What I love most about writing history is the way information connects and how stories can be woven into frameworks for a greater understanding. History is not about the past, it is a powerful lens that allows you to understand the present and our place in it. The more history you know, the more grounded you can be. Since I’ve been reading through the almost 150 posts on this blog (many of them divided into story lines available here), I realized how many of the posts fit together, likes pieces in a jig saw. Yet if there is a single element that ties all the posts together, it is Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, in 1947.
As someone who taught world history, I tend to focus on big frameworks in my work, looking at fisheries and fisheries science from national and international perspectives. But sometimes I read a detail that stops me short because it illuminates a lot in just a few words. I was struck by this sentence in Lyle Anderson’s account of the early days at Bioproducts at Warrenton, in 1938. The Columbia River Packers Association (CRPA), the biggest fish company on the West Coast, was run by William L. Thompson.
“Some of the fishermen called him Tulie Thompson because in his earlier days as a fish buyer he acquired the reputation of down-grading trips of fish by calling them Tulies, which was the Columbia River name for a salmon in a run past its prime.”
It’s a line that incorporates a lot of information about the fish business on the Columbia in the 1930s–or the fish business anywhere, at any time. Thompson sold his shares of the company to Nick Bez, who was elected chairman of the company. The CRPA also bought some shares in the Bez’s new Pacific Exploration Company.
The CRPA, or The Combine, as it was known locally, became the most powerful cannery on the West Coast. It began operating in Alaska in 1902. By 1980, when the company shuts its doors and moved to San Diego, it was the largest employer in Astoria. Now, its old Hanthorn Cannery on the waterfront in east Astoria is Pier 39, an upscale boutique hotel.
It’s easy to romanticize the fishing industry, mainly, I think, because of all the wonderful pictures and the beautiful boats. One of the reasons why George Moskovita’s memoir is so important is that he describes a world of brutal hard work, dangerous conditions, and a struggle to cover costs and provide for a family. Guys like Tulie Thompson, downgrading the quality of their fish and paying a lower price, didn’t help.