|Every year, millions of salmon pass through the mouth of the Columbia River as they return from the open ocean to their spawning-grounds far upriver. This concentrated flow of salmon stimulated a major industry focused on harvesting and canning salmon for a global market. By the 1880s the Columbia River became the canning capital of the world with thirty-nine canneries supplied by over 1,700 commercial fishing boats. In 1883, the combined output of these canneries was over thirty million one-pound cans of salmon.
The salmon canning industry on the Columbia River was started in 1866 when the Hume brothers moved their canning operation north from the Sacramento River in California. The business was extremely successful and soon required more labor than was locally available. In 1872 R. D. Hume became the first to contract out for Chinese workers to fill the labor void. The Chinese employees were hard working and efficient and soon nearly every cannery was filled with Chinese crews. During the salmon season, which ran from April to August, the cannery workers endured eleven-hour workdays and slept in crowded bunkhouses provided by their employers. The best workers were reputed to clean over 1,700 salmon over the course of a day!
Astoria boasted a thriving Chinatown to house and support this workforce. By 1880 nearly a third of the population of Clatsop County was Chinese, numbering some 2,045 individuals. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 greatly restricted the number of laborers who could immigrate from China so that by 1890 the Chinese population of the county dropped to 925. By 1900 only 601 Chinese remained and by 1905 cannery owners replaced most of their workers with Smith Butchering Machines which mechanized most of the salmon butchering process. Each of these machines performed the labor of 30 to 40 skilled workers.
The oldest surviving cannery building, built in 1875, is the Hanthorn Cannery. It is located in Pier 39, now a commercial complex on the waterfront in Astoria. The building has served many functions during the years including a mess hall for Chinese cannery workers. Currently it houses the Hanthorn Cannery Museum.
The Hanthorn Cannery is on Pier 39 in Astoria. Pier 39 is located at the end of 39th Street, towards the river from the intersection of 39th Street and Leif Erikson Drive (Highway 30).