AHS Blog

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.

Crumbling Cannery

Date Posted: April 20, 2016       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries

Rick Metzger shared this poem, which he found in the Pacific American Fisheries archive in Bellingham. There is no author attribution; please leave a comment if you know who authored it. 

Crumbling Cannery


An old weathered cannery lay silent in death,

No signs of man’s shadow, no human breath.


Piling stubs poking out of the sand,

Caved in old retorts not looking so grand.


Jagged timbers are scattered to and fro,

As docks have collapsed over rocks below.


Where over the water bulwarks had been,

Steamships will never take cargo again.


Planks of a building that once housed a store,

Rotted and splintered lay next to the shore.


The dining hall and cook shack can’t be found,

Yet, bottles and debris litter the ground.


Tanks in the brush filled with algae and slime,

Once contained diesel and oil in their time.


Up from the beach where young evergreens grow,

Bunkhouses rest with roofs sagging low.


Through ghostly windows poke alder and pine,

Where Chinese cabins once formed a neat line.


Tarred pipe tubes lay haphazardly up the hills

Once flowing with power to run pelton wheels.


Warehouse remains are piles of bleached wood,

Next door to where the boiler room once stood.


Pipes, like stray noodles, strewn everywhere,

Rusting tin roofing, a tangled nightmare.


Time is past from the cannery’s story.

No one to witness its days of glory.


History is lost amid ruins of the scene,

As nature returns quiet and serene.


Once a harvester of all in the seas,

Now all that remains are old memories.


Scratching the Surface: One Can, from Cordova to North Carolina

Date Posted: April 9, 2016       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries

Cannery work is often monotonous. Standing in one place for hours, repeating the same hand motions over and over, attempting to keep alert as the predictable hums and clangs lull the worker towards dozing. However, Alice Ryser enjoyed her time at the New England Fishing Company’s Orca plant outside of Cordova. Remembering mug-up and her fellow NEFCO cannery workers brings a smile to her face, fifty years after she left the cannery.

But one incident in particular sticks out in Alice’s memory. One day, she was transferred from the reformer (which made the flattened cans into cylinders) to the seamer (which secures the lid on the cans), a yawn-inducing process. She had to do something to pass the time, so she took a pin from her hair and wrote, “Write me,” with her name and address on the lids of several cans. And don’t you know it, she got a response from a man in North Carolina. Here is Alice’s story, available within the Alaska Fisheries Report.

Cannery Pioneer Eigil Buschmann

Date Posted: April 2, 2015       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries

The following article comes from Pacific Fisherman (January 1955), page 44. Thanks to Jim Mackovjak  for contributing this.

Sixty Years of Salmon Canning Ready E. Buschmann for Next Move

With 60 years of personal and continuous activity in the salmon fishing and canning business behind him, Eigil Buschmann retired this winter as general superintendent of Nakat Packing Corporation, a position he has held for 32 years, since the company was formed in 1922.

This doesn’t mean that the man who first fished a power purse seiner in Alaskan waters is going to be idle—not E. Buschmann. He never has been, and doesn’t know how.

Established in a private office at 1014 AmericanBuilding, Seattle (Phone Main 7340), he plans his next move. Will it be in the fish business? Not saying. When will it come? Not certain.

Eigil Buschmann went to Alaska first in 1894, with his father, Peter, and his brother, August. They were running their cannery at the Boca de Quadra that season, and he worked in and for the family properties for years.

In 1907 he took the purse seiner Ruth to Alaska—the first powered purse seiner in the Territory—fishing her for the cannery at HunterBay.

Then in 1911, with Craig Miller and F. C. Johnstone, he built the first cannery at Waterfall, where later he was to make headquarters. He disposed of his interest in 1913 and joined Northwestern Fisheries Co. as superintendent of its Quadra cannery, remaining with this company through 1917.

In 1917 he became superintendent of the Wiese Packing Co. under Einar Beyer, and also handled the Alaska Pacific Herring Co. plant at Port Walter for Mr. Beyer and his Norwegian associates.

In the fall of 1921 he secured an option on the cannery at Hidden Inlet, and the following year the plant was acquired by the Nakat Packing Corporation as a subsidiary of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. entered the canned salmon business (sic). Mr. Buschmann was appointed general superintendent and continued in that position for 32 years until his retirement late last fall.