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XII
ALONG THE COLUMBIA

THE Columbia is one of the biggest of American rivers, and in time of flood it has a flow greater than is ever attained by either the St. Lawrence or the Mississippi. Its lower course, especially, is broad and impressive, and a great highway for commerce and travel. At the mouth, the river is two miles across. Here, a short distance back from the sea, John Jacob Astor in 1811 established a trading post. He selected a spot where the south shore dipped inward a little and a cove gave slight shelter. This did very well as a site for a village cluster, but for a large town like the present Astoria it has disadvantages. The shores nearly everywhere rise from the water’s edge in a steep hillside, and the place clings along this declivity for several miles. It is very odd — the way the buildings lift one above the other, and you are surprised by the sharp rise of the streets and by the numerous stairways that give approach to the upper tiers of homes. The climbing is evidently not relished, for the buildings are snugged in a very close but attenuated mass on the lower verge of the slope while the upper portion is a background of ragged forest. Probably more than half the town is not on the land at all but is on the wharves or stilted up at the waterside with the waves lapping about underneath at high tide. The principal business thoroughfare is a wharf street. This is largely a result of the fact that the ships formerly furnished nearly all the custom, and the trader who was right on the wharves had the most advantageous position. The whole water front is a curious labyrinth of these wharves, and they jut far out into the water, with a zigzagging of streets and numerous footways, and the railroad cutting across them all. Here are enormous sawmills with their great piles of lumber, the warehouses of the river steamers and of the ocean-going ships, and the wide-spreading fish canneries.

Here too were the fish wharves with hundreds of the staunch rowboats alongside used in the salmon fishing, and as the boats rocked on the waves the pulleys that were a part of the tackle by which they were hitched kept up a weird and incessant creaking. Some of the boats had gasoline power, but in most I saw a mast lying along the gunwale, and as soon as the craft started for work and got into open water the mast was set in place and the sail spread to the breeze. Now and then a boat would begin to drop the net over the stern within a few hundred feet of the wharves.

Mending a salmon net

Others went out to the middle of the river or to the opposite shore, or down where the stream meets the ocean. Each boat carries two men — a “captain” and an “oar-puller.” They let the net drift with the tide. When they at length take it into the boat they may have only one or two fish, or they may have dozens. In a catch of twenty-five fish there will be those that weigh anywhere from fifteen to sixty pounds, and there is a possibility of getting a giant of the race that will run up to over eighty pounds.

Boats are coming and going all the time, but most of them start out at low tide, toward evening, and do not return till morning. In the quiet weather of summer they often delay the start for home until the land breeze springs up, and then come flitting in, half a thousand or more, all together. After a boat has delivered its fish to the cannery or cold storage it returns to its hitching-place by the wharf, and the wet net piled at the stern is pulled out and hung on rails that are set on the wharf for this purpose. Later the net is carefully looked over and the breaks repaired. Sometimes it has caught on a snag and been torn so badly that it is a several days’ task to put it in shape. The nets are both wide and long, and cost three or four hundred dollars. A boat costs about half as much more. Profits are divided, two thirds going to the captain and one third to the oar-puller. A captain who uses good judgment and works hard may be fortunate enough to clear during the season close to two thousand dollars. But the average is much less, and some poor stupid fellows barely pay expenses.

The open season is from April fifteenth to August fifteenth. There is no forecasting when the fish will run in multitudes. One man may come home and go to bed having caught nothing. Another may come in an hour later who has drawn up his net so full that he cannot get all the fish into his boat and has to throw many away. Often, the bulk of the catch is made within a fortnight, but again the haul of fish may be distributed somewhat unevenly through the entire four months. A man is supposed to make all he needs in the season to carry him through the year, and some are content to loaf and do odd jobs during the time that intervenes between seasons. Others find steady work. There was a time when the fishermen were largely Americans and English, but now they are nearly all Finns or natives of Eastern and Southern Europe, who speak our language brokenly or not at all.

