the basket and drop into a net-walled pen or holding tank, ready for processing.

The story of fish wheels on the Columbia is an old and complicated one. Many people believe their use is responsible for the fact that the Columbia, once renowned for having such a massive annual salmon migration that folks wondered if they might walk across the river on their backs, now has comparatively few. This isn’t really true; the real destroyer of the big salmon runs was Grand Coulee Dam, up in Washington, built without fish ladders, which cut off returning salmon’s access to close to half of the river’s spawning grounds.

A 1937 photograph by photographer Ray Atkeson shows two gillnet fishermen pulling in the nets on their gasoline-powered “Bowpicker” fishing boat on the lower Columbia River near Astoria. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

But the fish wheels certainly didn’t help. By the time the dam project delivered the coup de grace in 1934, the Columbia River salmon fishery was on its knees, hammered almost to the point of full collapse by fifty years of enthusiastic overfishing by the fish-wheel operators, competing with growing swarms of gillnetters on the lower stretches of the river.


THE FIRST FISH wheel and cannery was built on the river in 1866 by Hapgood, Hume & Co. It was a colossal success, both in its production of fish and in the enthusiasm with which the canned product was received in the market. After that, the canneries came thick and fast to the banks of the river with pile drivers and construction crews, and soon the shallow stretches of the upper river toward the Cascade Rapids virtually bristled with them. By 1883, the market was essentially saturated with canned salmon, and 39 fish wheel-canneries were running on the upper river, scooping out fish by the millions. In that year, 42 million pounds of salmon meat was canned up and shipped out by the fish-wheel operators. And it wasn’t an unusual year. Even as late as 1906, the catch was still phenomenally strong, although dwindling; in fact, one particular cannery, just north of The Dalles, pumped out almost half a million pounds of canned salmon all by itself that year.

Meanwhile, though, a vast fleet of gillnet fishermen had gone into business on the broad, quiet waters of the lower river near Astoria. The gillnetters had been there before the first fish wheel went in; a Maine fisherman named Thomas Hodgkins made the first net and went into business out of the town of Oak Point, near Clatskanie. Others, noticing his success, followed, and soon the river was becoming increasingly thick with them.

No gillnetter could make the same dent in the fish run that a wheel by Cascade Locks could make, of course; but they made up for it in sheer numbers. The fleet soon numbered in the hundreds, possibly thousands.

So no one was surprised when the numbers of fish being landed started to decline, because everyone involved had someone they could comfortably blame for it. The businessmen running the fish wheels raged at the swarms of small-fry gillnetters hogging all the fish before they could even get up the river to their wheels; the weatherbeaten fishermen groused in their taverns in Astoria and Brownsmead and Cathlamet and Altoona about the fat-cat cannery owners snatching up so many fish that none were left to spawn.

The truth of the matter, of course, was that both parties were right.

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A hand-tinted postcard image of a fish wheel on the upper Columbia River with Beacon Rock in the background, circa 1920. (Image: Postcard)

The people of Oregon seemed to have felt that way when, in 1908, they voted to ban both practices. The gillnetters, that year, had used the brand-new Initiative and Referendum system to propose that fish wheels be banned from the river. Independently, the fish-wheel operators had gotten a proposal on the ballot that would have essentially banned gillnet fishing.

Both initiatives were passed by a public that was growing increasingly alarmed at the prospect of the salmon being totally fished out. And both initiatives – in a development that was to become very familiar to the sponsors of initiative petitions in subsequent years – were blocked from enforcement by industry-friendly courts.

But by the mid-1920s it could no longer be denied that the Columbia River salmon fishery was in terrible shape. Numbers were in steady and increasingly steep decline. In addition to the overfishing problem, the fish were getting hit hard by land development in their spawning grounds, where cattle were being run through the little creeks and waterways were being changed and diverted into sterile irrigation canals.

A 1920s photograph by photographer Benjamine Gifford of two men standing on a fish wheel. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

So in 1928, Oregon’s state legislature officially banned fish wheels. The canneries on the Washington side soldiered on for a few more years; Washington waited until 1935 to ban them; but by that time, Grand Coulee Dam was well under construction, and the river had been blocked. No one thought to install a fish ladder on Grand Coulee, or if anyone did he wasn’t taken seriously; so, just like that, a good 40 percent of the salmon run was cut off from its spawning grounds and doomed to extinction.

And that was essentially the end of the Columbia River salmon fishery as a major economic driver in the Northwest.


TODAY, A GREATLY diminished fleet of gillnetters ply the lower Columbia, subject to strict regulation by the state. The highest impact on the fishery is from sportfishing now. Over the years since the 1930s, there have been several attempts to ban gillnet fishing, mostly driven by sportsmen who want to be able to catch more fish. These have all failed, mostly by large margins; but after the most recent one, in 2012, Governor John Kitzhaber stepped in to essentially give the sportsmen most of what they wanted.

The legislation Kitzhaber sponsored will eliminate gillnet fishing in the main channel of the river, shunting it off into side areas where the fishing is less productive; and cut the commercial operators’ share of the total take back to, eventually, 20 percent of the total allowable catch, leaving 80 percent for the sportfishers, who will also essentially have exclusive fishing rights on the main-stem river. It remains to be seen, of course, whether this will transform the Columbia into a sportfishing paradise as hoped, or simply kill off the vestigial remains of what was once the region’s top industry.

Regardless of how that works out, though, the fish wheels are gone for good … well, kind of gone for good.

On the Okanagan River, about 10 years ago, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife started using a fish wheel in a new way – to count fish, not can them. The baskets scoop juvenile fish out of the water without snaring or hooking them, and because it all happens so fast they don’t have much chance to hurt themselves flailing around in an underwater net. Once in the fish-pen, they can be logged, tagged with tiny electronic tags and sent on their way to the ocean, none the worse for wear.

It’s an interesting new, positive role for an old technology that most people think is responsible for a goodly share of the collapse of the biggest salmon fishery on the West Coast.

(Sources: “Columbia River History,” Center for Columbia River History,; Martin, Irene. “Gillnet Fishing,” Oregon Encyclopedia,; Kytr, Hobe. “2017 Deadline Approaches …,” Chinook Observer, 8-31-2016; “Oregon Commission Hears Review of Fishing Reforms …,” Columbia Basin Bulletin,, 4-22-2016)

TAGS: #PLACES: #ColumbiaGorge #historic #nowgone :: #timberCulture #legal #unintendedConsequences #hubris :: LOC: #multnomah



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