With the passing of Wilburn Hall on March 7, 2018, the fishing industry lost an icon. He left an indelible footprint in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska fishing industry.
Hall grew up in meager circumstances, and went on to develop a considerable fishing business — a total of 15 fishing boats, a shore-based plant (the Star of Kodiak, later sold to Tyson Seafoods) and three floating crab processors, including the 600-foot king crab processor Rybak Chichuski (part of a successful Russian joint venture).
Memoirist Teru Lundsten helped Wilburn describe his life story in his own words, including his personal philosophies, knowledge of crab fishing, and flair for technological innovation, whether it be crab pot design, fishing boat conversions, finance, or understanding the biology and behavior of crabs. Wilburn’s fierce determination to support his family, to lead a Christian life, become a successful fishing businessman, and help numerous young protégées achieve their dreams, is all chronicled in his memoir.
From humble beginnings on homesteads in Idaho during the Depression, he and his father and four siblings worked together with aunts, uncles and grandparents to forge lives for their families.
Wilburn’s mother was stricken ill after childbirth when he was 7 years old. He and his siblings were shuffled between the Hall families so their father could earn a living for them in the timber industry, working in mills and as a lumberjack. The following are excerpts and synopses from his memoir, “My fishing life.”
Homesteading in Idaho
“If I hadn’t come up through the Depression, I’d have been a logging man like my dad. He was mostly a logger, but he did some farming, too. His name was Evan Silas Hall. He originally came from Kentucky — born there in 1885. Like a lot of families back there, they had a lot of kids in their family, 11 of them. All the kids worked. They grew vegetables and tobacco. Dad’s mother, Elizabeth Frasure Hall, raised all the kids. Grandfather Wilburn Hall, was a “hard shell” Baptist. He didn’t drink or smoke and always carried a bible with him.
“Evan and one of his brothers first came out to Oregon by train in 1901, when he was 16 years old. They spent the winter in Rainier, Ore., logging fir timber using horses and bulls to skid the logs to the flumes. They stayed two years and then returned to Kentucky.
“When Dad was a bit older, he and his younger brother, Andy “Dock” went to Idaho to take advantage of the Homestead Act. Each person had to identify a section of 640 acres of undeveloped federal land, put a building on it and live on it for at least five years to qualify to keep it. Granddad and Grandmother Hall and others came soon after. There were maybe 10 families in the area where Dad was raised in Kentucky, and all of them eventually moved to Sublet and American Falls.
“My mother, Ruth Ellen Whisler, one of four daughters born to John B. Whisler, was born in 1886 in Danville, Iowa. Like Uncle Evan Frasure, a colonel in the Union Army, Granddad was a Civil War veteran, and he also took advantage of the Homestead Act and moved his family to Idaho. My parents met and got married in 1916 and lived on my dad’s homestead outside American Falls. My older twin brothers were born on Sept. 20, 1917, on the farm, Chester Lee and John Raymond.
“I was born two years later, on Aug. 9, 1919. I was named Wilburn Eugene Hall after my father’s father. We moved off the homestead when I was a couple of years old. A hailstorm flattened the wheat and ruined the crop. We then moved to Uncle Everett Whisler’s homestead and lived there for about a year. Back then families really supported each other. Things had gotten pretty bad in Idaho, and my dad got a job in the Oregon-American lumber mill, the largest one in the world at the time. We moved to Vernonia, Ore., to be closer to water, both rainfall and the ocean, and then to Waldport in 1930. I was 11 years old.”
The fishboat business
“The first boat I had any experience on was at Waldport on Alsea Bay. I was about 12. It was a cedar boat, like a dory, about 16 feet long. It was really light, but it had quite a bit of beam, so it was pretty stable.
“The first time I saw a real fishing operation, I went out with a fellow named Charlie Hunter, one of the three Hunter brothers. Charlie had a boat named Bubbles that he bought in Seattle, a trawler that also caught salmon out in the ocean. I went out with him as a helper, crabbing in five or six fathoms along the shore.
“I saw that he did well, but that it took a lot of skill. Later on in Waldport, we tried to sell fish for crab bait. We figured out how to catch perch using barnacles for bait on a hook and line, and then we started spearing flounders in shallow water at night on the mud flats.”
Wilburn soon learned he could earn more money fishing than logging. In 1937, in their senior year of high school, Wilburn and Chester were hired to rig Dungeness pots. The Hall brothers also purchased their first commercial fishing boat, the 38-foot Tupper. In school, Wilburn took typing (53 words a minute!) and bookkeeping that year, then wrote his first contract to buy a boat.
“With the Tupper, we fished in outside waters. We didn’t fish in the bay. We’d go north of them toward the Umpqua River, 19 miles from the buoy whistler. The Tupper had a round stern and a high bow and really was pretty seaworthy for the size of it. It had a 30-hp hand crank Fairbanks Morse diesel engine in it.”
Not long after high school graduation, the Hall brothers were fishing crab almost year-round up and down the coast of Oregon. They started fishing for albacore tuna in the summer, and alternating with crab and silver salmon in the fall.
They also started direct marketing their crabs, driving them in pickup trucks with trailers to Coos Bay and then Waldport, where one of the Hunter boys started a crab plant.
In 1940, at the age of 21, Wilburn and his brothers Chester and Ray commissioned the construction of their first new boat, the Mary Frances. The following year, he married Dorothy Joyce Curryer shortly after her high school graduation, and she became the anchor of the Hall family home life.
