AHS Blog | Alaska's Historic Canneries
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/.
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.]