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The saga of salmon, steelhead, shad and the first US fish hatchery  

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In the early days America’s pristine waters once supported strong and plentiful populations of fisheries in our lakes and rivers.  These National natural treasures, especially trout and salmon, appeared to be abundant without end.  The United States fueled the industrial revolution with resources of water, timber, minerals, and wildlife.  Then the fish began to disappear. Farming, industrialization, population growth and overharvest degraded our Nation’s water quality and fisheries resources.

By the mid 1800’s, fishermen recognized a decline in fish populations   When the early pioneers began migrating to the Western United States, there were no limits on how many fish could be caught.  To make things worse, there were no laws preventing early settlers from modifying fish waters and habitats to meet needs for water and food.  As a result once abundant fish populations began a steep decline.

In 1871, Spencer Fullerton Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution wrote to Congress urging Federal protection for the Nation’s fisheries.  He warned that the time was in the not so distant future America would lose fish as a source of subsistence and support.  Baird’s warnings were supported by the American Fish Culturists Association (now the American Fisheries Society).   

Congress responded by creating the Commission on Fish and Fisheries along with the driving force and support from President Ulysses S. Grant.  The Commission was later named U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Fisheries Program.  The commission was dedicated to conservation of natural resources and to determine if and why fisheries had declined and what actions should be taken.  One year later, Congress appropriated funds for the first National Fish Hatchery.  Thus, in 1872, the first Federal fish hatchery – a salmon breeding station - was established in Shasta County and named after Spencer Fullerton Baird.

Stone found the perfect place on the McCloud River near the confluence with the Pit River.  It was a well-known site where Native American Indians speared giant salmon.  Stone established and managed the first hatchery station in the United States on the west bank of the McCloud River across from the Shasta Caverns.  The hatchery was named after Professor Spencer Fullerton Baird.  The first federal fish commissioner who was also had the title of secretary of the Smithsonian Institute.

Meanwhile ,, Baird was drafted to found the U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries and to repopulate the nation’s depleted fish stocks.  Initially, shad and salmon restoration were foremost on Baard’s mind as he oversaw the nation’s first environmental restoration movement.  Soon  Baird dispatched hatchery enthusiast Livingston Stone to California’s Sacramento River Basin to harvest Chinook salmon eggs for transplantation to badly depleted Northeastern rivers.  Reciprocally, eastern fishes such as shad and striped bass were also shipped westward by rail to become acclimated to Pacific slope waters.   

In 1873, two million salmon eggs were shipped east on the railroad express cars said to be packed between layers of moss gathered from springs at Mount Shasta.  In 1874 permanent buildings were constructed across the McCloud River on the east bank directly below the Shasta Caverns.  In 1881 the hatchery was washed away by heavy flooding.  In 1882 the hatchery was rebuilt.  Stone was convinced that his artificial propagation efforts were restoring salmon to the beleaguered Sacramento River basin.

Things were going well until August of 1883.  Stone and his assisting Wintu Indian partners watched in disbelief as no more fish roiled the water of the McCloud.  The interruption stemmed from a complete blockage of the lower Pit River by an Oregon-bound Central Pacific Railroad.1881 and 1882 also marked the most heavily fished spawning runs in the river’s history.  With little evidence of success of the shipping eggs to the east, Spencer Fullerton Baird saw no point in continuing.

Stone’s artificial propagation program was suspended.   It was reported that amnesia was one of the guiding forces of history, and Baird’s midcourse correction was either buried or forgotten.

By 1896, the U.S. Fish Commission, working with California’s Fish Commissioners, erected some temporary hatchery structures on Battle Creek.  Meanwhile in 1937, the hatchery was flooded out again around 55 years later.  Shasta Dam was under construction that year so all the hatchery operations were moved because eventually they would be under water. The hatchery operations were moved south to Battle Creek National Fish Cultural Station and the Mill Creek Hatchery (Tehama County) until 1943 when the Coleman National Fish Hatchery was completed and took over the operations.

 I always wondered if all the massive changes received much attention as we were right in the middle of World War II.  Anyway, this all marked the end of the first hatchery in the United States and the sacred waters of  the salmon for the native tribes.   Livingston Stone the fish culturist was not forgotten.  More recently a National Fish Hatchery was built in his name along the Sacramento River near the base of Shasta Dam.  

The  impact of Shasta Dam could have nearly wiped out three or four seasonal runs of salmon had it not been for the construction of  the Coleman National Fish Hatchery southeast of Redding or northeast of Red Bluff on Battle Creek.


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