In 1943, the brothers lost the Mary Frances and replaced it with a new boat built by Abe Elving in Coos Bay, the 53-foot Ruth Ellen, named after their mother. About the same time, they bought the Sunset out of Charleston. In 1944, they built the 70-foot Christian at a boatyard in Kirkland, Wash., and brought it to Newport during the Christmas season. That year, Wilburn and Joyce moved to Newport. In 1948, the brothers decided to break up the partnership, and each took a boat — Ray skippered the Ruth Ellen, Chester the Sunset, and Wilburn the Christian.
“In 1949 I sold the Christian and bought the Sea Breeze II. A 52-foot boat was more maneuverable for crab fishing than was the 70-foot Christian. You could run more gear with it, and it turned more sharply. We could average 50 pots an hour.”
In 1961, Art Paris took the Sea Breeze II to Kodiak to test the king crab fishery. It looked promising, so Wilburn’s thoughts turned north to Alaska.
North to Alaska
In 1962, he purchased the 111-foot King & Winge and converted it for crabbing in Alaska. The King & Winge had been built in 1914 as a halibut schooner, then was a Columbia River bar pilot boat for 27 years; named the Columbia, it had made more than 30,000 crossings. In August 1963, Wilburn and some family members took the converted King & Winge to Alaska to fish for king crab.
“In 1966, I purchased the Rondys back east and brought it around through the Panama Canal to Newport. It was a Navy freighter built in 1931. On Dec. 6, while working on getting the Rondys ready to sail to Kodiak, my left hand was severed in an accident in the shipyard. After having my hand stitched up and spending three days in the hospital, I went back to the shipyard with the stump of my arm in a bandage, to check out how I did at my station at the controls in the wheelhouse, and to check on progress of the work. The steering was about ready to go, and we had pots being built. We got loaded up and left around New Year’s Day and headed across the Gulf of Alaska to the Bering Sea. I didn’t have any problem with steering the boat with one hand. With my fishing experience it was easy to adapt, plus I had a good crew and engineer, so we didn’t have any problems. My stump healed while I was at sea, and I didn’t come off the boat until May.
“In 1972, my son Vern and I built the crabber Provider in Bellingham at the old Post Point Marine Naval Yard. We built it in partnership with John Hall and his wife, Sue. The Provider was modeled after the Rondys, only it had better lines and it was better built.
“I purchased the Baron in 1973. It was to be a shrimper, but it was not powerful enough for Alaska shrimp trawling, so we converted it to a crabber. The skipper fell asleep and ran it aground on the maiden voyage. After that, John Hall designed a watch alarm system, and I made it a policy for all my vessels. The system was eventually adopted by the Seattle-based hull insurance pools.
“In 1975, Rondys Inc. built the Progress, and later it became a partnership with F.C. Robison — “Beanie” is what we call him. It was built at Hansen Boat Co. in Steamboat Slough, about a mile from Marysville, Wash. It was a 114 feet long and designed as a combination vessel to both crab and trawl. I turned it over to Beanie to run it in 1978. That was the last year I fished. I left to take care of the other boats that were building the business.
“In 1976, we got in on the start of All Alaskan Seafoods with Lloyd Cannon and nine other guys. We bought a floating processor ship that was tied up in Tacoma. These kinds of boats were built during World War II as transport boats. They were about 400 feet in length and had a 40- or 50-foot beam. They delivered frozen foods to different ports in Europe to the U.S. armed forces. After the war, they were fixed up and converted to fish processors because they had refrigeration in the holds. So our 10 partners purchased the ship for just over $200,000, renamed it the All Alaskan and converted it into a crab processor. Rondys Inc. owned 16 percent of the All Alaskan, plus later, Vern and I each owned 4 percent individually. The All Alaskan was the mothership. Later on, we bought a processing plant in Kodiak called the Star of Kodiak, which we sold to Tyson Seafoods in 1994. In 1986 we bought a processing barge called the Northern Alaska, and from 1999 to 2011, we owned Barnacle Point Shipyard in Ballard. We had many other business ventures, too.
“In 1985, Rondys Inc. bought the Aries and the Taurus that were built by a fellow named Bill White. We renamed the Aries the Argosy and the Taurus the Alsea, after the river in Waldport. They were both combination crabber/trawler boats and focused on the emerging pollock fishery in the Bering Sea.”
The JV team
The All Alaskan ran aground in the Pribilofs in 1987, and it was a total loss. It was replaced in 1995 with the Rybak Chichuski, a 600- by 60-foot, 22,000-ton king crab canning ship that was built in Poland for the Russians. It was the largest floating crab processor in the world. The year before, in 1994, All Alaskan had formed a partnership with a Russian company, Dalmoreproduct, to fish and process crab in the Sea of Okhotsk with a fleet of 10 boats owned by All Alaskan shareholders.
The boats were: Rondys, Sourdough, Ocean Tempest, Windy Bay, Sea Producer, Shelikof, Juno, Oceanic, Alaska Trader and Magnum. The Rybak was the mothership. All Alaskan converted it from a canning operation into a freezing operation. The Rybak could routinely process 400,000 pounds of king crab per day, which required two or three boat deliveries per day.
The expected 10-year contract was closed out after six years. It started out with annual quotas of 12,000 metric tons per year, which dropped to 9,000 tons after a few years. Upon completion of the venture, the boats became the property of the Russians. The Halls were able to retrieve the Rondys eventually, but without its coastwise (fishing) endorsement. They later sold it.
“I’ve had lots of business partners in my life. I believe it’s the Christian way.
Safety is the first thing you want — your lives are at stake. And after that, the boat. But the lives of the people and the families they support are most important.”