Astoria mini-conference report – Local history

History lives again in Oregon’s coast city

Labor educator Marcus Widenor with two of the three local history panelists, Irene Martin and Bryan Penttila.

Labor educator Marcus Widenor with two of the three local history panelists, Irene Martin and Bryan Penttila.

Participants to the March 14, 2015, PNLHA mini-conference learned much about Astoria, the historic city at the mouth of the Columbia River founded by John Jacob Astor in 1811 as Fort Astoria.

It was once teeming with men and women who worked the local fisheries, canneries and forests for a living. Once known as a treacherous shipwreck coast, workers on pilot boats now ply the wide passage escorting freighters and other sea craft safely to their destinations.

The bustling coastal town used to be and still is home to several trade unions and you can still see that history in an area called Uniontown and in other parts of Astoria. The history of radical Finnish trade unionists, in particular, speaks to the richness of the region’s labor history as does the Astoria Labor Temple now a tavern and grill.

George Slanina and others

Participants listening to local history panel presentations.

But participants also heard about other immigrants during the opening panel session. Labor educator Marcus Widenor gave a brief overview before Regan Watjus provided details on 19th century Chinese cannery workers and how they were ostracized from mainstream society.

“What I found,” noted Regan, “was that in Astoria it was hard to reconcile that sort of principled stance against the Chinese with what was actually happening on the ground. They were critical to the success of the canneries and people recognized that. They knew that the growth and the prosperity of Astoria was directly related to the Chinese working in the canneries.”

She also cited cases of Chinese workers on strike. “There was one case I saw where they were striking against the cannery owner,” Regan said. “They wanted higher prices for their work or to be paid better for their work. And there were other times when they struck against their Chinese contractor.”

Irene Martin described the history of women workers in local canneries.

Irene Martin described the history of women workers in local canneries.

Local historian Irene Martin also addressed issues facing cannery workers in Astoria, but her focus also turned on fishing along the Columbia. Fishers first organized in 1866 with the Columbia River Beneficial Aid Society, she said. “By 1884, the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union was already organized and mobilized. It held a series of strikes over the years for better prices.

“In 1893, there was what was called a panic – we would call it a depression now – and there was a huge fishermen’s strike at that point. They got the price up a little. As soon as they went back fishing, the price dropped again. The result from that was that mainly the Finnish, but not just the Finnish fishermen, decided ‘let’s form our own cannery’.”

Local logger and historian Bryan Penttila outlined the situation of the region’s early timber workers, citing the role of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies). In 1907, “they brought the sawmills of Portland to a standstill,” Bryan explained. “It began early in the year and within a month’s time every major sawmill on the river was closed.”

Image of women cannery workers on display at local cannery museum in Astoria.

Image of women cannery workers on display at local cannery museum in Astoria.

By 1917, the IWW had successfully infiltrated the mills and logging camps. “Logging camps were extremely more difficult [than sawmills] because the loggers were transient-type workers,” Bryan said. “So it took the IWW quite a while to get into the logging camps but once they did they saw plenty that needed fixing. As a result, lumber, particularly spruce lumber [used in airplanes during the First World War], was not reaching its destination come wartime.”

Watch for the first edition of “PNLHA Labor History Online,” a podcast that provides more details on mini-conference discussions.