Get away from the town inland and you find almost unbroken forest. In a few favored spots a little farmland has been cleared. A considerable quantity of potatoes is raised, and the Chinese have plots where they grow most of what the town needs in the way of green vegetables. You see these slant-eyed gentry peddling their products through the streets, carrying their wares in two plethoric baskets suspended from the ends of a bamboo pole which is balanced on the shoulder.

In the woods are to be found raspberries, blackberries and huckleberries in abundance, while strawberries flourish in the open country. But for the most part these small wild-fruits go unpicked, though in quality they are far finer than those grown in the tepid climate of California. The people continue to depend on the south for fruits because nobody cares to be troubled with anything that brings such small returns as berry-picking. There is practically no poverty, and therefore no spur to make small savings. If any families are poor it is because of drink. Astoria’s main street had fourteen saloons in a third of a mile, and all the towns and villages in the valley seemed to be oversupplied with drinking-places in a somewhat similar manner. Apparently, everyone resorted to them — fishermen and lumbermen, merchants and farmers, and while I did not often see men wholly incapacitated because of their potations, there were plenty who got to the border line. Nor did this seem to be counted a serious failing, but, rather, the natural thing for any man to occasionally drink to excess. As a visitor from Iowa expressed himself to me on the subject, “My sakes! it’s awful, ain’t it!”

In Astoria the streets were mostly planked. It was the same in other places, and from some of the river villages the plank roads ran far out into the forest. When in good repair they made a fairly smooth road, but where they were broken or teetering one got well jolted in riding over them. I sometimes saw split sections of trees substituted for the plank back in the woodland, and then the surface was much like corduroy.

Habitations all along the river stuck pretty close to the waterside, and the stream and the railway skirting it furnished nearly the entire means of transportation. Here and there were trails through the woods, but no roads worthy the name when you got away from the villages. The country is still very rich in natural resources and has only been scratched yet. Get away from the river a short distance almost anywhere and you are in heavy woodland so thick and luxuriant that you push along in a twilight gloom. The shores of the stream abound in booms and logs, and you see frequent stern-wheel steamers ploughing their way up stream with a long raft trailing behind. At the mouth of every creek there seemed to be a sawmill, and the creek was perhaps a waterway for floating down the logs, or it may be it only served to make an opening back into the hills for a narrow-gauge logging railway.

Such trees as the mills were working up we see no more in the East — so straight and large and free from blemish. What to do with the slabs and refuse is a problem. The mill men would gladly dump them into the river, but there is a law to protect the fishing which forbids the water being thus contaminated. A good deal they burn. Some make great piles of the waste material round about the mill at the edge of the water, and when the floods come it is a relief if the accumulations go adrift. Perhaps the mill owners had exactly that in mind when the piles were made. Laws are all very well for others, but when they interfere with one’s personal convenience or profit men are prone to attempt dodging. So the shores of the great river are everywhere thick-strewn with sawed fragments and sawdust and there are likewise numberless stumps and logs of all sizes. Some of these stray logs were thicker than I am tall. Often, they were perfectly sound, yet they either get imbedded in the mud and stay to rot, or find their way to the ocean. For many families it is more convenient to get firewood from the shore than from the forest. If so, the supply is inexhaustible. Then, too, when a man wants to build a fence or a shed he can by a little picking get plenty of really good timber and boards from the drift to meet all his needs.

The sawmill people are reckless regarding the fishing, and so are the fishermen themselves. The finest salmon are the Royal Chinooks, and the law only allows them to be taken for four months; but in the smaller places the fishing is almost continuous. The fishermen arc supposed to set free any Chinook that gets into their nets out of season, but I am afraid they seldom do. They dispose of such fish less openly, but rarely are willing to sacrifice the immediate personal gain to the future common good. If left entirely to their own devices the fishermen would in a few seasons exterminate the salmon and put an end to the very industry by which they make their living. A few years ago it seemed likely this would happen, but of late the propagation of the fish has received attention, and many millions of spawn have been put in the waters. As a result the number of fish has apparently been largely increased. How much it is not easy to say, for the people interested in the industry prefer there should be an impression of a short catch in order to bolster prices, and the real quantity in pounds secured is very likely a fourth greater than the published figures.

