Dr. Katy Barber is Associate Professor of History at Portland State University. She recently took part in the inaugural "Tribute to the Columbia," organized by Clatsop Community College to teach about history and restoration of the Columbia River.
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“When they came here, there was an abundance of fish they hadn’t seen in Europe,” said fisheries historian Irene Martin about the Columbia River, which runs more than 4 miles wide in front of Astoria and drew thousands of Scandinavians to the region in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Friday night, Martin, Portland State University professor Katy Barber and Columbia River Bar Pilot Robert Johnson memorialized the Columbia River, which over time has developed into a commercial corridor, irrigation and power supply – sometimes at the expense of others.
The presentations were the first of “Tribute to the Columbia,” the inaugural two-day conference organized by Clatsop Community College to draw people to the college in the summer and teach about all aspects of the Columbia. The conference this year focused on history and restoration.
Between 1820 and 1920, more than 2.1 million Scandinavians immigrated to the U.S.
Martin said nearly half came from Sweden, which was going through famines in the mid-19th century. Some of the influx centered on the depletion of herring and cod stocks. Sweden sent many of its men out on 15-year merchant marine missions, easing the demand for food and providing income to Sweden.
“A lot of them found a place to jump ship, and that’s what they did,” she said of the immigrants.
By 1920, Scandinavians made up more than 45 percent of the population of Astoria. They found a similar environment on the North Coast and familiar industries such as logging and fishing.
“There are people here who genuinely love the river and love to fish on it,” said Martin, who showed off meshing boards, picking hooks, a fid and other antique fishing gear she said hasn’t changed much from its use on the Sea of Galilee 2,000 years ago.
The concept of the abundance that brought people here, said Martin, is what fisherman bring to the table.
“In Alaska, they see that abundance,” said Martin about the fishermen who, as stocks fell in the Columbia, headed north to an Alaska without dams, population and pollution. “That is what it was once like here.”
Development at a cost
“Developing our river often involved a lot of taking,” said Barber, a professor at PSU and the author of “Death of Celilo Falls,” a book about the inundation of the trading and fishing village 12 miles east of The Dalles, flooded by the completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957.
The Dalles Dam is part of the Federal Columbia River Power System, a network of 31 hydropower dams owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation.
“Fifteen to 20 million salmon used to pass the Celilo area each year before contact,” said Barber, describing Celilo village as a trading site that the Corps of Discovery estimated at more than 2,000 people during busy times. The construction of the dam, she said, obliterated the fishing lifestyle of more than 400 families.
Along with dams and a focus on agriculture and navigation came a demographic shift on the Columbia River. Native Americans, she said, were largely removed from the river by the Walla Walla Treaty Council of 1855 and faced increasing competition from fish wheels and canneries, of which there were more than 40 by the 1850s.
Native Americans retained fishing rights, said Barber, but were increasingly cramped into a decreasing number of spots on the Columbia, such as Celilo Falls. The image of fishing, she said, ultimately couldn’t match that of hydropower, farming and the river’s development.
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