AHS Blog | Alaska's Historic Canneries
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/.
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.
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.
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.]
By: Anjuli Grantham
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.