Irene Martin likes to spring this word association game on people: She'll say "tuna" and ask them to utter the first words that come to mind. "Seventy percent of the time it's ‘Bumble Bee,'" Martin said.
The percentage would likely be higher in Astoria, which for 81 years was the headquarters of the Bumble Bee brand and its predecessor, The Columbia River Packers Association. The company that started out as a salmon packing outfit and later expanded to tuna was the city's major employer, and its departure in 1980 sent economic shudders through Astoria.
"Bumble Bee really was the heart of the place for so many years," Martin said. "At least part of the heart went out when Bumble Bee left."
A century (and two years) after the firm's beginnings, Martin and the late Roger Tetlow have provided a thorough history of the company. "Flight of the Bumble Bee: The Columbia River Packers Association & a Century in the Pursuit of Fish" has more facts and figures than the armchair historian needs, but people who worked in the fishing industry will appreciate all the details.
The glossy paper book has dozens of fine photos from the collection of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, ranging from shots of old canneries to pictures of boats and their builders.
Retired Bumble Bee executives had hoped to have a book about the firm done in time for the 100-year anniversary in 1999, Martin said in an interview at her home near Skamokawa. They chose Astoria historian Tetlow, but he died before he could finish the project. "Eventually they cast around and found me," Martin said.
She was well qualified for the job by training and family connections. A librarian by training, Martin had previously written one book about the history of Wahkiakum County and another volume about Columbia River gillnetters. Her husband, Kent Martin, is a commercial fisherman.
In another connection, Irene Martin had catalogued the CRPA's papers at the Maritime Museum in the 1980s.
"It was a huge collection," she said. "I dredged up old memories and did it." She and Matt Winters, editor/publisher of the Chinook Observer, went through thousands of prints and negatives to chose the ones for the book.
"There was too much material," Martin lamented - "way, way too much material." Still, she said, "I enjoyed it immensely. I can't imagine finding a more interesting project to do."
The book begins with the early history of salmon processing on the Columbia. The first cannery, located on a scow at Eagle Cliff in Wahkiakum County, started in 1866.
Martin also traces through the early history of gillnetting. By one account in the late 1880s 1,600 gillnetters worked the river close to the dangerous bar, accounting for approximately 50 deaths each year.
The book also describes the various other types of commercial fishing gear used in early years, such as seines and fish wheels, and the politics that lead to their demise.
Battles over fishing aren't new - in 1896, the Oregon National Guard was called out to control a dispute between fish trappers and gillnetters. (Today, alternatives to gillnets such as seines are again under study because of the desire to minimize harm to endangered salmon.)
In 1899, A.B. Hammond, an entrepreneur from Montana, started the Columbia River Packers Association. His goal was to consolidate seven packing companies into one entity with more clout. One of the firms he bought was Bumble Bee, and in 1961 the company adopted that unlikely seafood label as its name.
Alaska was not the only place to have a gold rush. The book devotes a chapter to the "Great Salmon Rush" of 1901, when the CRPA and other companies established canneries in Alaska. The speed with which men shipped lumber on sailing ships to Alaska and built remote canneries seems amazing today. "It was a momentous achievement," Martin said. "Nowadays you couldn't do it."
As the cannery industry grew in Astoria, the CRPA needed to import workers, first from China. In 1880, the population of Chinese workers in Astoria had swelled to 1,667. Two years later, the U.S. enacted a law excluding Chinese workers. The canneries turned to laborers from the Philippines - and eventually the wives of the Scandinavian immigrants in Astoria who did the fishing.
In the beginning, the CRPA was a salmon cannery, and tuna were considered an annoyance. But in the 1930s, ocean currents got warmer and albacore tuna started increasing off the Oregon coast. "The three years from 1936 to 1939 changed the entire fabric of Astoria and its fishing industry," with new canneries along the waterfront and tuna clippers working the ocean, Martin writes.
Unlike salmon, tuna don't lose their quality when they're frozen and thawed, so the CRPA could save labor costs by shipping the fish to other countries for canning. The Astoria tuna industry peaked in the 1950s. In 1979, Bumble Bee acquired a cannery in San Diego, and the following year it moved its operations there.
"It was a huge loss in so many ways," Martin said. "It had been sort of a father figure in that town."
She devotes a chapter to Bumble Bee's family-style management, with promotion from within the norm. A dark side was the control CRPA had over fishermen, who might become indebted to their employer. "People would go to the company and they'd back them for a car," Martin said.
In recent years, the Bumble Bee brand has ridden the waves of corporate takeovers. Since 1985, it's had seven different corporate owners, most recently Centre Partners, which is based in New York and Los Angeles.
"Flight of the Bumble Bee" includes a chapter on the Astoria boat-building industry, which grew during World War II when factories in other areas concentrated on warships. As with the canneries, little remains of CRPA's once-busy shipbuilding plant on Young's Bay.
Another chapter covers CRPA's opposition to the building of Columbia River dams starting in the 1930s. The packers knew that the dams would erase wild fish runs. Though the CRPA obviously had financial motives, Martin writes that with their advocacy for fish, the packers were the forerunner of such groups as the Sierra Club.
Today, few signs of Bumble Bee remain in Astoria. The major Elmore cannery was scheduled for demolition when it burned in 1993. The company's headquarters, which had been remodeled into offices and a restaurant, burned a year ago. The best-surviving part of Bumble Bee operations is the one-time Hanthorn cannery, now called Pier 39 on Astoria's east end. It includes a Rogue House brewery, offices and a small museum; inside the Rogue facility, many elements of the original wood structure have been left untouched.
As for tuna, they are still there for the taking, and unlike salmon aren't endangered. "The demand has gone up but the industry has changed," Martin said. "There are a lot of guys tuna trolling," but these days canners tend to be smaller, family companies.
The writer laughed about her many hours spent researching cannery history. "I spend my days with dead people. I'm interested in their stories.
"I don't feel nostalgia," she said. "But I don't want it forgotten. There were some values there that shouldn't be forgotten."