AHS Blog | Alaska's Historic Canneries
By: Kathi Riemer
The shores of Mitkof Island were pretty quiet for millennia. Mitkof Island was a great little spot for summer visitors, people interested in catching life sustaining fish, but the island never caught on as a place to set down roots. In 1898 that changed.
Petersburg, Alaska is a small town on the northern tip of Mitkof Island. All indications lead us to believe that the town of Petersburg was the first permanent settlement ever constructed on the island. There are many fish trap sites filled with artifacts and middens, some dating back 2000 years or more, but there is no evidence of a permanent village site. You might ask why anyone would settle a place that had been discarded as a habitable location for centuries. The answer is fish. People have utilized the fishing resource Mitkof Island provides for millennia. Nobody is quite sure why it was never settled by the Native people in the region, but theories abound. Some think it is because of the weather patterns, others think it may have been a buffer zone between Native groups. For whatever reason, the island that was least inhabitable to Southeast Alaska Native people, seemed to be the ideal location for Norwegian fishermen and their families.
Peter Buschmann, a Norwegian entrepreneur from Aure, Norway was in the business of setting up fish canneries and salteries along the shores of Alaska’s inside passage. Petersburg is located between Sumner Straight to the south and Fredrick Sound to the north with the Wrangell Narrows sliding along it’s western shore. Peter Buschmann would have sailed by the island many times while managing his operations to the north and south. He would have had to notice the large icebergs from LeConte Glacier floating in Fredrick Sound and thought it would be a good idea to expand his holdings with a cannery site on Mitkof Island.
In 1899 the Icy Straight Packing Company was built on the northern shore of Mitkof Island with money from people who had invested in his other operations. Peter Buschmann needed a workforce so he sent word to Norway and friends and relatives showed up to work. He also brought Chinese people to Petersburg to work in the cannery. Later, Native people from Kake joined the workforce. Salmon was plentiful in the area, as was halibut. The ice from LeConte Glacier kept the halibut cold all the way to Seattle. Salmon was canned and salted and sent south too.
Norwegian settlers continued to make their home in Petersburg, which became an incorporated city in 1910, two years after the initial articles of incorporation were rejected because women had signed them. By 1910, the Icy Straits Cannery had been purchased by the Pacific Packing and Navigation Company in 1901 and the Pacific Coast and Norway Packing Company in 1906.
In 1918, after going through bankruptcy proceedings, the Norway Packing Company reorganized as the Petersburg Packing Company, with Oscar Nicholson as superintendent. He operated the cannery until 1933 when it was sold to Pacific American Fisheries. In 1965, Bob Thorstenson organized a group of Petersburg residents and fishermen to purchase the cannery from PAF. The Petersburg stockholders named their cannery Petersburg Fisheries Incorporated, PFI. The company expanded and became Icicle Seafoods, one of the largest fish packing plants in Alaska. In 2010 Petersburg stockholders sold their Icicle shares to Paine and Partners, an equity firm and in 2016, the plant was purchased by Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian fish company.
The Clausen Memorial Museum has many images of canneries taken from 1998 through the present day. We have spent the last year locating these images, entering them into our Past Perfect data base and storing them appropriately. The Icy Straits Cannery, which is now Icicle Seafoods, has been the lifeblood of our town and the images bring Petersburg’s history to life. We also have images of the many other canneries that have and continue to operate on Mitkof Island. Individuals and organizations are now able to obtain historical cannery images from our museum.
By: Susan Morgan
We were never supposed to live in Ouzinkie.
That revelation from my mom blew my mind. We had never been one of those families that had meetings to discuss things, but I always assumed at least my mom knew what was happening. As it turns out, not so much.
I’d wondered why we left our two wonderful dogs, Missy and Gazebo, at our home in Anchorage under the care of neighbors when we moved to Ouzinkie in 1972. Turns out, Mom thought we were just going for a visit, maybe a few weeks, maybe a month. Just to see my dad, who was over there — wherever “there” was — getting a shrimp processing plant running.