At the time of my visit the river water was brown with mud. This just suited the fishermen, for the fish are then less able to see and avoid the nets. Later in the season a good deal of fishing would be done with long seines fastened at one end to the shore on a gently shelving beach. The other end is carried out on a flat-boat in a long loop down stream, brought to the land and pulled in by horses. Many fish are also caught in traps. A trap consists of a line of poles driven into the river bottom near shore with wire netting fastened to them. The fish come to the wire and feel their way along until they are in a kind of pocket at the end whence they are not able to find their way out. Down at the bottom of the pocket is a net, and when this is raised, up come the fish, and the fisherman reaches in and takes them out.

A salmon wheel

Most of the river hamlets are rude and small, and with the dark fir woods closely environing them they seemed lonely and much cut off from the world. But sources of pleasure are by no means entirely lacking. At one place where I stopped they were to have a dance that evening including a midnight supper at a dollar a ticket. The clouds began to threaten in the afternoon, and the young folks were a good deal concerned lest it should rain and hurt the success of their entertainment. The girl who waited on the table at the one village restaurant was especially anxious. Those on whom she waited were mostly fishermen and railroad workers in overalls and shirt sleeves. They talked dance and they talked fish, and they chaffed the girl. She talked back and added liveliness to the occasion by snatching back the dishes just as she was about to deliver them into the hands of the eaters, or she would give a slap to the paper one fellow was reading every time she passed. The room was rough in its appointments, and the food as a whole was not very satisfying, but the boiled salmon was delicious and the quantity served most generous.

Across the way from the restaurant was a grocery store; and the sign painted on the three panes of glass that formed the diminutive show window read thus: | DAN | FOW | LER |. This had a short-syllabled suggestion that the proprietor was Chinese. Near by was another business which had a similar sign, only this sign ran across two windows with a substantial separation between as follows: | SAL | OON  |. Judging from English associations with the names, Dan Fow Ler was a man, and Sal Oon a woman. On the whole, I concluded some sign painter with a relish for a joke had been travelling on the coast. I saw other signs of the sort and recall one in particular covering the front of a building but with a window in the middle of it so that the letters were grouped like this:

| LOD | GING |

From the village where I had stopped on the Columbia I rambled back up a hollow past several homes with garden patches and a few fruit trees and small fields about them. In the near woodland the dogwood bushes were full of their white wings, and the roadside was aglow with dandelions. But when I went on I did not have to go far into the forest before I found that a fire had run through it, and few trees had survived.

Some still stood, bare and dead, and many had fallen making the earth a chaos of their shattered and blackened trunks. For several miles I plodded on and everywhere saw naught but the charred and melancholy woodland ruins. It looked as if the region could never again know the beautiful, tall green forest that had formerly grown here. Some of the wilderness fires run over vast areas and even destroy homes and lives, but most of the woodland is now owned by the lumber companies, and they take many precautions to prevent or fight fires that used to be neglected. The law compels the burning of the winter slashings, and this has to be done early while the ground is still moist so that the fires will not run through the woods. The entire Columbia Valley was dim and blue and often the opposite shore faded into ghostly vagueness by reason of the smoke from the slashings.

To see the river at its best one should make the journey from Portland to the Dalles, a distance of nearly one hundred miles. The railroad is close to the shore much of the way and the views from the car window are quite entrancing, but it is only from the river steamers that one gets the full beauty of the scenes. As you go up the river the valley is at first broad and pastoral, a succession of billowy hills with their farmlands and forest, their scattered homes and grazing lands. Gradually the hills lift into wooded bluffs, and you at times find rocky precipices rising from the water’s edge, or lonely pinnacles like monster monuments. The stream resembles the most romantic portions of the Hudson in its scenery, but it is an untamed river of the wilderness with a vigor and a charm all its own. Willows and cottonwoods fringe the shores, but the crags and slopes are almost solidly clothed with evergreens.

