I had always intended to come back some day, to see the Warren Cannery again. Driving south on Highway 101 from Seattle, I made the turnoff at the coast and headed inland along the Columbia River. The signs sped by with the quickness of thought: Naselle, Grays River, Skamakaway, and then finally, magically, Cathlamet.
Who couldn’t help but be excited? I was coming home to my roots, to the land of my summertime childhood. I drove through town and proceeded to the river. The Warren Cannery lay in front of me. I jumped out of the car and pulled open the roughly hewn warehouse door. Pausing inside, I could hear the gentle lapping of the water far below. Sunlight reflected off the river, burning bright holes through the widely spaced floor timbers. As a breeze passed through the building, I could once again smell the musty odor of old fish. I had come home.
Twenty-five years had flown by since Grandpa Clarence White used to take me to the cannery. Hand-in-hand, we would explore the building, looking for odds and ends, trinkets and souvenirs lost in the shadows. As I sat alone on a pile of netting, I remembered the twinkle in his eyes as he spun tales about the early 1900 river country and the Warren Cannery.
“The world was a different place back then,” he recalled. Clarence told how square rigged sailing ships still made their way slowly upstream, even though, sadly, these old craft were being phased out by the more efficient side-wheel paddle boats. Driven by wood and coal-burning steam engines, the new boats were no longer at the mercy of the winds and the tidal currents.
Thirteen canneries operated along the Columbia. Times were prosperous during the fishing season. “Those big boats came in day and night loaded to the gills with salmon,” Grandpa explained. The shallow riverbanks prevented them from coming in too close, so scows and small craft had to ferry the fish the short distance to the docks.
Indians hauled the salmon up with massive hand winches and then carried the fish to the cutting tables. Gang knives, shafts with many sharp blades, were used to cut the fish to can size. The distance between the knives was determined by the size of the cans. “A man would take that gang knife and swing it down with all his might. Even then, it didn‘t always work. The half-pound-can gang knives were hard as hell to use because there were so many blades.”
A Chinese man, or “Chinee,” would chop-chop-chop the fish with a big butcher knife, trimming them for a perfect fit. Down the line, two Chinese “fillers” loaded up the cans were they were weighed and “topped them off.” The lids were pressed on the can by hand and tapped into place temporarily.
The “crimper,” an automated tool driven by a steam engine in the back, “spun the cans around like hell.” A tool dropped down along the spinning can’s circumference, tightening the lid. The tops were soldered by hand using irons heated by charcoal ovens. The cans were then rolled down the chute and checked for leaks by putting them in hot water. “If we saw any bubbles, we’d know there was a leak somewhere.” These cans were re-soldered, stacked, and loaded onto a cart, which was pushed along a railroad track into the six-foot pressure cooker called a retort. The door was screwed shut, and the cans were cooked at fifteen pounds per square inch for one and a quarter hours at 240 degrees.
The cooker door was opened and an Indian “stopped off” the cans. Using a nail and a mallet, he punched a hole in the hot cans. “You had to stand back. The steam and salmon juice was boiling hot and sometime shot out ten, twenty feet.” The cans were then re-soldered and placed back in the retort to be cooked for another one and a quarter hours.
A couple of Chinese men lowered the cans by block and tackle into a lye bath and scrubbed them clean. Then, the cans were set all over the cannery floor to cool. They were stilled swelled up from the cooking, and the lids contracted all night long. Grandpa would smile, “The watchmen enjoyed hearing their lids a-poppin’.”
In the morning, the cans were piled up. Those twelve-by-twelve underpinnings got awful rotten. Sometimes the floor would give way, sending all the cans spilled into the river. “We’d have to dive down and wait until the tide receded to walk along the mudflats.”
The salmon cans were finally loaded into wooden crates, stenciled with the WARREN trademark, and sent up river to the local brokers in Portland, Oregon.
“I was dead tired. This Frenchman I liked and I loaded a boat so damn full, the water washed over the decks. We were headed upstream, and it was one of those mean, nasty river nights with rain, fog and wind. I had one hand on the wheel and the other on the window with my head out of the wheelhouse. We navigated the river by lining up kerosene range lights. I knew where they all were; I thought I was running for the Rainier light. Then, all of a sudden, out of the fog boomed this voice: ‘You dumb, son-of-a-bitch!! Get the hell out of the way!’ Well, it turned out I was shooting for the bow light of a tramp steamer about ten times my size. I swung the wheel hard to starboard, but I can so close to her I could of reached out and touched her with my hand. Took the blood right out of me. I was white as a sheet. If we’d collided, that would have been it. She would have run over us, and the boats, cargo, the Frenchman and I would have sunk to the bottom of the river.”
Entertainment was hard to find in Cathlamet. People usually just worked, went to church, jumped in the river and read books. Uncle Charly, who managed the cannery, was fond of boxing. He was a big man, strong and tough, and he and Grandpa used to box behind the office nearly every day. “I never did see him knocked down. A couple of prizefighters from Portland came to Cathlamet because they had heard Charly was good. He gave them a ‘good lickin’. We never used gloves in those days. All fighting was bare fisted.”
But strong and tough as Uncle Charly was, he couldn’t fight the inevitable turn of civilization. In only thirty years, over fishing and industrial pollution drove the salmon from the once bountiful Columbia River, forcing the Warren Cannery to close down.
As I walked along the slippery timbers that creaked under my weight, I thought about Grandpa Clarence and Uncle Charly. They probably wouldn’t have recognized the old place. Fishermen now stored their nets randomly along the floor. A boat was tied outside. An old abandoned fire engine was stationed at the ready, near the cannery door.
Yet, the links to the past were still there. An old knife-sharpening wheel was rusting away in the corner. The railroad tracks had been torn out, but the cart used to transport the fish to the retort was still in use. Upstairs, I found an old crate marked "WARREN."
As I left for my car, I knew someday my descendants would come to experience the Warren Cannery too. The tradition would live on.
© Glenn Steiner 1978-2014
This article is dedicated to the memory of Glenn's Grandpa Clarence White, whose patience, love and lucid memory shaped Glenn’s story. Clarence, beloved by the entire family, passed away at the tender age of 98-and-one-half in 1981.
Glenn R. Steiner is an internationally exhibited photographer/writer who works out of San Francisco, CA. His photographs are part of his Warren Cannery Series (1975-2010), which will be expanded upon as long as the old cannery building exists.