On February 5, 1951, the Pacific County Board of Commissioners passes a resolution establishing the Port of Chinook. The port, located just upriver on the Columbia from Ilwaco, is formed to serve commercial and recreational fishing boats. Initially the Port will operate a dock near the Chinook Packing Company wharf. In the 1960s, it will develop a 34-slip marina and enlarge the boat basin. The sports fishery will decline in the 1970s because of high fuel prices and limitations imposed on the fishery by the Boldt decision. In 1974 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will issue a recommendation that the port be closed; a vocal public protest will take that recommendation off the table. Although the port will be designated a low-use port and its dredging funding eliminated in 2003, federal funding for dredging operations will be reinstated in 2008, allowing it to remain a home port for salmon, tuna, black cod, and crab fishing.
Fishing for Salmon
Located along the Columbia River in Pacific County, the Port of Chinook was the last of four ports created in the county. It joined the Port of Ilwaco, also on Baker Bay, in serving the fishing boats that fished the river and the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington and Oregon. Salmon fishing and canning had long been the primary industry on the lower Columbia. Between the 1880s and 1935, the majority of the salmon brought in at Chinook came from fish traps, structures made of pilings and fishing nets that captured salmon as they moved upstream. At low tide the salmon could be gathered from the shallow water and brought into the canneries that lined the Washington shore of the river.
One of these canneries, the Chinook Packing Company, started by Albion Gile (1878-1967), packed salmon, fruit, and vegetables. Much of the farm produce came from Albion's family's farm, known as Chicona, at Chinook. The primary source of income for the area, however, was the salmon fishery. According to local historian Nancy Lloyd, Chinook had about 110 fish traps in the early 1930s. These were owned by a relatively small number of people and caught a tremendous number of fish, making it difficult for other commercial fishing operations to compete and for sport fishermen to catch salmon. In 1934, Initiative 77 asked Washington voters to outlaw fish traps, which they did. The local newspaper The Chinook Observer bemoaned the financial losses that came to Chinook with the end of fish traps.
Albion's Chinook Packing Company carried the community through the hard times by adding machinery to process peas produced by Chicona. The cannery also continued processing fish brought in by gillnetters and other fishing boats.
After the end of fish traps on the river, the sport fishery grew tremendously. Thousands of fishing boats filled the river between Astoria, Chinook, and the river mouth during the salmon runs. After 1950, fishermen could compete in two annual derbies on the lower river, one at Chinook, and one at Astoria, on the Oregon side. By 1953 there were more than 3,000 boats on the river on the last day of the season.
Founding the Port
In 1951 the voters of Chinook approved the formation of a port district at Chinook. The 1911 Port District Act authorized voters to create port districts that could levy taxes and issue bonds to develop port facilities. At Chinook, the community planned to develop moorage facilities for fishing boats. These boats had to leave Chinook in the winter for sheltered water upstream on the Columbia or on its tributaries. Having a port district also made it easier to obtain U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assistance in developing a moorage basin and breakwater. The corps regularly built moorage basins and breakwaters but required that a local government entity provide land, streets, and other infrastructure to ensure the facilities would be accessible to the public.
Along with forming the Port, the voters established the port district boundaries and elected the Port's first commissioners. The district encompasses a swath of land along the Columbia River stretching from the Port of Ilwaco's boundary northwest of Chinook to the Wahkiakum County line near the Deep River. It includes the communities of Knappton, Megler, and Chinook. The first commissioners were Harold A. Hagerup (1902-1996), Clarence L. Osborne (1904-1979), and Dan Whealdon (1891-1967), all of whom were or had been commercial fishermen.
In 1957 the Port built a dock that jutted off the cannery dock and provided room for about 30 boats. In 1960, the Port started plans to build a marina on its land in front of the blocks bordered by Valley Street and Portland Street. In 1964, plans for the project included building a riprap breakwater to replace a wooden one originally built by Gile's Chinook Packing Company, dredging a boat basin, depositing dredge spoils on the shore to build up onshore land, and building a boat ramp, a boat hoist, and a marine fueling station. The Army Corps of Engineers agreed to build the breakwater and dredge the boat basin. The Corps also continued to dredge the channel just outside the Port, which connected the basin with the main navigation channel of the Columbia.
In 1967, the port applied for permits to enlarge the marina and deepen the moorage basin. The dredge spoils would be used to build up the shore to create a new parking area. They also wanted to add a wharf, walkway trestles, a gridiron for working on boats, and a 300-foot by 1,000-foot "recreational lagoon" (Public Notice). It appears that the marina was expanded to 340 berths and the basin deepened, but the wharf, walkways, gridiron, and lagoon were not built.
