PAT NEAL: The Thunderbird and the railroad

MAYBE THERE’S NO such thing as the good old days, but then again, disturbing days of the present can make you wonder what time in history you would prefer. If I had to choose a period in history in which to live, it would be somewhere between the time of the Thunderbird and the coming of the railroad.

Times were tough during the time of the Thunderbird. This was a giant bird that picked up whales at sea and flew them back for cold storage in an ice cave on Mount Olympus, or what was called “Sun-a-do” by the Hoh people.

The Thunderbird reportedly had a habit of dropping the whales when you’d least expect it. But if the whale missed you, it could feed your village for a month or more. And the whale’s landing and ensuing struggle would knock down enough trees to make prairies where the camas would grow.

Life was good, but it was tough. The tribes of the Olympic Peninsula were often at variance with each other and in a state of constant vigilance against every tribe between here and Alaska.

Only the strong survived, so I never would have made it.

James Swan was a historian, ethnographer and chronicler of life on the Olympic Peninsula after the Thunderbird disappeared. He landed in Willapa Bay, called Shoalwater Bay in 1852, when he watched the oystermen hoist 2,000 baskets of oysters for a dollar a basket — to be paid in gold — into a schooner headed for San Francisco.

It was a voyage that could take a week or more. Regrettably, many of the oysters did not survive.

Swan described the Chinook tribe’s method of fishing at this time of year, when the June hogs were running. These were the giant, now-extinct Chinook salmon that used to run in rivers from the Sacramento north to the Yukon and many rivers in between, like our own Elwha.

A beach seine would be set out parallel to shore right at high tide. These nets could be 600 feet long and 16 feet deep.

A canoe drifted the net along the shore until it was time to haul it in, and 100 fish or more could be in the bag.

These Chinook averaged 65 pounds. You’d have to catch half a dozen salmon and put them all together to get them to weigh 65 pounds these days. They had fishing back in 1852.

Once the tide ran out, the fishing was done, and it was time for lunch — salmon.

It was cooked in the Indian style in a frame of split cedar, stuck in the sand with a clam shell to catch the oil that ran out of the fish in the heat of the alder coals.

The rest of the fish would be smoked or salted in barrels for the winter, or sold to the schooners for the San Francisco trade. The rest of the day would be spent in the garden or the tide flats, catching crab, clams and sturgeon.

Eventually, Swan headed north to Port Townsend by way of Neah Bay, where he became a judge, journalist and railroad promoter.

The coming of the railroad marked the end of the frontier all across this great land. It’s no coincidence the Elwha Dam and the largest sawmill in the state were built in Port Angeles when the railroad came to town in 1914.

That was the beginning of the end of the fishing.

All of which makes you wonder. If Swan would’ve been better off, he’d just stuck to fishing.

After the Thunderbird but before the railroad.

_________

Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwild [email protected].

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