It took me 40-some years to learn that the same things that surprised me about Ouzinkie also surprised her.
For example, like me, Mom wasn’t thrilled that my brother and I had to sleep in the cannery’s brightly lit office at the far end of the dock over the water that first summer. There simply was nowhere else. And she definitely wasn’t happy to learn that the tiny pink trailer at the other end of the dock where she was supposed to stay with my dad was also occupied by the cannery’s then-foreman.
But probably the biggest shock for Mom was that once we were there for our “visit,” my dad gave no indication he wanted us to go home to Anchorage. Unbeknownst to her, at least at first, “home” was now here, where my dad was, in this village of fewer than 200 people. When Mom finally figured that out, she made a fast trip to Anchorage to gather more clothes and give away our long-suffering dogs.
Over time, those three years in Ouzinkie proved to be life-changing for every one of us.
My mom and dad built a business that, for a while at least, thrived beyond anything they’d imagined. Mom says a “ton of money” went through that plant, as endless boatloads of raw shrimp were caught, processed and sold to our eager market in Great Britain.
Unlike their prior seafood ventures, my parents even walked away with a small profit at the end. When their partner bought out their share after they were too exhausted to keep the plant open any longer, they enjoyed a rare taste of financial comfort. Daddy told Mom to design her dream kitchen and they’d build it. She still loves those walnut cabinets.
Those years influenced my younger brother, too, now a renowned professor and scientist who specializes in water quality. He credits time spent in the tidepools and beaches of Ouzinkie, where everything including our cannery waste was dumped in the ocean, for sparking that interest.
And I’ve always referred back to that time for pretty much everything that makes me who I am. I’d grown up a quiet, middle child, and to be plunked into the middle of the wild and crazy world that was Kodiak and environs in the 1970s… well, it was a revelation.
My new friends in the cannery taught me about Kerouac, the joys of communal living, pot, hitchhiking and freedom. I fell in love for the first time and experienced the deaths of people I cared about for the first time. I saw people who watched out for others in ways that went far beyond words. If someone was missing in a storm, they went — without hesitation — into the storm themselves to rescue them.
Nothing was trite here, it seemed to me. Nothing was unimportant.
I loved that. It felt like all the artifice of the world had been stripped away. This was how life was meant to be, I thought: elemental and true. With a hell of a lot of fun thrown in.
My plan for exploring these few years when my family’s cannery operated in Ouzinkie was to discover why I loved it so much, why I remembered it so fondly 40-plus years later. I wanted to find my old friends and coworkers and learn if that place, that time, affected them as much as it did me.
I did, and it did.
But the biggest surprise for me in this whole enterprise was how much I learned and realized about my parents.
I was a teenager when we lived in Ouzinkie, and like most teenagers, I found my parents occasionally embarrassing. I especially hated it when they’d sometimes stroll through the processing plant, arm in arm, while my friends and I worked on the fish pick line. It seemed so … parental!
But in looking back, I can see now how those strolls must have felt to them.
This building where dozens of us worked, sometimes in shifts around the clock, had been empty when they bought it. They had taken nothing, a cavernous structure, and by their wits and creativity and with very little financial backing, had created this bustling plant. Villagers, college students, boat crews and more made a good living because of my parents’ creation.
And the shrimp was fantastic. I don’t eat it anymore — being drenched in the stuff for three years will do that to a person — but even I know it was extraordinary. Forty years later, people I talked to remembered how great it tasted, cooked just right in pristine sea water, peeled perfectly by intricate adjustments to the giant array of peelers, and how it was then cunningly frozen in mid-air so every shrimp stayed fresh and separate.
It was a thing of which they were rightly proud. I wish I’d realized that at the time.
My mom believed things were coming to a crisis point for us when we left Ouzinkie.
While most people there had been wonderful and welcoming when we arrived, one or two had been actively hostile. Mom suspects it was because the cannery building had previously been owned by the village, but had, we were told, been lost to bankruptcy.
She and my dad, possibly seen as interlopers by some, had even been personally threatened; someone would get drunk, wave a weapon around, and vow to come down to the dock and “wipe them” — us — out.