At intervals some little village found a clinging place in a dell among the rocks, and these forest hamlets looked very attractive and Swiss-like in their mountain environment. Perhaps the most pleasing of them is Cascade Locks at a spot where the river breaks into a foaming tumult of rapids and the shores rise in great rocky ranges on either side. The homes hide among the trees, and the land is a medley of steep hills and irregular hollows. Everyone apparently built as fancy dictated, and the houses were most picturesquely scattered, some on the bluffs overlooking the river, some on the little heights farther back, some in the green dells with perhaps a mountain rivulet, crystal clear, tumbling along through the dooryard. If you followed the narrow roads and paths that linked the houses together you were always twisting and turning, climbing or descending, but the sudden surprises of the views were ample payment for the exertion.

Woodland blossoms

Wherever there was a rift in the trees in the direction of the stream, you saw its foaming waters and the big stony terraces of the mountains beyond, while in the other direction the shattered cliffs towered into the sky, calm and majestic guardians of the vale. Formerly, according to an Indian legend, the river here was spanned by a mighty natural bridge, beneath which the water flowed smoothly in an unbroken channel, and the red men were accustomed to cross the bridge in their travels and local intercourse. At one time there lived on the Oregon side an Indian brave whom the gods regarded with much favor. While hunting on the Washington side he met and fell in love with an Indian maiden of a neighboring tribe. Presently he married her and they started together for his home. But when about to cross the bridge, disappointed suitors and others of the maiden’s tribe leaped out from an ambush. The two hastened on across the bridge, and no sooner had they reached the Oregon side than they heard a tremendous crash, and looking around they saw that the great bridge had fallen carrying the wrathful pursuers to their death. Thus the gods showed their love for the young brave. The fall of the bridge formed the rapids which have obstructed the white man’s navigation.

The village came into being as a portage place; for steamers could not get over the rapids, and their cargoes had to be transferred a half mile across a neck of land. Now the government has built locks, and the steamers pass on. These locks have cost three or four million dollars, probably twice what a private concern would have paid for the same work. The investment is entirely out of proportion to any present business done through the locks. The cost of maintenance is considerable and the daily passage of four of the flat-bottomed river steamers constitutes practically all the traffic. As one man said to me, “The business won’t pay for the axle-grease used.”

In earlier days the local fishing was an important industry, but salmon are not as plentiful here as they were.          Below the locks are numerous fish-wheels along the shores. They are a striking feature of the landscape, for they are from twenty to forty feet in diameter and six or eight feet across. Each pair of spokes is fitted with a great wire-meshed scoop. The wheel is adjusted in a substantial framework, and the current revolves it and keeps the scoops lifting from the water. A stout lattice dam reaches out from the wheel with a sharp slant down stream, and there is a boom moored above to protect the whole structure from drift rubbish. The dam guides the fish to the wheel, and the first thing they know they are hoisted in the air, fall into an inclined trough at the hub, from which they flop down at one side onto a platform, or into an inclosure of water where the fishermen can get them at their convenience.

It is customary to string the fish on wires and attach them to a half-barrel which acts as a buoy and drop them into the stream. Arrangements have been made with a cannery down the river, where a man is on the watch for them, and when a buoy comes in sight he goes out in a launch and gets the fish. Sometimes as many as a ton are attached to a single half-barrel.

The chief resort for persons of leisure in the village was the porch of a tiny butcher’s shop. Thence you could look down from the hillock where the shop stood and see two or three other small places of business, a hotel and the station. This was the heart of the hamlet, but there was seldom enough transpiring to rouse the loiterers from their dreamy lethargy. Occasionally there were attempts at joviality, but the sluggish social current was only slightly stirred thereby. One man tried his wit several times on a gnarled old citizen with a brush of gray whiskers under his chin who was absorbed in a newspaper. But the latter would only glance reluctantly over his spectacles, make a short response and return to his reading. Finally the joker said, “Did you know I was a Norwegian?”

The reader looked up and a smile overspread his somber features. “Wal,” he replied, “I guess ye are a good deal north of wegian.”

The joker saw that he had been worsted at his own game, and he walked away. Shortly afterward we had a new accession to our group. He was a brisk elderly man, who as he stepped onto the porch regaled us with a couplet of a song which ran in this wise:

“Happy land, happy land!

Breaking stones and wheeling sand.”

He went into the shop, and the butcher asked him why he hadn’t bought any meat of him lately.

