AHS Blog  |  Alaska's Historic Canneries

Fisheries History Abounds at Juneau Conference

Date Posted: October 2, 2016       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: canneries, research

This year’s annual Alaska Historical Society and Museums Alaska conference in Juneau featured ample opportunities to share and learn about Alaska fisheries history. Historic Alaska Packers Association maps were on exhibit within the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff building, in addition to a section within the brand new exhibits about the history of Alaska’s seafood industry. The following a synopsis of several of the featured presentations and projects.

Bob King and Katie Ringsmuth spoke about their Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative-sponsored project to document the history of the Diamond NN cannery in Bristol Bay. Diamond NN is the oldest industrial fish processing site on the Naknek River. Bob and Katie hope to nominate the site to the National Register of Historic Places and curate several exhibits, including one about the 1919 Spanish Influenza outbreak in Bristol Bay. To learn more about this project, make sure to like Tundra Vision on Facebook. Listen to this APRN feature to learn more about the Spanish Flu in Bristol Bay here.

University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Oceanic Sciences PhD candidates Maggie Chan, Elizabeth Figus and Sonia Ibarra joined Daniel Montieth of University of Alaska Southeast in a discussion about the opportunities and limitations of using historic and archival material to establish baseline scientific data. Maggie and Elizabeth are looking at halibut fisheries in Southeast Alaska, while Sonia is researching how people sea otter populations and  ecology in Southeast.

A Fisheries History Speed Talk session featured presentations by nine individuals, highlighting projects and resources related to fisheries history. Angela Schmidt of the University of Alaska’s Film Archive shared new film resources, including an acquisition from the Marine Advisory Program’s videographer and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Ross Coen spoke about the acquisition of the Seafood Products Association archive by the Special Collections at the University of Washington. This archive features information on the development of methods to enhance the quality of seafood production. The donation can be attributed to the efforts of the Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative to educate the seafood industry about the importance of preserving institutional records.

Karen Hofstad announced that she and Anjuli Grantham are collaborating to publish Pat Roppel’s work on the history of canneries in Southeast Alaska. Pat spent years compiling information but died before her work was finished. Her papers were donated to the Alaska Historical Library in Juneau. This effort to revive and publish Pat’s work will be a project of the Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative.

Matt Miller interviews Katie Ringsmuth, Bob King and Anjuli Grantham.

Matt Miller interviews Katie Ringsmuth, Bob King and Anjuli Grantham.

While in Juneau, Anjuli Grantham, Bob King and Katie Ringsmuth taped a show in front of a live studio audience for KTOO’s Forum@360. “Alaska’s Historic Canneries and the People Who Worked There” will broadcast on Friday, October 7 at 8PM on 360North. The full program is available for viewing at any time on KTOO’s website.

Waterfall Resort: A Glimpse of the Old Prince of Wales Island Cannery

Date Posted: August 25, 2016       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries

Photos, text and audio production by Anjuli Grantham.

The Waterfall Resort on Prince of Wales Island is a busy place in the summer. Dozens of guests at a time occupy the old cannery, turning a place that once produced canned salmon for the marketplace into a place that caters to sports fishermen eager to feed themselves. But if you venture to this historic cannery in the spring, you will only find a skeleton crew of carpenters and winter watchmen, engaged in keeping the cannery in prime shape.

Babe and Wanda Wilks have worked as winter watchmen at the Waterfall Resort for ten years now. They’ve worked diligently to preserve not just the physical fabric of the cannery, but its history, as well. Below are photos snapped at Waterfall during a visit during April of 2016. Find out more about Babe and Wanda and their affection for the Waterfall Cannery by listening to this radio story, aired by the Alaska Fisheries Report. [The story is after a report about the 2 billionth salmon caught in Bristol Bay.]

Wanda Wilks in the Waterfall Cannery store.

Wanda Wilks in the Waterfall Cannery store.


White, red and green paint on the side of a cannery warehouse.


Babe Wilks looks through an old parts catalog in the Waterfall Cannery store.

Special packing tables for casing up salmon.

