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/.