AHS Blog

Canned at Karluk

Date Posted: November 27, 2013       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: Alaska Improvement Company, Alaska Packers Association, Karluk
It is remarkable that the artist more-
or-less depicts Kodiak Alutiiq in
this label. Note the bifurcated bow of
the kayak, the gutskin kamleikas, and
the conical-shaped hats.
Kodiak Historical Society. 

(Note: This is republished from the Baranov Museum’s blog, www.blogspot.com/baranovmuseum)

By: Anjuli Grantham

I admit it. I have lusted over this Alaska Improvement Company can from the moment I read that Kodiak resident Nick Troxell had purchased it on e-bay. In fact, I went so far as to save a place for it in the fisheries exhibit that we are putting together as part of the Baranov Museum’s exhibit redesign project.

Now, I am overjoyed to report that I can replace the words on the exhibit object list, “Nick T.’s salmon can: procure,” with “Alaska Improvement Company salmon can from Nick T.” Thanks to him, the Baranov Museum has the first historic Kodiak salmon can in our collection. It joins a box end from an Alaska Packers Association cannery at Karluk and a handful of other objects related to the early history of salmon fishing and processing in the region, and helps us to document and interpret Kodiak’s incredible maritime heritage.

The story of canning salmon at Karluk ranks as one of the more important stories in the history of Kodiak, if not Alaska. For fisheries biologists, the story of Karluk’s fishery is important on a worldwide scale, as the prodigious historic salmon runs boggle the mind and have inspired generations of research. In fact, speaking of science, one can trace the

A bit crushed, but in remarkable
condition considering it could be
120 years old.
Kodiak Historical Society.

history of salmon biology to the Karluk River. It so happens that a team of fisheries biologists are in the final stages of creating a book that focuses on the history of science in the Karluk River system. A History of Sockeye Salmon Research, Karluk River System, Alaska, 1880-2010 will be published in 2014. I interviewed one of the authors, Dr. Richard Borttoff, for the most recent episode of the radio program Way Back in Kodiak, “Canned at Karluk.

Of course, it wasn’t just scientists who were interested in the Karluk red salmon runs. Thousands of fishermen and cannery workers joined the hundreds of Karluk villagers on the Karluk Spit, beginning in the 1880s. The first cannery to open on Kodiak Island opened on the Karluk Spit in 1882. The Karluk Packing Co. was financed by the Alaska Commercial Company and founded by two former AC employees, Oliver Smith and Charles Hirsch. These gentlemen salted salmon on the Karluk Spit prior to opening what was one of the earliest canneries in Alaska. Yet, word quickly got out about the massive salmon runs within the Karluk River. This is not hyperbole- it wasn’t rare to catch 40,000 sockeye in a single beach seine set at Karluk in the 1880s and 1890s.

The Alaska Improvement Company cannery is at the mouth of the
Karluk River, opposite the Karluk Spit. This photo was taken
during the first year that the cannery operated.
NARA, Kodiak Historical Society P 356-22.

Our salmon can dates from somewhere between 1889 and 1911. It was in 1889 that the Alaska Improvement Company began canning at Karluk. They built a cannery on the south side of the Karluk River, across from the Karluk Spit. Long after canning operations were transferred to Larsen Bay, the beach was referred to as “the Improvement side.” In 1898, the Alaska Improvement Company joined the Alaska Packers Association (APA). That was the end of the Alaska Improvement Company, but not of its labels. For brand affiliation, the APA continued to can under the Canoe brand. Further research is required to determine when the APA added its own insignia to the can. However, in 1911 all canning operations were moved to Larsen Bay. As a result, that was the last year that cans were made and filled on the Karluk Spit, though much of the salmon canned at Larsen Bay still was beach seined from the Karluk Spit.

Fishermen mending the beach seine at Karluk.
Kodiak Historical Society, P 325-1-a. 

To discover more about the journey of our salmon can, including information on the Chinese cannery workers who packed it, the crude tools that formed it, and the fishermen that caught the sockeye within it, please listen to “Canned at Karluk.”

Old Uyak, Kodiak Island

By: Wallace Fields

(Note: This article is reprinted from the Kodiak Maritime Museum‘s Spring 2013 newsletter.)

When Alaska was purchased by the United States in 1867, the salmon canning industry was just beginning. Salmon canneries were operating on the Sacramento and Columbia Rivers, and it wasn’t long before canneries were being built further north in Puget Sound, Canada, and along the coast of Alaska. Kodiak Island’s first cannery was built in 1882 on the Karluk Spit. By the end of the 1880’s four more canneries had been built along the gravel spit and bank where the Karluk River empties into the Shelikof Straits, and new canneries were operating in other areas of Kodiak and Afognak Islands. By the end of the 1890’s the Alaska Packers Association (APA) had consolidated operations of many of the canneries on Kodiak and controlled or owned all remaining facilities at Karluk, Alitak, Afognak, Uganik and Larsen Bay. Only two companies were operating independent of APA on Kodiak at the turn of the century. Both of these companies were located at Uyak Anchorage, the nearest anchorage to Karluk from the severe westerly winds that regularly blow across Shelikof Straits.

Both the Pacific Steam Whaling Company and the Hume Bro’s and Hume Company built canneries during 1897 at this anchorage and shared water from a small lake and stream that flowed between them. They struggled to compete with APA’s large conglomeration, and over the next decade consolidated into a new company, Northwestern Fisheries Company (NWFC). In June of 1905, a fire burned most of the Pacific Steam Whaling Company’s plant leaving only the Hume Bro’s and Hume plant further to the north, which continued to operate until its closure in 1931.

The NWFC warehouses and other buildings stood until the 1950’s when they were torn down and used for structures in the nearby village of Larsen Bay. Today, there are only two buildings still standing from the original cannery in addition to some of the pilings that are left where the dock once stood. Old canning retorts, engine blocks, winches for boat ways, and a variety of other machinery and infrastructure from the once vibrant canning facility litter the beach and landscape of what is now called Old Uyak.

Old Uyak in 1915 (above) and 1956 (below). Image courtesy
Tim Smith at Tanignak.com.

For the past thirty years Old Uyak has been my home during the summer months where our family gillnets for salmon. I have spent many quiet mornings looking out over the old dock and collapsed smokestack where the boiler once stood imagining the daily activity that would have been part of the Northwest Fisheries Company.

From my window I can picture the old sailing ships, like the AJ Fuller and Harvester, swinging anchor in front of the dock, or the mail boat Dora casting off from this dock the morning of the Katmai eruption in June 1912, and watching the sky grown dark a few hours later as they sailed for Kodiak, or the Bertha with a load of lime that ignited in front of the cannery in July 1915 and burned to the waterline (the boiler and ribs from the ship are still visible on the beach).

I think of the loads of salmon brought here from the Karluk beach seines and from fish traps around the island, and the Chinese laborers, the Scandinavian and Native fishermen, the plant managers and skilled craftsmen, and can hear the sounds and smell the smells that are so familiar to me from the cannery in Larsen Bay, only six miles away, which has operated from 1911 to this day.

Uyak Anchorage is still a busy place throughout the year, with the commercial fishing fleets coming and going to delver fish to tenders or to anchor for shelter or rest. Many of these folks may only see some old pilings and setnet cabins now when they gaze on the site of the Northwest Fisheries Company canneries, but others may see what I so, an important connection to our past and a standing record of the salmon industry which has been such an important component of Kodiak’s maritime history.