by Ross Coen
In the summer of 1919, Doctor C. L. Alsberg visited salmon canneries throughout Southeast Alaska. The chief of the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry, in order to verify compliance with federal pure food laws, inspected each facility and its products. While standing on the docks of canneries throughout the territory, Alsberg watched the fishermen and cannery hands move salmon from the boats to the landings and then up to the cannery floor. Each man held a long-handled, single-tined fork called a peugh (sometimes spelled ‘pugh’ or ‘pew’), with which they stabbed the salmon through the head and, with a swift upward motion, flung the fish into wheeled carts.
“The use of the pugh itself is not objectionable if the fish be packed promptly,” Alsberg noted in his report. “If, however, the fish have to be held for some time before packing, softening begins in and around the stab wound made by the pugh due to the carrying into the flesh of the bacteria of putrefaction from the skin.” Although cannery hands were instructed to stab fish only through the head so as to leave undamaged the meat that would shortly be packed into the can, Alsberg observed many salmon being stabbed through the body. Some were still alive at the moment of injury, and the hemorrhaging that followed softened and discolored the flesh in ways that resulted in a less-appetizing product for the consumer.
Alsberg’s observation came at a time when salmon packers were beginning to pay greater attention to the handling of fish. Not only did pure food laws require sanitary operations, but an emerging awareness of nutrition meant that consumers were becoming more selective in their food choices. The canned salmon industry responded in part by instructing fishermen and cannery workers in new methods of handling fish.
The peugh was on its way out.
Starting in the 1920s, more and more Alaska canneries began moving salmon with elevators, mechanized conveyances consisting of a chain- or belt-driven series of scoops or flights that lifted fish from sea level up to the cannery. According to a magazine article by H. C. Daniels, engineer with Link Belt-Meese & Gottfried Company of Seattle, which in the 1920s sought to make elevator designs more efficient, the first elevators in use in Alaska consisted of a two-foot wide, rectangular trough made of wood planks, at the bottom of which a chain-driven belt in continuous upward motion drew flights (sometimes called buckets) made of four-inch slats spaced 18 to 30 inches apart. By pushing (not peughing) fish down a chute connecting the boat, scow, or tender to the bottom of the elevator, the salmon were carried up to the cannery by threes or more in every flight.
A second type of elevator, one designed and sold by companies such as Daniels’s, featured a much narrower trough just eight inches across, at the bottom of which ran three interwoven belts in a net-like formation sectioned off by curved, sheet-steel flights. In addition to being lighter and easier to install and maneuver than the older elevator type, Daniels claimed “the fish, being carried lengthwise instead of crosswise, are less liable to jam or slide; and being carried rather than dragged over the bottom of the conveyor, are less apt to be injured or bruised.”
At roughly the same time, fishermen began utilizing smaller, movable elevators that could be hauled aboard a fishing vessel and positioned such that salmon could be moved from the below-deck hold up to the boat’s rail and thence to the apron of the cannery elevator. The Amelie, an eighty-six-foot tender used in the P. E. Harris & Co. cannery in Hawk Inlet, Alaska, was among the first vessels designed and constructed expressly to be compatible with onboard elevators. A small, waterproof electric motor ran the conveyor, discharging the hold’s cargo of fish in two hours, whereas “unloading by hand would require the labor of four men for eight hours, tiring out the crew and keeping the boat tied up four times as long,” according to a profile of the vessel in Pacific Fisherman, a leading trade journal. Cannery operators came to appreciate elevators’ savings both in time and labor costs, as well as their ability to land fish in better condition than by peughing.
Peughs remained in limited use in certain fisheries for several more years, perhaps even decades. But their eventual retirement turned peughs into museum pieces and marked the transition of canned salmon from a basic staple into one that could be marketed as pure and wholesome.