Special packing tables for casing up salmon.

Babe Wilks holds a board stamped with Nakat's stencil.

Babe Wilks holds a board stamped with Nakat’s stencil.


Herman Kurth was the son of a long-time Waterfall superintendent. He's returned to Waterfall to visit and signed the put his signature at the same spot in the warehouse he signed back in 1948.

Herman Kurth was the son of a long-time Waterfall superintendent. He’s returned to Waterfall to visit and signed the put his signature at the same spot in the warehouse he signed back in 1948.

Fifteen Nations, Four Labels, and One Boat: A Letter from a Ugashik Cannery Worker in 1928

Date Posted: August 21, 2016       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries

By: Anjuli Grantham


The letter, part of Karen Hofstad’s collection

Petersburg resident Karen Hofstad’s salmon can label and tin collection overwhelms. It is so good, it’s difficult to know where to begin once perusing commences. Should we start with the original, handmade tins from the early canneries along the Sacramento River or with the tins from the companies that consolidated to create the Alaska Packers Association in 1893? What about the pound tall labels, or the half pound cans, or the sample booklets of labels that salesmen would tout to store owners? When it comes to cannery ephemera, Karen has likely the largest private collection in Alaska. In fact, I am unaware of a collecting institution in the state that approaches the size and scope of her collection.

One treasure caught my eye and my imagination, one treasure composed of four distinct labels. Strewn on the back of Express, Iceberg, Rocky Point and Comet brands is a letter from S.E. Reed, who converted these Alaska Packers Association labels into stationary. He wrote aboard the Star of Finland on his way back to San Francisco from Bristol Bay at the end of the 1928 salmon season. He had recently left the APA’s <U> Ugashik cannery and still had several weeks ahead of him before he could mail the letter to his “dear Lauree.”

Within the letter on the peculiar paper, Reed recounts his season, which was “wonderful” from the sounds of it, even if there were mishaps. He writes that a fisherman committed suicide on the trip north and severe weather delayed the bark by over two weeks. Yet once he arrived, Reed was clearly enamored with Ugashik, noting that “we had the most wonderful sunsets I ever saw.” He reported on the sled dogs, the mountains, the marvels of the cannery. He mentions the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which left many orphans in the region. One 19 year old acquaintance was responsible for caring for three children who no longer had parents.

The boat on which he sailed had “15 different nations represented.”


The labels on which the letter is written.

But he doesn’t speak much of the ship herself. The Star of Finland was constructed in 1899 and christened as Kaiulani. She was built in Bath, Maine and renamed when the Alaska Packers Association purchased her in 1910. She was the largest 3-masted bark ever constructed in the United States.

Although the vessel was comparatively spacious, she was likely crammed on the return trip. If protocol had been followed, the vessel would have been carrying part or all of the 2,000,000 cans of salmon that Reed reports were made at Ugashik that season. Those cans were baring the labels on which Reed wrote his letter.

The letter doesn’t help to solve any mysteries regarding the history of Alaska’s canneries, but it does provide a compelling and brief synopsis of one worker’s fishing season, his perceptions and his prejudices. Read all about Reed’s experience in Ugashik in the transcription of the letter, below, and listen to the story aired about the letter on the Alaska Fisheries Report.

“On Board Star of Finland, Bering Sea, Aug 5 1928

My dear Lauree:

Eight months ago today since I walked from Denny’s to your place, not being wanted at the McGaffic wedding.

I had quite a trip going home and wish you could have been with me as I did not arrive in Frisco until April 19 and left on the 28th for the salmon cannery at Ugashik, Alaska on a sailing vessel, and we are now on the same vessel returning home.

On May 10th we encountered a severe storm which carried away some of our sails and then we were bothered by head winds, so that we were 45 days in making the trip, which should have taken about 30 days.

StateLibQld_1_172775_Star_of_Finland_(ship) (1)

Star of Finland, from State Library of Queensland collection.

Imagine 45 days without a bath. It makes me scratch to think of it. And only enough water to wash your face about once a day.

