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Cross-country Odyssey of Astoria's Early Finns

Merle A. Reinikka

A group of about 20 Finnish immigrant railway workers arrived in Portland, Oregon, in 1873 from Titusville, Pennsylvania. They had worked on the construction of the New York Railway between New York and Pennsylvania, but the "Panic of 1873" put them out of work.

Most of them had migrated a few years previously from Ostrobothnia. All were acquainted with agricultural life in Finland and hoped to obtain land of their own in America. Hearing of free homestead land in Oregon, they determined to become farmers. So they traveled overland to San Francisco, California, and from there to Portland by ship.

Portland was then a small riverside town, where they soon learned that the available land they sought was 200 miles east, in the dry upland region of north-central Oregon. It was already late in the year, and considerable capital would be necessary to establish such land as homestead - a situation at that time beyond their means.

That winter, several of their party hired on as laborers at a low-grade iron ore mine in nearly Lake Oswego, where an iron works had been established. Wages were supposed to be $1.75 per day, but how often, or if ever, they were paid, is questionable. The smelting company's treasurer allegedly fled with the payroll the following spring.

This group of Finns was still resourceful enough, however, to take advantage of opportunities which arose in the fishing trade, near the mouth of the Columbia River, some 100 miles west of Portland. Here, they managed to get a fresh start as commercial fishermen.

This was the first major group of Finns to settle in Astoria, Oregon. Others followed shortly thereafter to engage in the booming salmon-fishing and canning industries. Astoria was well on the way to becoming known as the "Helsinki of the West" because of the large Finnish population it had attracted by 1880. At that time about 200 Finns and their families lived there.

Published by Finnam Newsletter, April 1992

© Merle A. Reinikka

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