“I ain’t eaten no beefsteak for a month,” replied the singer. “It don’t agree with me.”

“If you stop eatin’ and buyin’ meat how’m I goin’ to live?” said the butcher.

“Well,” responded the singer, “that’s your lookout. I can’t kill myself to make the butcher live.”

So saying he came out on the porch and sat down on a keg. We got to talking and among other things spoke of the fishing. “The salmon have been kind o’ played out the last few years up here,” said he, “and when a fish-wheel gets worn out or stove up we don’t trouble to repair it, and there’s seldom any new ones built. But a good many are in use yet. It’s the easiest way of fishin’ that there is. All you have to do is to set and watch the salmon get caught. You don’t find any wheels below Portland. The current ain’t strong enough. The wheels does best in quick water.

“A dozen years ago this here river was full of salmon. I’ve taken a dip net and stood on the shore and thrown half a ton out in a single day. The net was on the end of a sixteen foot pole, and I’d just let it down and then lift it up. The water was generally too riley for me to see the fish. There was lots of fun and excitement when they was comin’ fast. I’ve dipped out three blue-backs to a lick, and once I got a Royal Chinook that weighed sixty-eight pounds. He was a whopper; but we didn’t use to be paid only two cents a pound.”

While we were chatting, a laborer passed, shouldering a roll of blankets. The butcher had come to the door, and he pointed to the passer and said, “You see that feller don’t you? Well, when I first reached here from the East I thought a man with his bed on his back was the funniest thing I’d ever come across; but a rancher in this country won’t take his hired man into his house. They’ve got to furnish their own blankets and usually sleep on the hay in the barn. I know a feller who, when he’d just arrived and didn’t understand the ways they manage, got a job harvesting on a big wheat ranch. The help are apt to sleep in the straw stacks then, and it’s precious little time they get to sleep anywhere; but he didn’t know anything about that, and he was sitting around in the evening, and he says to the rancher, ‘Where am I goin’ to sleep tonight?’

“‘Why, I don’t care where you sleep,’ says the rancher. ‘I’ve got nine hundred and sixty acres of land around here, and if you can’t find a place to sleep on that, I’ll get my next neighbor to lend me a piece of his.’

“A man usually rolls up in his blankets on the hay in the barn. At the sawmills here the employers furnish a tent, or shack, and boards to build a bunk and some hay to put in the bottom of the bunk, and then the worker fixes up to suit himself. Yes, it’s only hoboes who travel without blankets. When you see a man knockin’ around this country empty-handed and lookin’ for work, you can be dead sure he’s prayin’ to God never to find it.”

At the village hotel, among a few other transients was a watch-peddler. He was eighty-six years old, bowed and gray, but still brisk and hearty. He had a neat little grip packed with the watches and with a variety of chains, fobs and jewelry, and he not only sold from this stock, but did repairing. He mentioned one family in the place to which he had sold eleven watches, “and good ones, too.” His sales to that particular family would have been fewer had it not been that its head was a logging laborer on the river, and occasionally lost a watch in the water. The peddler had been in the country for many years, and he had observed much and intelligently. I was interested in his views of the difference between life in New England and in the Far West.

“I remember very well my father’s house back in Vermont,” said he one evening as we were sitting together in the hotel office. “It was big and substantial and we had a nice garden and raised all sorts of things for our own eating. My father, as affairs went then and in that region, was a rich man. He owned a good farm and had four or five thousand dollars in the bank. Everybody called him Uncle Joe, and if anyone needed to borrow they’d come to him. They didn’t borrow very heavy. A hundred dollars was a big pile for a man to go in debt them days — that’s what it was! My father wa’n’t an eddicated man. It was my mother learned him to write after they was married. He used to do most of his figgering with a piece of charcoal on a board.

In a village on the Columbia

“When I first came out here I took up a claim, and I had a neighbor on one side of me that was nicknamed ‘Gassy’ Smith because he talked so much, and on the other side lived a man called ‘Hog’ Jones who was so stingy he wa’n’t fit to live. Hog was well off, but he was like this — if you was to buy a bushel of wheat of him that was worth seventy-five cents he’d make you pay two dollars for it if he possibly could. Most of the people around were Southern, and they were copperheads of the worst kind, while I was a republican. They didn’t like me a little bit, and even threatened to shoot me, but I tried to treat ‘em right and did ‘em any favors I could, and they got over that.