Plus, getting anywhere off the island involved flying in often iffy weather, and never mind the hazards faced daily by our boats, navigating the most treacherous waters in the world to feed our insatiable need for more shrimp. Living with worries like that can take a toll. It did on my folks.
Mom’s fears seemed borne out when Dan Abell, my dad’s right-hand man at the cannery and our longtime friend, was shot and killed in his bed a few months after we left the village. And a few months after that, the cannery itself burned, destroying the place we’d lived for three years.
I’ve never been able to go back to Ouzinkie since then. Even photos of the charred remnants of the dock right after the fire – looking for all the world like the skeleton of a giant whale – breaks my heart.
But in a way, that violent and final ending to our cannery is in keeping with the lessons I learned there.
We had no buffers in Ouzinkie. We and everyone else lived and died, truly, with nature.
When I interviewed Tim Southworth for this project, he said his time working in Ouzinkie taught him where “the edge” was. While he learned he wasn’t constitutionally equipped to live on the edge forever, he said it informed his life to know where it was.
I think that’s been true for all of us.
Like many others in Ouzinkie at that time, I was fortunate to live — and survive — a few years very close to the edge. It was heady, exhilarating, terrifying and unforgettable.
At 22, I made a conscious, deliberate choice to step back from that edge. It was the right decision and I don’t regret it. But part of me still longs for the way I felt there, the others I knew there. And to be honest, part of me still misses the view.
By: Katie Ringsmuth, PhD
One of the most important 20th century industries on the West Coast was the canning of Pacific salmon. In its heyday the industry caught and canned enough salmon to feed four pounds of salmon a year to every man woman and child in America. Lined up end to end, these one pound tins could have circled the globe. As anthropologist Alan Boraas notes, “Canneries transformed this entire area and represent the industrial revolution of the North.”
Canneries were (and still are) cultural hubs that reflect and, in part, spawned Alaska’s diverse population. The Alaska Packers Association (APA) employed mostly immigrants from Europe to catch salmon. Skilled immigrants also built both the canneries and the boats. To process the salmon, canneries hired Asian crews that linked Alaska to the broader Pacific World.
Many Alaska Natives who worked at the cannery were descendants of Katmai. Many migrated downriver to South Naknek after the Novarupta volcano destroyed their Savonoski village in 1912 and the Spanish Flu pandemic devastated inhabitants in 1919. APA’s <NN> Cannery in South Naknek is historically significant because the structures, objects and the industrial landscape collectively tell the story of these varied, yet forgotten people.
Rusted corrugated tin, discarded machines parts, broken boardwalks, and skeletal remains of bunkhouses are the enduring reminders of the past that gives voice to the cannery workers people who are practically invisible to the historical record. These were diverse people from different places who found dignity through their laborious interactions and forged a deep connection to the surrounding environment. Their work mattered.
According to environmental historian Richard White, “We have obscured and are only slowly recovering [the historical framework] that labor … involves human beings with the world so thoroughly that they can never be disentangled.” Therefore, instead of controlling or conquering South Naknek’s natural landscape, these workers were utterly immersed within it.
With the exception of two years during WWII, the South Naknek <NN> Cannery has operated for over 100 years. The cannery’s presence on the Naknek River spans a history from the days of salteries to sail boats, tall ships to aviation, steam power to globalization. Collectively, the cannery buildings, boardwalks, machines, and other contributing properties convey a broad range of historical contexts: corporate, technological, cultural, economic, and environmental.
Of all the canneries built in Alaska, very few currently left standing possess the <NN> cannery’s integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association, and meet all the criteria for historic evaluation.
This summer, historians Katie Ringsmuth and Bob King received a grant from the Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative to conduct an initial preservation assessment of the Diamond NN cannery in Bristol Bay. With grant funds, they traveled to South Naknek with John Wachtel, Historical Architect with the National Park Service, built a base of support on both sides of the Naknek River, and created materials to promote the next phase of the project called Canned.
