2012 articles About Offbeat Oregon 2012 articles 2011 articles 2010 articles 2008-2009 articles About me Store (the Finn J.D. John Centre for Crass Commercialism and Filthy Lucre)
Links to Offbeat Oregon History podcast page on iTunes Daily RSS feed (text/images) info Offbeat Oregon History page on Facebook. New historic photographs are frequently posted. Offbeat Oregon on Twitter. This is where you'll find most of the "pop history" community. Daily RSS audio edition (podcast) and iTunes feed Links to Offbeat Oregon History podcast page on iTunes
Link to Web site for Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town z



This is an official FEMA video of a fish wheel in action in Eagle, Alaska, where it scoops salmon out of the Yukon River.

The war at the ballot box:


The Oregon Historical Society has a great page of information and pictures on the 1908 ballot measures to ban fish wheels and gillnetting.

finding the remnants:


The latest edition of Scott Cook's hiking guide, "Curious Gorge," includes directions to find some of the remnants of the old fish wheels; most of them are just old piers sticking up out of the river now.



The Columbia River Gillnetter is the newsletter of the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union. Its mascot, shown above, is named "Sally Salmon." The most recent issue available online is from 2004, though.

you just might ALSO
enjoy ...


Whale explodes: Details at 11.

The highway department guy didn't know how much dynamite to use, and said so on camera. But he still thinks the operation was a success. Check out the story of Florence's famous exploding whale ...


Far-out guru "enlightens" Central Oregon.

What happens when a colony of acolytes of an East Indian guru move in, then try to take over Wasco County? Check out the four-part story of the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram ...


this oregon youth went on to save half a billion lives...guess who?

A local Willamette Valley teen-ager named Bert Hoover, an orphan sent from Iowa to live with his uncle, went on to save millions of lives and become a singularly ill-starred U.S. president.


oregon's most spectacular shipwreck ever.

The steam schooner J. Marhoffer was almost brand-new when, burning fiercely from stem to stern, it piled onto the rocks near Depoe Bay. It's the remains of this fiery shipwreck that gave Boiler Bay its name ...


the gallant rescue of portland's floating brothel.

Maritime madam Nancy Boggs kept her bordello on a barge floating in the river, until a police raid cut it loose. But the captain and crew of a sternwheeler came to save the day. Here's the story.


take off to the province of oregon, eh?

Few people know how close Oregon came to officially becoming a British possession under the treaty that ended the War of 1812. Only the presence of a handful of scattered, starving survivors from Astor's fur enterprise prevented it. Here's how.


timberline lodge could have been a glass skyscraper

Calling the plan a "profit-making eyesore," a Forest Service manager nixed 1920s plan for a modern steel-and-glass structure with an aerial tramway. You can read about it right here.


pixieland: an edgy, vanished amusement park

Built in the late 1960s as a "fairy-tale history of Oregon," the amusement park lasted just a few years before slipping into receivership. Today, all that's left of this odd and uniquely Oregonian story is a dilapidated guardshack.

Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Fish wheels making a comeback — to save fish

Once blamed for wiping out the enormous Columbia River salmon run, the mechanical salmon harvesters bring fish unhurt into waiting hands of conservationists who count, tag and release them

A postcard image, circa 190, of a fish wheel working somewhere on the Columbia.
Another postcard image, of a fish wheel somewhere on the Columbia.
[Larger image: 800 x 540]

Fish wheels have a bad reputation. But they may be making a comeback — in a different role.

For about the last 10,000 years, Indian tribe members have taken big nets to bits of the Columbia River where the water runs fast and used them to scoop out salmon dinners.

When the industrialized Europeans came in the mid-1800s, they knew a good idea when they saw it. The Indians caught so much salmon, so quickly, that some enterprising Europeans quickly realized they could make a killing scooping out fish, canning them up and selling them cheap. But, not being inclined to stand around on fishing platforms as the sun beat down on them, they mechanized the method.

Old postcard image, circa 1925, of salmon waiting to be shipped
This old postcard image, also from around 1925,
shows an industrial catch of salmon ready to be
shipped. It's not clear whether this scene comes
from a fish-wheel processing facility or from a
gillnetting one. (For a larger image, click here)

And thus the fish wheel came to the Columbia. It’s sort of like a paddlewheel with baskets on the tips, with a wooden flume built downstream to divert a big cross-section of river into its path; the current turns the wheel, the baskets scoop out all the fish that are carried through the flume, and the cannery built nearby puts them all into little flat cans.

Just to give you an idea of how many fish these things scooped out of the river: One, built in 1887 about five miles north of The Dalles, pulled 418,000 pounds of fish out of the river in 1906 alone. By that time there were more than 75 others like it lining the shores of the river where it ran fast.

Meanwhile, fleets of gillnetters, based out of little fishing towns near Astoria, were also pulling vast numbers of fish out of the lower Columbia, where the water runs slow and deep, to be processed at canneries down there.

A postcard image, circa 1925, of men working a purse seiner on the Columbia.
Fishermen pull salmon out of their fish trap in this early-1900s postcard
image. Trap fishing hasn't been practiced in Oregon commercially for
well over half a century. [Larger image: 1200 x 767]

Not surprisingly, the operators started noticing the catches dwindling as the early 1900s wore on. But their response was to blame each other for the fading of the fishery (no one yet realized it was actually a collapse they were dealing with, and perhaps it wasn't yet). The two groups – fish wheel operators and gillnetters – sponsored competing ballot measures in 1908, one banning fish wheels and the other virtually banning gillnetting. Both measures passed, but were blocked from enforcement by courts. Nice to see some things haven’t changed in 100 years, isn’t it?

A postcard image, circa 1925, of men working a purse seiner on the Columbia.
Another postcard image, of a group of men working
a purse seiner on the lower Columbia. Again, the
date is roughly 1925. Note some of the men are
actually wearing neckties with their aprons. Seine
fishing is still done on the Columbia. (For larger image,
click here)

By 1926, it was clear the fish were pretty much gone, and the state Legislature hastened to slam the barn door after the horse by banning the fish wheels. Gillnetters soldiered on; a greatly diminished fleet still plies the waters of the lower Columbia, but the catch is relatively paltry. A huge blow was dealt to the already suffering fishery a few years later when Grand Coulee Dam was built without fish ladders, cutting off a lot of fish from their spawning grounds. Today, most of the fish caught in the Columbia are raised in commercial hatcheries.

But the fish wheel may be due for a comeback. On the Okanagan River, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is using fish wheels 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 on deck, they can be logged, tagged with tiny electronic tags and sent on their way to the ocean, none the worse for wear – or, at least, not much the worse.

Postcard, circa 1930, Indians fishing for salmon at Cascades in Columbia River
This old postcard, circa 1925, shows Indians
fishing for salmon at the Columbia River Cascades
near Cascade Locks. (For a larger image, click here)

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

(Sources: OHS Oregon History Project; Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; Northwest Power and Conservation Council)