Hello from the History Department.
On the banks of the Columbia River, just north of where our Kalama Harbor Lodge stands today, there was once a huge and prosperous fish packaging plant called the Doty Fish Company. Founded in 1895, it was one of the enterprises that first brought the world a taste of the Pacific Northwest.
In 1889, the year Washington became a state, Chauncey Albert (C.A.) Doty arrived in Tacoma from Pennsylvania with dreams of working for the Northern Pacific Railroad. A few months later he found himself in Kalama as a railroad depot agent but it wasn’t long until he realized that the land and all its resources had so much more to offer.
At that time, pioneers who settled in this area had two main choices for work: lumber or fish. The lumber industry was already well established and was run by corporate bosses, who didn’t always live locally and therefore did not have the workers’ interests at heart. The commercial fishing industry, however, was in its infancy; Doty found that he could gain more financially by building his own business from the ground up.
While he was still working for the railroad, Doty began moonlighting in the fishing industry, buying and selling salmon up and down the Columbia River. But when his boss at the railroad got word of his underground dealings, he gave Doty a choice: fish or the railroad. He chose fish. Thus, in 1895, the Doty Fish Company was born and the first fish packaging plant in Kalama came to life.
Building the plant right on the Columbia River meant that fisherman could moor their boats and unload fish directly to be processed. Kalama’s deep-water port and easy access to the Northern Pacific Railroad meant that the Doty Fish Company was at the perfect intersection to ensure an independent, efficient establishment. By 1909, Doty decided to sell the company to move on to other entrepreneurial opportunities, selling half to the New England Fish Company, one quarter to local businessman Andrew Johnson and the last quarter to local fisherman Charles Ruckles, who would run the day-to-day operations until his death in 1924.
With the help of the Kalama Electric Light and Power Company, the Doty plant had power ‘round the clock to store the fish at the proper temperature. Sometimes as much as 3,000 pounds of salmon at a time were unloaded at the plant. After each fish was cleaned, it would be cut in half and taken to a salting table where Doty male and female employees would use up to 100 pounds of salt for every 1000 pounds of fish. Then the fish were brined for up to 90 days, before a second cleaning, washing and brining. Finally, they’d be ready for shipment in refrigerated railcars for domestic travel and in cold-storage rooms aboard steamer vessels bound for Europe.
Despite the salmon fishing boom from the 1880s through the 1940s, the industry began to wind down for various reasons. Governmental regulation for commercial fishing had increased substantially and the salmon were slowly getting smaller. The “June-Hog” salmon, a nickname for Chinook salmon that could be caught in June and weighed upwards of 80–100 pounds, decreased to 45 pounds over the years because of newly built industrial dams that stunted the salmon’s growth; smaller salmon equaled less money. Also, in 1924 a fire caused by sparks from a nearby engine destroyed the entire operation, putting more than 150 fishermen and 50 Doty men and women out of work until they could rebuild.
Due to loss from the fire and the death of plant manager Ruckles in that same year, the New England Fish Company bought the business outright in 1924, but retained the name Doty Fish Company until its closure in the 1960s. The abandoned plant stood on the Kalama waterfront (just north of where the Kalama Harbor Lodge stands now) for another decade, until a fire burned it all down. Today, we can only look at the old photos and imagine the days when the Doty Fish Company reigned supreme, the fish packing plant that brought the world a taste of the Pacific Northwest.