Boat Races in Lower Puget Sound

Native Americans in canoes on Mukilteo Beach, ca 1861-62 Wikimedia Commons

The canning industry developed in the Columbia River in the 1870s, and soon spread north to Puget Sound. What was it like working in the first Puget Sound cannery? Boat racing? Can you imagine evening boat races between Chinese and native Americans? You have to read the Mukilteo cannery story and the apparent tradition of boat racing between Chinese and the native American crews:

In his report, Herbert Hunt wrote about Mukilteo Cannery and its workers:

“Jackson, Myers & Company operated one of these plants at Rainier, on the Oregon side, and when the 1877 season opened, had made preparations to fill very large orders. The fish run that year was light and the company faced a heavy loss when Myers learned that the waters of the Sound were alive with salmon.

The Puget Sound Packing Company, under the management of V. T. Tull, of Olympia, was operating a salting plant at Mukilteo. Myers bought the plant, loaded the machinery of the Rainier cannery on a boat and was soon putting up the first salmon ever canned on Puget Sound at old Mukilteo. For many years George T. Myers was a leading figure in the industry on the Sound. Because ships would not stop at Mukilteo the cannery was later moved to Seattle where it became an important institution.

The proximity of lower Sound points to the fishing grounds drew the canners in that direction and furnished a stimulating influence upon the development of that region. The introduction of trap fishing further energized that development, fishing towns being busy places during the salmon run. The heavy demand for seasonal labor brought with it a high wage and everybody, men and women, boys and girls, earned cannery money. The latest reported “big haul” of the fishermen, the evening boat races between the Indian and Chinese crews, the records made by different workers in the day’s operations — all these lent excitement and interest to the work.

The July and August rush soon passed. The gear was put away for the winter. Great heaps of long piles were drawn up on the beach out of the reach of winter storms, the nets were stored in cannery lofts and the boats were moored in sheltered bays and creek mouths. The Chinese butchers cleaned their long knives, stored their racing boats, hung up their hideous sounding gongs and went to Seattle, Portland and San Francisco Chinatowns where they gambled away their season’s earnings. Quiet settled down over the cannery town — a quietude broken at intervals by the arrival of a steamer which carried away a cargo of canned fish; for the assessor would be around about March 1st and the season’s pack must be “in transit” by that date.”

With Chinese rowing in racing boats and gongs banging, a picture of Chinese dragon boat race came to mind. Is it possible that dragon boats raced against Native’s canoes in lower Puget Sound in the late 1870s? You be the judge.

Reference: Herbert Hunt, “Washington West of the Cascades Historical and Descriptive; the Explorers, the Indians, the pioneers; (Volume 1) online.”

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