In the 1970s, the Port faced difficulties that stemmed from declining salmon populations that resulted from overharvesting, hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River system, and habitat loss. The declining populations led to increased competition for access to fish. In 1974, federal judge George Boldt (1903-1984) ruled in the treaty rights case United States v. Washington that Indian tribes that had signed treaties with the federal government retained rights to one-half of the harvestable fish available each year. Since the commercial and sports fishermen were then taking more than half of the harvestable amount, fishing seasons were shortened to make more fish available to tribal fishermen.
At the same time, fuel prices rose and the economy slid into a recession, significantly reducing the number of sports fishermen who made the trip to Chinook to fish. The Port continued to operate its marina and serve as a home port for about 60 salmon gillnetters, but it did not regularly see the high numbers of boaters that had passed through its facilities during the height of the sport fishery in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1970s the Port purchased a parcel of land near the marina. It has been used for overflow parking and parts of it have been leased to private businesses.
Defending the Port of Chinook
For many years the Army Corps of Engineers maintained a two-mile channel off the shore of Chinook connecting it to the main navigation channel of the Columbia. In 1978, Patrick J. Keough, the Army Corps of Engineers Portland District chief, recommended phasing out the Chinook port and transferring its services to other, larger boat basins in the area in Columbia River Estuary Taskforce report. At Chinook, the corps faced difficulties with costs and with finding places to dump dredge spoils.
The Chinook community quickly responded with a petition. Several Chinook Packing Company officials, all three Port of Chinook commissioners, and the owner of the local Shell gas Station signed the petition, which extorted the Columbia River Estuary Taskforce to take the recommendation out of their report. The Chinook Packing Company provided financial justifications for the Port, including the wages the cannery paid and the 1.55 million pounds of fish and 1.12 million pounds of shellfish the cannery purchased. Without the channel and port facilities, the cannery could not remain in business.
Beyond the economic considerations, the petitioners argued:
"there are the local fishermen and their families to consider. Does Chief Keough choose to ignore them, to suddenly alter or perhaps eliminate their livelihood entirely? We're not just talking about a channel now, or even dollars and cents, but friends and neighbors, parents with kids in school, people with bills to pay, people with lives to lead" ("Chinook Residents").
The Port remained and the corps continued to maintain the channel, although the Port took over dredging the moorage basin, purchasing a dredge for this purpose.
In December 1995, the cannery's riverfront buildings burned. Ocean Beauty Seafoods, which had purchased the cannery from Chinook Packing Company, rebuilt the buildings, but the Port rebuilt the dock and now owns and maintains it. The cannery, today (2011) owned by Bell Buoy Crab Company, provides 60 full time jobs and 40 seasonal jobs.
In 2003 the Port dedicated the John Fauver Fishermen Memorial near the marina. The Chinook community built the memorial using donated materials. In addition to honoring local fishermen who have lost their lives at sea, the memorial has been used as a gathering place to remember former fishermen who have died.
For several years the Port has also been involved in the renovation of the old Chinook School gymnasium building with a local nonprofit organization, Friends of Chinook School. Built in 1921, the gym had fallen into disrepair. The Friends and the Port have worked together to repair the building and make it available for community use.
Port of Chinook Today
Today, commercial fishermen based at the Port fish for salmon, tuna, black cod, halibut, sturgeon, and crab. Some of the catch of fish and shellfish are sold locally, but most is sent through distributors to overseas markets in Asia and to American markets such as Las Vegas, San Francisco, and New York. Although the commercial fishery is still important economically, the vast majority of boats berthed at the Port's marina for the past decade have been recreational boaters. The economy, fuel prices, and the size of salmon runs largely determine the level of activity the Port sees.
The federal government designated the Port of Chinook a low-use port in 2003. This meant that the Port's access channel would no longer be dredged. Siltation quickly made it difficult for fishing boats to use the marina or to access the Bell Buoy cannery dock. In 2008 Senator Patty Murray (b. 1950) and Representative Brian Baird (b. 1956), arguing that the Port supports 350 jobs, secured funding for dredging the Chinook channel. The dredging, completed in the fall of 2010, will allow the boats to access the Port for several years.
Although there are several ports near the mouth on the Columbia River, they are not interchangeable. Each, like Chinook, has become an essential part of its community by providing infrastructure for commercial fisheries, allowing access to the river for recreation boaters, and supporting onshore jobs.