Between 1908 and 1911 something happened that almost certainly saved hundreds of men from drowning in the Columbia River Bar.
The salmon factories in Astoria began equipping their gillnet fleets with small gasoline engines.
At the time, the mainstay of the Astoria gillnet fishing fleet was a quaint double-ended lapstrake design developed in 1866 for use on the Sacramento River by a Californian man named JJ Griffin. They were 24 to 30 feet long, 7 to 8 feet wide, and had wide gaff sails on a relatively short mast. This design quickly caught on and became very famous and popular in river fishing along the west coast.
The Columbia River’s gill net boats were designed to perform best when they “wings and wings” off the wind… and the lives of their crews – two men per boat – often depended on their ability to do just that.
The wind usually came straight up the river from the sea. This came in very handy as you set up a gill net rig near the estuary and drifted seaward with the tide, pulling out the nets and filling yourself with fish all the time. Then, of course, when the tide turned it would start pushing the whole works back up the river; In this case, the fishermen hoisted their nets, shipped their catch, and set sail to return the goods to Astoria.
Of course, not the entire gill net was carried out near the bar. Some fishermen drifted well away from the estuary with their nets. But the fishing was not the best there. The best fishing took place right at the mouth of the river, where the water flows flat and fast and the nets can reach almost to the bottom. The closer you got to the bar, the better the fishing got. So the fishermen had a strong incentive to set up their nets as close as possible to the bar.
This postcard image shows the Astoria fishing fleet around the turn of the century in their old, double-ended sail-propelled boats.
The problem arose when the fishermen misjudged and cut it too tight. The danger was that the ebb tide would sweep them out onto the bar, where massive and seemingly random 40-foot breakers waited to drop walls of green water on them.
In this case, fishermen would be warned by the sensation of fish caught in the net hitting the bottom of the river. When that happened they had zero to three minutes to cut their nets, loosen their oars, hoist those sails, and run upstream into the teeth of the seven-knot current with whatever desperate haste they could muster.
Too often it wasn’t enough and they were swept on the bar and drowned.
It was worst in the spring of 1880, when particularly high river levels prolonged the ebb and a pair of huge clear-skied wind storms caught boats with their nets deployed on the river. This year, every 15th fisherman drowned at the bar on the river.
Things got better after the canning factories started hauling the fishing boats out onto the river on small steamers and bringing them back again. But there was still the moment when the crew of the farthest boat felt the fish hit the bottom and the only thing that could save them – if anything – power and speed.
And that’s exactly what the fishing boats got from 1908, when the owners began installing gasoline engines on the west coast.
A page from the 1913 catalog of the Union Gas Engine Co. shows the company’s one- and two-cylinder offerings.
The engines that went in these old-school boats were slow, heavy, primitive, and were built in one of several factories in San Francisco. In fact, until the mid-1930s, San Francisco Bay was the Detroit of the marine engine industry; The Union Gas Engine Company, founded in 1885, was one of the first manufacturers of gasoline engines of any kind in the United States
These engines were installed uncovered on the open decks of the boats. There were one- and two-cylinder models with four to 40 hp. Like an old John Deere tractor, they used a heavy flywheel to get momentum from one “bang” to the next, and they ran at very slow speeds – 350 to 500 revolutions per minute. But they made tremendous torque so they could be outfitted with huge propellers – 24 inches was typical – and moving lots of water when they were running at full speed.
Those old motors were far too primitive to have starter mechanisms or generators – or even magnets. Each came with a box of six ceramic jars and lids that the owner filled with battery solution, and they provided power to ignite the engine. To start one, a fisherman opened a small fuel tap on top of the engine and injected a little gasoline to vent the air. then he pulled a pressure relief lever, delayed the spark, grabbed the flywheel, and turned it to the left. As soon as the thing fired two or three times, the fisherman gave back the pressure release lever, put the spark forward, threw the clutch off, and went on his way.
It sounds complicated, but in practice it really isn’t.
It was done this way in the 1910s and 1920s – the height of gillnet culture on Columbia before the Grand Coulee Dam dealt the river’s salmon fishery the fatal blow.
But when people speak of “gill net boats” today, they almost always mean a completely different type of boat – the one that replaced the old double-ended boats from the late 1920s. These were the square back models known as the “bowpickers”.
Bowpickers didn’t even nod to the old days of sailing. They look like cabin boats, with a high steering station and a deckhouse that covers the engine. And the best type of motor for a bowpicker wasn’t a big, heavy, slow-turning dinosaur from San Francisco, but a smaller, light, fast-turning marine engine from one of the companies in the east – like Continental or Gray Marine.
And so the raw old West Coast ship engine failed and the factories eventually closed and most of the engines they made were recycled for scrap metal during WWII.
But every now and then you can see one in a restored engine start or maybe in a marine museum – a reminder of the time when the west coast was a mecca for marine engines and the Columbia River was teeming with salmon.
(Sources: “Fish Boats and Motors, Coasters,” an article by Truman B. Cook, published in the March 1982 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly; Salmon Fever: River’s End, a book by Liisa Penner, published in 2006 by Frank Amato Publications)