Canned is a participatory history project that aims to document, preserve, and interpret the historical and architectural significance of an Alaskan salmon cannery and, perhaps most importantly, to convey to the public the unknown stories of the multitudes of people who canned salmon and created an ethnically diverse, economically vital, cannery culture.
In addition to the building assessment, local filmmakers and project collaborators, LaRece Egli and Sharon Thompson produced was a 7 minute film, documenting the historical work.
Using a 1968 cannery plat and building inventory, the aim of the survey was to determine:
- The general condition of the buildings
- The buildings’ historical/cultural/social associations
- The buildings’ historic and current function
- If a building had moved or was modified from its historic use
- The meaning or reasons behind change
- How the interconnected parts worked to create a unified system.
Although the project remains a work in progress, the color coded chart produced by the National Park Service shows the structures and their corresponding Architectural and Historic Value, as well as the combined “Overall Value”. The results allow the data to be visualized on a map and, perhaps more importantly, the map gives us a framework from which to start the evaluation process.
Collaboration with Trident Seafoods
On November 19, 2016, Bob King, Katie Ringsmuth, Sharon Thompson and Anjuli Grantham, met with executives at Trident Seafoods to discuss the future of the NN Cannery at South Naknek. After a positive meeting, we received the green light to move forward on the NN cannery history project that will take our effort into 2017, and beyond. Trident assured us that they will follow-up with official permission by mid-January.
Canned will be a multi-project program that, if fully-funded and supported, will result in the following:
- Listing of the South Naknek Diamond NN cannery on the National Register of Historic Places.
- An illustrative publication about the history of the cannery.
- A traveling exhibition or series of exhibits that interpret cannery history through the lens of global connections.
Stay tuned as the NN Cannery project progresses.
By: Anjuli Grantham
Melissa Stouffer recently shared two photographs with the Alaska Historical Society, depicting her grandfather’s time in Alaska. Roman Andres was born in Abulug, Cagayan, Philippines ca 1908. He traveled around the Pacific for several years, likely working as a migrant laborer. During this time, he joined thousands of other Filipino manongs in Alaska. Manong, or uncle, is the term that describes this early generation of Filipino-American immigrants.
Melissa knows little about her grandfather’s time in Alaska. From the photograph labeled “Smiley Cannery Gang,” we see that in 1929, Roman Andres worked at the Pacific American Fisheries cannery in Ketchikan. “Smiley” is not referring to the happy faces of those photographed, but rather the previous name of the cannery. In 1916, J.L. Smiley built the cannery in Ketchikan. Smiley previously owned and operated a cannery in Blaine, Washington. In 1918, J.L. Smiley & Co. merged with other enterprises to become Wilson Fisheries Co. In 1928, the seafood behemoth Pacific American Fisheries purchased the facility in Ketchikan. Although the cannery was not officially named after Smiley for nearly twenty years when Roman Andres worked there, from the photograph we can see that the name persisted.
It seems that Andres was a pensionado, or a Filipino student who was able to come to the United States to attend school. He graduated from high school in New York. Later, he served in a Filipino regiment during WWII and returned to the US with a wife. Like many other Filipino-Americans of this generation, Andres worked in the food service industry. He settled in Mt. Clemens, Michigan and worked as the head chef at the Colonial Hotel. He died in 1972.
Thanks to Melissa for sharing these photos that help to articulate the deep and longstanding connection that Alaska shares with the Philippines.
By: Kristy Griffin
No connoisseur of Alaskan history can dispute the impact of the seafood industry on this state, but as the canneries and cold storage facilities that once adorned the landscape disappear from sight and memory, the struggle to keep knowledge of the past alive begins. In an era of constant connectivity, information saturation, and Pokémon Go, the connection between the birth and growth of Alaska’s seafood industry and the contemporary cultural, political, and economic climate in Alaska becomes obscured. Seeking to document and preserve local seafood industry heritage for the benefit of future generations, The Sitka History Museum teamed up with the Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative in 2016.