We had an “All Nations” ship. By that I mean there were some 15 different nations represented, i.e. Sweede, Dane, Norwegian, Eskimo, Russian, Fin, Greek, French, Jew, Italian, Sicilian, Austrian, Mexican, Chinese, Porto Rican, Irish & German Catholic and several Americans in various states of dissolution.

About midnight on May 19th, one of the Sicilian fishermen went crazy and cried for the remainder of the night. The next day he appeared rational but seemed to think that some one was going to kill him and asked permission to sleep in the donkey engine room which was given and the next morning they found that he had slept in the firebox of the donkey engine in a space so small that he had to curl up like a dog.

He did this for several nights and one morning he refused to come out and his fishing boss attempted to pull him out, he shot him and then committed suicide and was buried at sea the next day and the injured man was removed by revenue cutter a few days later and was soon back on the job.

There was nothing at Ugashik except the canner and about 50 natives who live there, several white men married to natives, Siwash Indians, which made them squaw men and innumerable dogs. I wish you could have seen the dogs, great big ones, regular Eskimo dogs. They hitch 7 to 9 of them up to make a team and they are quite a sight. I almost forgot the Eskimo family who spend the summer there and have a reindeer herd in the winter time.

The cannery itself was wonderful. They made over 196,000 cans in one day and over 2,000,000 while we were there.

Ugashik NPS

Ugashik cannery in the 930s, from NPS.

The machinery for cleaning the fish and canning it were also wonderful to me.

They place was almost entirely surrounded by  snow covered mountains and we had the most wonderful sunsets I ever saw.

We were only there a little over seven weeks and I rather hated to leave. I would like to spend a winter there and should I go back next year, may do so.

Most of the natives are young folks the elders having all died with the flu in 1918-1919. Poor kids, they got very little to eat except when the cannery is in operation. There was one young fellow 19 years of age, who was supporting three children and instead of buying needless Xmas gifts for my friends in the states, I helped him by buying the kids some clothes.

Tell your Mother that I had a nice visit with Mrs. Bradshaw in Los Angeles and am writing her today also, and also spend a night with John Bradshaw’s son.

Nothing preventing we should reach home early in September at which time this letter will be mailed and I would appreciate an early answer as I do not know how long I will be in Frisco.

Hope you did not have to work very hard this summer and that everyone is well.

With kindest regards to all, I am- Sincerely, S.E. Reed- 220 Golden gate Ave., San Francisco, Calif.

P.S. How do you like this stationary. Just samples of the labels used on some of the salmon.”

Fire at Park’s Cannery Reminder of Vulnerable History

Date Posted: June 4, 2016       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries

Parks Cannery, now the Spirit of Alaska Wilderness Lodge, photographed in the summer of 2015 for the West Side Stories project. Photo by Breanna Peterson.

The important work of documenting cannery history became clearly- and tragically- evident last week when an early morning fire broke out at the Parks Cannery in Uyak Bay on the west side of Kodiak Island. One person was killed and three were injured in the fire, which appears to have not spread beyond the primary lodge building used by the Spirit of Alaska Wilderness Lodge, the business that now occupies the site. The F/V Alaskan ferried the injured to Larsen Bay to reconnoiter with the Coast Guard while other boats in the vicinity joined the bucket brigade which prevented the spread of the fire to the rest of the compact cannery complex of bunkhouses, warehouses, and other buildings that typify historic cannery operations.

Just the week before, the Baranov Museum/ Kodiak Historical Society opened its exhibit, West Side Stories, which was the culmination of an Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative grant-supported public history project. For West Side Stories, we endeavored to document the history and culture of Kodiak’s west side through oral histories, photography, and art and to share that history through radio, film, and an exhibit. We were motivated due to the knowledge that the poorly documented history of this sparsely-populated region was endangered. The fire at Parks Cannery really brought this point home.


Parks Cannery. Photo by Breanna Peterson.

