Before improvements to navigation and dams, the Columbia River discharged into the Pacific as much as one million cubic feet of water, creating a treacherous and ever-changing series of sand bars and channels. When this current confronted the Japan Current and storms came in from the Pacific, the sea became untenable even for ocean-going craft.
Fishing and canning salmon was big business along the lower Columbia. Some 35 canneries employed 4,000 Chinese workers who were paid $30 each per month. As many as 1,000 to 1,400 boats worked the lower Columbia fishery, some owned by canneries, some by independent fishermen, and some by farmers who supplemented their income at sea. From April 1 to July 31, 1880, 30 million pounds of fish were taken.
Fishermen learned to ride the ebb tide out to the Columbia bar, set their nets, then ride the flood tide back upstream to the canneries to sell their catch. On May 4, 1880 (the San Francisco Chronicle says May 2), early snow melt produced a river flow that overcame the flooding tide. As reported in the Chronicle several months later, "To pull their heavy 24-foot boats against such a current was a feat few of them were capable of, and the only course open to the majority was to face death with fortitude." Instead of being pushed back into the river and safety by the flooding tide, the small boats were swept into massive breakers that formed over the Columbia bar.
Beginning on May 5, 1880, the Daily Astorian began to report drowned and missing fishermen and swamped boats. Within the next several weeks the Astorian reported as many as 23 bodies recovered or missing and 22 boats found swamped or missing. All but one of the named victims operated boats owned by canneries. The number of missing independent fishermen was generally unknown since many of them lived in Washington Territory and would not have been missed in Astoria. As the season progressed, more people were reported by the Astorian as missing or drowned in the river and sea.
On September 4, 1880, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story (picked up by The New York Times) quoting fisherman William Johnson, who put the number at 200. Thomas "Brockney Tom No. 1" McKenna said 250 and Antone Beretta said 300. Stephen Ellis, employed by fish commissioners to hatch young salmon and regarded as a reliable source, called it 350. No account can be considered accurate, considering that there was no established mechanism for tracking the number of men and boats, nor was there any centralized agency responsible for receiving reports of lost mariners.