Saltwater legends

Family revolutionized the South Coast's fishing industry
2012-02-04T07:00:00Z 2012-02-04T11:50:43Z Saltwater legendsBy Jessie Higgins, The World Coos Bay World
February 04, 2012 7:00 am  • 

CHARLESTON -- The boat has been the livelihood of a father, son and grandson.

It survived attacks during the Cold War from Russian fishermen, and it helped launch the local shrimping industry.

Dick Lilienthal and his father, John, designed and built the boat in 1946, the year Dick graduated from North Bend High School.

'He and his father were so close," said Dick's wife, Verna Lilienthal. 'That was their dream: that boat."

After high school, Dick had many options other than entering the family business of fishing. He thought about going to college -- a local physician at Bay Area Hospital even offered to pay his tuition if he agreed to come back and work for him. But the ocean called to him.

'I'd rather be on the ocean than sitting in a lab," he said.

He began working full time alongside his father the year they built their boat.

In his long career, Dick -- now 83 -- pioneered the shrimping industry and helped create the first fishing regulations. His son, Rick, picked up where his father left off, helping inform legislation as a crab commissioner, all the while still fishing on his dad's and granddad's old boat.

The family's fishing foray began when a German immigrant moved to Charleston and built a crude boat. Theirs is a story that spans four generations and documents one of the most intriguing fishing families on the South Coast.

'A different world'

The first Lilienthal to fish in Charleston arrived in the early 1900s. Dick's grandfather, Fred Lilienthal, 'did a little of everything," he said.

He built an ocean-going fishing vessel -- an ugly thing. 'It looked like it was built by an amateur," Dick said. But it did the job.

Fred was born in Germany. He immigrated to America and ended up in Minnesota on a farm for a while, before he moved to the West Coast. He did a little fishing, a little farming and a little logging. He also ran a tug boat hauling kids to school, picking up milk from dairies and logs to take to saw mills.

Fred's son, John, was also a jack-of-all-trades. But John veered more toward fishing.

'He worked in the mills and crabbed on the weekends," Dick said. 'And he trolled for salmon in the river during the summer."

Dick Lilienthal was born in 1929, and has been a fisherman ever since.

'It was a different world back then," Dick said. 'My folks took me up river in a cradle. When I got bigger they tied me to the gunwale."

Dating a stranger

Dick met his wife, Verna, around 1950. Verna had just gotten out of a movie with a friend when Dick appeared and offered her a ride.

'I wasn't too excited about that," Verna said. Verna's parents were strict, and as a rule she didn't accept rides from strangers.

But she gave the strange man her number and he called for a date.

The couple eventually would have three children, and she would help him manage a fresh seafood market in Charleston that Dick stocked himself.

'Shrimp in the net'

On the old boat, Dick launched the local shrimping industry in the late 1950s. Rick -- while helping his father pull up a troll net -- noticed a new crustacean among the usual fish.

'Look, Dad, there's shrimp in the net," the boy yelled. The pair picked all the shrimp out of the net and cooked them up for dinner that night.

Dick initially fished for shrimp to stock his own seafood market. As more shrimp came in, an industry began to form.

'Once we started shrimping, it changed everybody's lives," Dick said. For a few blissful years, Dick and a few other fishermen comprised the shrimpers in Charleston. Then the seafood plants brought in technology to pick and shell shrimp on a mass scale.

'The shrimp industry just blew up," Verna said. Hundreds of boats poured into the local harbors.

'It has been a colorful life'

By that time, shrimping grounds were getting crowded, and tensions were exacerbated by the Cold War. At that time, international waters started about three miles off shore, Dick said. And Oregon fishermen often found themselves fishing alongside Russians, who were not kind.

'The Russians were out there trying to ram you out," he said, chuckling at the memory. 'I was the only shrimp boat out there, once, and the Russians tried to ram me."

Dick happened to be out with his wife and son -- an adult then -- when it happened.

'I don't know what was up with this guy, but he was coming right at me," Rick said. The family boat had a troll net behind it, which granted them extremely limited mobility. Rick grabbed an ax and readied to cut the net from the boat to make a quick getaway.

The Russian fisherman came close, but did not hit the Lilienthal's boat.

They all laughed.

'It has been a colorful life," Verna said.

'Hell and high water'

Dick and Rick fished together for many years on the old boat, just as Dick and his father had.

'That is all I ever did," Rick Lilienthal said. 'I lived to do it, just like Dad."

Dick retired at about 60. He has arthritis, and his doctor had told him not to go on the ocean anymore.

He didn't listen.

'I fell down seven times in one hour," Dick said. 'Rick said, 'That's it.'"

Rick nodded, looking more somber now.

'The ocean is hard on the joints and body," Rick said. 'It's hard work."

When Rick retires, which may be soon, his son plans to take the family's old boat and continue fishing.

After three generations of fishermen, and countless stories, it seems proper that the boat continue in the family.

Dick smiled and said, 'I've been through hell and high water with it."

Reporter Jessie Higgins can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 240, or jhiggins@theworldlink.com.

Copyright 2015 Coos Bay World. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(3) Comments

  1. Polar Bear
    Report Abuse
    Polar Bear - February 05, 2012 10:41 am
    I hope some of the ANTI FISHERMEN making comments on the MOST COMMENTED, MOST POPULAR AREA of this page read this good article.
  2. Mr E
    Report Abuse
    Mr E - February 04, 2012 2:26 pm
    Happy to read this. Dick has always been great to me in the years that I've known him.
  3. realitybites
    Report Abuse
    realitybites - February 04, 2012 11:55 am
    Thank you for this story. It's well reported, and very nice that The World chose to do a story about a family that has been an elemental part of one of our foundational industries. They're also really great people.

    I hope you do more features like this one.
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