Photographer Breanna Peterson and I traveled to Parks last summer. Breanna snapped photos of the cannery, which last processed fish in 1983. Spirit of Alaska Wilderness Lodge owner Steel Davis sent the museum post cards over the summer, including a recipe for gourmet smores which is a favorite with guests. I conducted oral histories with Uyak Bay fishermen connected to Parks, from those who sold fish to the plant (last operated by Whitney-Fidalgo), to those who lived there as winter watchmen.

During the course of the interviews, it was easy to hear that this place matters to those of Uyak Bay. Although it has not processed fish for over 30 years, those buildings hold memories and serve as a physical connection to individuals who lived or worked there and have long since passed away.

For example, Weston Fields and his family started selling fish from their setnet operation to Parks in 1965. Previously, the family sold fish to the Alaska Packers Association, but they switched markets for one reason— the power of personality. As Weston explained in the oral history,

“Mr. Parks himself… hired a guy named Frank McConaghy who was really famous in those days. He had run Halferty’s in Kodiak for years. He was the one that had the Pioneer Clams that were done there from Swishak.  He had had a cannery in Kanatak. A famous guy…He was charismatic, friendly, he knew how to treat people. People who fished for him always got a turkey for Thanksgiving and a ham for Christmas. That sort of thing, really small, but the right kind of public relations. So he came along to my dad before the ’65 season and he said, “You know, I’m going to be superintendent, I’m going to start it up, and I would like you to fish for him.” There was no question (laughter). And so then he was there a year or two and then someone took over as superintendent… He had a certain style. He always wore these hats from the ‘40s or ’30s, you know, and he was always had a tie on down at the cannery. He was sort of more heavy weight kind of guy but just always smiling and cheerful. He was educated. He was well-spoken. He knew everybody’s name. He treated everybody the same as everybody else. You were important to him. Even as a child I felt that I was important to him. […] That’s why he could start up Parks. Just as simple as that. Personality.”

For another West Side Stories interview subject, Virginia Abston, the Parks Cannery was more than a place of work, it was her home. In fact, she was born in the village of Karluk only because there wasn’t a midwife at Parks. Her parents lived there year-round; her father was a carpenter and her mother worked in the laundry. Virginia even met her husband there, and together they too worked as winter watchmen. Here you can see and hear more of Virginia’s story and other photos of Parks:

The fire, injuries, and death at Parks Cannery have shocked and deeply saddened residents and seafood industry folks in Uyak Bay. Those of us who worked on the West Side Stories project are grateful for the support of the Alaska Historical Society and other project partners for helping us to document and record the history of the seafood industry- a history that remains vulnerable across Alaska.

Anjuli Grantham directed the West Side Stories project when she was Curator of Collections and Exhibits at the Baranov Museum in Kodiak. 

Storage Wars, Everett, WA: What was a 1949 Non-Resident Alaska Fishing License?

Date Posted: May 5, 2016       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries

By: Bob King, Juneau

Inside an abandoned storage unit auctioned off in Everett, WA, last year, the successful bidder found, among other things, a folder that included some high school football programs dating back to the early 1950s and a small, 6 by 4 inch, yellow metal plate: a 1949 Alaska non-resident fisherman’s license. Not recognizing the item, he reached out to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. They didn’t recognize it either and turned to members of the Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative. Just what is this old fishing license plate all about anyway?

1949 AK Non Resident License

1949 Alaska Non-Resident License

A quick historical review turned up nothing in the federal Fish & Wildlife or Halibut Commission regulations that explain the plates. But a deeper look into the territorial records suggest a story that begins with the formation of the Alaska Department of Fisheries, the growing Alaska statehood movement, passage of new fish tax legislation, and ends up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

First to back up a bit, the years after World War II saw rapid growth of the Alaska statehood movement. The Territorial Legislature took a number of steps to organize and fight for Alaska interests. Among these, in 1949, was creation of the Alaska Department of Fisheries. The first Fish Board was appointed and Clarence L. “Andy” Anderson was named its first director. The Territorial Legislature appropriated $250,000 for the new department.

