Robert Deniston Hume ~ Oregon's Salmon King

Written by Laurel Gerkman
(Published in Oregon Coast Magazine, March/April 2005)

Robert D. Hume lived and breathed economics. From humble beginnings, he earned and enjoyed wealth. This vigorous pioneer excelled as an entrepreneur, inventor and legislator. However, amid an age of exploitation, Hume is most remembered as an apostle of conservation. For thirty years, at his own expense, he studied the artificial propagation of coastal salmon.

Hume was born in 1845 to poor parents in Augusta, Maine. A bright boy, he repeatedly demonstrated his imaginative abilities. Mr. Deniston, an observant neighbor, recognized the little fellows potential and adopted him at the age of six.

As a young man, Hume left the east coast for California. On the Sacramento River, his brothers had established a salmon fishery. He joined their endeavor and quickly became respected in the field of canning. Humes mechanical ingenuity was demonstrated, throughout his career, with 24 patents on improved can-making machines.

Salmon numbers dwindled, so the Humes traveled north to the Columbia River in search of new territory. There, they found relentless competition among the fisheries. Robert Hume overcame many problems with innovative ideas that even rivals considered clever. Unfortunately, success mixed with tragedy when he lost his first wife and two children to illness.

Distraught and alone, the widowed industrialist sought a new location. In 1876, Hume arrived in Ellensburg, at the mouth of Rogue River, where he purchased a struggling fishery. In the book, The Salmon King of Oregon, Gordon B. Dodds described Humes appearance: Here was to be his empire. Here he was to seize the salmon, the shore, and to a large measure, the people

That year, aboard a ship headed for the Suislaw River, Hume met Mary Duncan. The elegant and educated twenty-year-old New Zealander found Robert dashing and handsome. Her cheerfulalthough reserveddemeanor impressed him, and after a brief courtship, they married.

At Ellensburg, later named Gold Beach, Hume set to work developing a complex fishery. All aspects came under his control, from hatching to catching and canning to selling. He understood a monopoly could cut operational costs and increase profits, so the visionary capitalist set this strategy into motion.

Meanwhile, beginning in 1877, Hume began his greatest workthe artificial propagation of salmon. His experiments, although rudimentary, eventually proved that sustained conservation had economic worth. By 1893, this dedicated student of ichthyology wrote, published and funded a booklet entitled, Salmon of the Pacific Coast. He distributed copiesat no costto anyone interested in the subject.

Hume accumulated large tracts of land. Before long, over 94,000 acres of Curry County belonged to him, including all tidelands along the Rogue. Fishing, he declared, was privately owned. Anyone not employed by him had no right to fish from his land, and he defended this assertion for 30 years.

In order to retain such an unprecedented claim, Hume guarded it ceaselessly. He entered politics to defend his domain. He viewed this action as a neither public service nor personal glory, simply a business expense. In 1900, his passion for litigation found him elected into the Oregon legislature and re-elected in 1902.

Humes empire expanded. The extensive cannery buildings now included a sawmill, blacksmith shop and a boat-building facility. Nearby, he constructed a hotel, saloon and general store. In less than 20 years, his command of Gold Beach appeared complete, encompassing every facet of the community.

Providing merchandise and services gave Hume domination over the lower Rogue River economy. Mercantile trade was a core component to his business, and he deliberately aimed to repossess employee wages and profit on the exchange. Animosities against him grew, and townsfolk resentfully nicknamed their employers King Bob and Queen Mary.

Shipping was a crucial element of Humes empire, needed to import supplies and export product. Since his entrance into the Columbia, he acquired vessels of various types, among them steamers, tugs and gasoline-powered schooners. Operating a line of such ships was no small venture.

In 1880, at Ellensburg, he built a sturdy steamship. The Mary D. Hume, fondly named for his wife, operated in various capacities for over 100 years: a fascinating story in itself. Today, her decaying remains are still visible in the harbor at Gold Beach.

Humes enterprises also comprised several other large-scale undertakings: gold mining, timber harvest, livestock ranches, commercial fruit and vegetable growing. A serious man, he believed material riches rewarded intelligence. He dressed in black and often poured over his books until late at night.

In addition, Hume retained stock in an Alaska salmon fishery, but he refused to participate in policies of the Alaska Packers Association. A series of hostile disputes ensued. Members of the A.P.A. made various attempts to interfere with his Oregon fishing practices. The final result was ruinous. On October 20, 1893, Humes newspaper, the Gold Beach Gazette ran this headline: A DESPERATE ACTGold Beach Cannery fired by an Enemys hand. Burned flat to the ground.

Hume felt certain the fire was an act of arson and that several Gold Beach citizens were involved in the crime. Losses amounted to more than $75,000 in damage. After numerous legal battles with the A.P.A., he succumbed and sold the controversial Alaskan holdings.

Angry and determined, Hume decided to move his entire operation to the Rogues north shore. Loyal employees followed, floating lumber, machinery, dry goods and three houses across the river. Construction began at once. He dubbed his new town Wedderburn, meaning sheep-creek, in reference to an ancestral property in Scotland.

In Wedderburn, Hume started another news publication called the Radium. In its second issue, he began to write a lengthy, self-indulgent chronicle entitled The Autobiography of a Pygmy Monopolist. It appeared in 20 chapters, describing his childhood and earlier life. He speculated these memoirs might help folks understand his eccentricities.

Over the years, Hume bought and bred a number of thoroughbred horses. In 1906, the collector began to show and race them locally. The following summer, he erected the Marchmont Jockey Cluba racetrackand offered $1000 in purses. He found this pastime unprofitable, but it allowed him the opportunity to feign the role of squire for a weekend.

Throughout the latter part of his life, R.D. Hume was plagued by repeated health problems. At the peak of his accomplishments, fate took him. On the morning of November 25, 1908, he died from assorted complications. Despite his reputation as an unlovable man, more than three hundred mourners attended his memorial service. Oregons Salmon King was laid to rest on a knoll overlooking his beloved Rogue River.

After his death, Mrs. Hume sold their Oregon assets and moved to San Francisco. Around 1913, she decided to exhume her husbands body and re-bury him in a family plot at San Mateo. When Mary passed away, she left the remainder of their estate, approximately $400,000, to charity.

Some historians view Hume as an intelligent, colorful and ingenious man. Others describe him as possessive, domineering and belligerent. All of these lifelong characteristics aided him in creating and protecting his kingdom. Gordon B. Dodds, historian and author, once wrote: Humes career is significant because it exemplifies the beliefs of his era. In Oregon, he mimicked the titans of this nation.

Little evidence remains of Humes existence, but his contributions to artificial propagation have proven vital to todays salmon industry. Shortly before his death, on January 2, 1908, in the Radium, this announcement appeared: The Hume Method Is Finally Adopted by United States Bureau of Fisheries.

Oregonians have Robert Deniston Hume to thank for the gift of a sustained supply of salmon.

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