During the first third of the last century, summertime life at the New Dungeness Light Station in Sequim, Washington was somewhat less solitary than many fans of the isolated place realize. This was thanks to an 1800-foot long fish trap extending from the outside of the spit.
Official lighthouse records have mostly ignored this commercial enterprise, but one map of the Dungeness Spit dated 1900 and drawn by the Office of the U.S. Light House Engineer 13th District shows the fish trap clearly.
Beyond this document, there are a scattering of firsthand accounts from those who lived at the light station. Clarence Brooks, son of Head Keeper Edward Brooks, worked on the fish trap for a couple of summers while he was in high school around 1920. In an interview recorded in 1974 he recalls the trap was only a quarter mile to the west of the lighthouse. Salmon were intercepted as they returned for spawning from the Pacific Ocean, and were fed from the shallow water inside from the outside “lead” end to an opening in the middle of the trap. There they got funneled into a kind of holding pen called the “spiller” from which they could not escape.
According to Brooks, the major task of the fish trap crew was to transfer the salmon from the trap to the cannery vessel by means of the daily “lift.” There was a cotton mesh net at the bottom of the spiller. Hand winches were used to raise and dump this net full of salmon into a large “pot scow” that was brought to the trap every morning.
During Brooks’ time, the Dungeness salmon trap was owned by Booth Fisheries Co., at the time a major fish-packing corporation headquartered in Chicago. The scow was towed to one of the company’s canneries on the Everett or Seattle waterfront. Notes on the map from 1900 showed the trap at that time belonged then to a Mr. Wadam. He had other fish traps and a cannery near Blaine.
Brooks remembers that the fish trap season progressed according to the timing of the spawning runs of the major Pacific salmon species into Puget Sound. King salmon were the first to find their way back in late spring. Later came the sockeye, silver, and humpy salmon runs. The season concluded in the early fall.
During his two seasons, Brooks said that the trap’s single biggest day was at the height of the humpy run when they lifted 45,000 to 50,000 salmon into a big scow with sideboards built extra high, turning it into a huge box. This may be an exaggerated memory, but there is evidence that fish traps caught 20,000 fish in a 24 hour period.
One time on a foggy day a big steamer got too close to shore and ran right through the middle of the trap. It had been unable to hear the foghorn due to a strong westerly wind.
Another keeper’s son, James Corrie, whose father Vivian Corrie was second assistant keeper from 1927 to 1934, provides the perspective of a young boy at the time. Corrie remembers standing on the platform of the trap and looking down into the spiller where a mass of salmon churned the water. He recalled the cannery tender laying at anchor in the calmer waters inside the spit every night. It had the name Boofisco, shortened from “Booth Fisheries Company,” painted on its hull. In the morning it would venture around the tip of the spit to the trap, receive into its hold the salmon that had been caught the previous day and night, and make its daily trip to the Seattle waterfront and back. When the salmon were running strong, the tender would also tow a scow.
Corrie, a retired Washington State ferry boat captain who lives on San Juan Island, says that many days the crew of the fish trap would bring a wheelbarrow laden with salmon and the occasional cod or sea bass to the families at the light station. Corrie’s mother, and the other lighthouse wives, had their own domestic canning operations. They would clean and cut up the fish, fill jars with the pieces, and cook the sealed jars in big iron pots on their coal burning stoves.
The fish trap crew lived in a bunkhouse on the spit near the foot of the trap. One crew member was a cook whose talent as a woodcarver impressed Corrie especially. For Corrie’s new baby sister, the cook fashioned a rattle which he presented to Mrs. Corrie. It was whittled from a single piece of wood and consisted of a ball in a cage at the end of handle.
At the end of the season, the pilings were pulled and probably stored in the town of Dungeness. In the spring, a pile driver and crew would put in new pilings spaced 15 feet apart in water that could be 70 to 90 feet deep. The wire mesh was hung from the piles by teams of hard hat divers who did the underwater work. This constituted another seasonal flurry of activity near the lonely light station.
Pile salmon traps like the one at Dungeness Spit were common around Puget Sound in those years. In fact, they were the principal means of commercially harvesting salmon, having replaced Indian fisherman as the main source of salmon for the first canneries in the late 19th century. By some estimates, at the peak there were 400 of them operated by 38 Puget Sound fish canneries. The traps were controversial and particularly hated by the independent fishermen who tried to compete against them with less efficient gill net and purse seine boats. Some of these operators became “fish pirates,” illegally setting their nets next to the traps or buying trapped salmon from the watchmen.
Anti-big-business feelings during the Great Depression helped bring the era of the fish trap in Puget Sound to an end. In a 1934 initiative, the citizens of Washington voted to ban fish traps, making the Dungeness Spit a less lively place.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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