But how could Alaska pay for it? The territory already taxed fish catches. Back then, salmon played the role that oil later played. Fish taxes provided 80% of the revenues for the territorial government and the services it provided. Salmon canneries generated most of that: 4 percent of the value of raw fish. Fish traps were also heavily taxed: $1,200 per trap permit, plus 5 to 25 cents per fish on top of that, depending on volume, and even more. This was partly punitive. Alaskans hated fish traps and taxing them heavily was a profitable way to discourage traps.

1951 AK Resident License

1951 Resident License

Complicating matters, salmon runs – and raw fish tax revenues – declined sharply after the war. The Legislature formed the new Department of Fisheries to reverse that decline and encourage more local participation in the fisheries. On the same day the Territorial Legislature created the Department of Fisheries, March 21, 1949, they also approved a new tax on commercial fishermen: $5 for resident fishermen and $50 for non-resident fishermen.

It was a huge success. In its first full year of implementation, 1950, the tax on fishermen raised $290,000, enough to pay for the new department and more, and 86 percent was paid by non-residents. However, the wide disparity in the tax rate for resident and non-resident fishermen immediately raised legal red flags. Preferences like this and other popular “local hire” laws quickly run afoul with the U.S. Constitution’s protection for interstate commerce.

The Seattle-based Alaska Fishermen’s Union immediately sued the territory in what became known as Mullaney v. Anderson, the latter being Andy Anderson, the new director of fisheries. The Territorial District Court initially upheld the tax. Alaskans generally thought non-residents who made their livelihoods in fishing, mining, and other extractive industries, should pay more. But on appeal, the 9th Circuit Court soon reversed that decision. And with incredible speed, the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court in the spring of 1952.

The territory raised a variety of legal arguments in support of the tax differential, including that Alaska was a territory, not a state. But Chief Justice Felix Frankfurter rejected them all. He agreed with the 9th Circuit that the same constitutional provisions for interstate commerce also applied to territories, and ruled the different tax rates for resident and non-resident fishermen violated the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV, 2 of the U.S. Constitution. After losing its case, the territory continued to levy the tax but dropped the rate to $5 for all fishermen. Non-resident fishermen later received refunds for the years they were overcharged.

I’m convinced the storage unit plate is connected to the 1949 tax. The plates showed fishermen paid their taxes, much like similar plates and stickers we use today to show fishermen have registered their boats, paid harbor fees, and whatever. Nothing in the 1949 law mentions license plates, but nothing else in the territorial, federal, or halibut commission regulations for that year explain them either.

If so, it begs the nagging question, why then are these plates so rare? I have lived and worked in Alaska fishing communities for 38 years had never seen one of these before. I’ve seen old triangle plates, APA asset tags, and more attached to old fishing boats but never one of these. A friend later showed a picture of a 1951 resident plate, but up to 14,000 fishermen fished annually in Alaska waters during these years. If each needed one of these plates, there should be scads of them around.

Obviously they didn’t. For the Territory, it would seem to have been easier and more efficient to administer this tax on paper. The canneries keep records of their fishermen and could deduct the tax from their pay as they did other expenses. So who still needed a license plate? Perhaps they were used more selectively, such as for trap watchmen who are mentioned in the law. Or maybe others?

Know anything about these plates? Have a better theory about who might have been required to have one? If you have any information about these plates, the Mullaney case, or just an opinion, please let us know. History grows when it is discussed and debated. More background about the Mullaney v. Anderson decision can be found at http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/342/415.html.

Mullaney wasn’t the end of this story. Decades later, a similar case was filed when the state charged non-resident fishermen three times more than residents for commercial fishing licenses and permits. Known as Carlson v. State of Alaska, the courts eventually also found for non-resident fishermen for similar reasons as in the 1952 decision. They ordered refunds that totaled over $30 million in principle and interest. Unlike the speed of Mullaney, this case dragged out for decades. Carlson was filed in 1984 and after five remands wasn’t finally settled until 2012.

Special thanks to Jim Mackovjak of Gustavus who shared his Sitka friend’s photo of the 1951 resident license plate, and provided the critical link to Mullaney v. Anderson.