“My son has a farm out here now. His house looks as if it had stood where it is for seventeen hundred years, but I don’t suppose it has for fifty. It’s the darndest old shack you ever saw, but that don’t seem to trouble him any. He’s got the Western habit of not payin’ much attention to the home surroundings. The country here is developing all the time, but the houses is dreadful little improved over what they were twenty years ago. I’ve stayed at houses so poorly built and neglected the sand blowed in the cracks across the floor. You rarely find a good henhouse, or stable, or barn, or a woodshed properly filled. Usually the wood is just a pile in the yard exposed to the weather, and there’s not much cut up ahead. They haul it a load at a time, and I’ve seen ‘em do the splitting by leaning the sticks against the wagon tongue. Often, in order to handle a fallen tree and make it into cord wood lengths, they bore two holes with a long augur into the center of the tree at different angles so they’ll meet. This they do at each place where they want to cut it off, then drop a live coal into one of each pair of augur holes and the coals burn through the log and reduce it roughly into sections that can be handled. The method is wasteful, but it saves the trouble of sawing.

“Our farms have great natural resources, and it seems curious the people should be too lazy to raise vegetables and the like o’ that; and yet they are. Oh, my, I should say so! The ranches all have smoke‑houses and their meat food is mostly pork, but in the villages beef is common, only the beef is apt to be this dry, tough Coast sort. It ain’t like the juicy tender beef you get in the East. Not much corn is grown here to fatten the creatures with, and in most parts they have to do a lot of tramping over the range to get enough to eat. Exercise and poor feed makes the meat tough and the cattle small and lean. You let a man from here see the way cattle are given corn in the East — all they will eat — and his eyes would fall right out of his head with surprise.

“I’ve stopped at ranches to get dinner where they wouldn’t furnish me anything but bread and milk, and darn poor bread at that. Even then they wa’n’t hardly satisfied with twenty-five cents to pay for it. Good Lord! I’ve been to places where they had any amount o’ cows and yet not a mite of butter. Most men get to own their places clear, but they seldom have money laid by. However, there are some men who in the larger enterprises of the region make their fortunes. I know one fellow who came into this village with fifty dollars in his pocket and he became a partner in the sawmill. A few years later he sold out his interest for sixty thousand dollars. He was a smart, sharp, devilish good man, I tell yer. When he got his cash he left. He didn’t build here or spend any of his money here.”

“No,” said a young fellow who with a companion was playing cards at a neighboring table, “of course he didn’t. A man with wealth has no business living in a hole like this. What enjoyment is there here for him? He goes, and he goes quick, you betcher!”

No doubt the confines of life in the river village were narrow, but I could not feel that it was so blank as this young man claimed. Certainly nature had done much for the place, and the wild charm of mountains and forest and stream surrounding could not easily be surpassed.

OREGON NOTES. — By all means visit Astoria, and see the lower river and its wilderness hamlets, and its fishermen and woodsmen.

Astoria was settled in 1811, but immigration to this section of the country was slow for a long time owing to the prevalent idea that the region was valueless, and access to it difficult. As late as 1842, Oregon had a population of only 240 white persons. Portland started in 1843. Since that time its growth has been rapid and uninterrupted. It calls itself the “Rose City,” and a Rose Festival is held there in the first week of June. The city is at the head of deep sea navigation on the Willamette River, 6 miles above that river’s junction with the Columbia.

The favorite excursion from Portland is up the Columbia to the Cascades, 60 miles, and to the Dalles, 50 miles beyond.

Twenty miles more takes one to the station, Hood River. From there stages run in summer 27 miles to Cloud Cap Inn at the foot of the glaciers on the north side of Mt. Hood. Thence excursions can be made to many glaciers and cascades. The ascent to the summit 0f the mountain, which is over 11,000 feet above the sea, is somewhat difficult, yet is often made by ladies. From 6 to 10 hours is sufficient for the round trip.



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