It all started over a year before when Sitka History Museum Executive Director, Hal Spackman, explored a fresh approach to the promotion of local history. The Sitka History Museum began working with KCAW, Raven Radio 104.7, 90.1 FM to produce Sitka History Minute, a short weekly radio program featuring unique and captivating stories from Sitka’s past. Harkening back to the golden era of radio, the show combines equal parts theatrical delivery, rich storytelling, and historical fact. A team of enthusiastic writers tackle every aspect of Sitka’s past, from the town’s one and only hanging to the infamous April Fool’s Mount Edgecumbe “eruption” prank. Most importantly, the program frees the past from the formality of museums and text books and plunks it down into the daily life of people from Port Alexander, Alaska in the south all the way north to Yakutat.
By 2016, Sitka History Minute had gained a strong following of listeners. When the Alaska Historical Society announced their Historic Canneries Initiative, the Sitka History Museum saw an exciting opportunity to combine a radio program with proven success and an established listenership with the goals of the Initiative. In fact, the Museum had already aired an episode on the history of Pyramid Packing Company, a Sitka seafood cannery. Listen to that episode here:
The Museum sought and was generously awarded an Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative mini-grant to fund the production of a special series of Sitka History Minute episodes commemorating Sitka’s seafood industry history.
Part I of the cannery series introduced listeners to the invention of canning, its spread to the United States, and the revolutionary ways that it shaped industry and culture in the state of Alaska. The episode provided fun and interesting details such as the fact that nearly a half century lapsed between the invention of canning and the creation of the first can opener, and that Otto von Kotzebue (for whom Kotzebue, Alaska was named) became one of the first seafaring explorers to use canned products on his three-year voyage to the Bering Strait and South Seas. Listen here:
Part II featured the story of Sitka’s first cannery, the Cutting Packing Company. In 1878, a little more than a decade after Russia transferred its claims on Alaska to the United States, the Cutting Packing Company and the North Pacific Packing Company in Klawock became the first two canneries in the state of Alaska. Even though the Cutting Packing Company ceased operations after two years, the company pioneered an industry that played a major role in defining post-Transfer Alaskan economy. Please listen here:
Part III documented the often overlooked importance of the Alaska Native seine fishing fleet to the birth and growth of the state’s seafood industry. The salmon harvest defined Tlingit economy and culture for thousands of years, so when Americans began arriving to capitalize on Alaska’s fisheries, Alaska Natives asserted their traditional fishing rights. In the early years, Alaska Natives held a near monopoly on seine fishing, but the introduction of fish traps and Limited Entry fishing permits set about an unfortunate chain of events that ended much of the Native participation in Alaskan commercial seine fishing. You can listen here:
Part IV encapsulated the sixty-year history of what has been called the first major fisheries plant on Sitka’s waterfront. The plant began operations in 1913 under the ownership of Chlopeck Fisheries Company, quickly sold to Booth Fisheries Company, and expanded its operations during the Great Depression under the ownership of the locally-formed Sitka Cold Storage Company. In an industry controlled mostly by large out-of-state businesses, the Sitka Cold Storage Company broke the mold as an Alaskan business run by Alaskans. Check it out:
With the airing of Part I of the cannery series in August of 2016, Sitka History Minute celebrated its landmark fiftieth episode. The series ran throughout the month and included a re-airing of Episode 12 on the Pyramid Packing Company. While Sitka History Minute strives to deepen the Public’s appreciation for local history, the radio program also has significant implications for the preservation of cultural heritage. The in-depth research and documentation of oral histories that accompany the writing and production of each episode works to preserve a past that, like the historic canneries fading from Alaska’s shorelines, would be otherwise lost to time.
The Sitka History Museum wishes to thank the Alaska Historical Society’s Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative for their sponsorship of the Sitka History Minute special cannery series and KCAW, Raven Radio 104.7, 90.1 FM for their continued partnership in the Sitka History Museum’s endeavor to promote and preserve local history. Links to the Sitka History Minute cannery series, including Episode 12 on the Pyramid Packing Company, can be found at SitkaHistory.org, or at KCAW.org/sitka-history-minute/.