(Note: This article was first published in the Capital City Weekly in Juneau)
By: Pat Roppel
Astoria, Oregon salmon processors built the first cannery in 1888 near today’s Wrangell at the mouth of the Stikine River. The cannery’s location was described as about eight miles above the river’s mouth. It is difficult today to determine where this might have been because the river mouth continues to change bringing more and more silt to build sand bars and make the “mouth” shallower. Today’s mouth isn’t yesteryear’s mouth!
In those days, the mainland east of Wrangell was wild country and a few men passed through it navigating the river. Who interested B.A. Seaborg in the area? Perhaps some of the prospectors, who participated in the early Stikine and Cassair gold rushes, came back to Astoria and mentioned in passing that salmon were seen progressing upstream. Maybe some of the steamboat captains spent winters on the Columbia River and mentioned sockeye and king salmon.
Astorians were already canning fish in Southeast Alaska in Boca de Quadra, Ketchikan, Burroughs Bay at the mouth of the Unuk River, and Pyramid Harbor off Lynn Canal. B.A. Seaborg & Company’s president, B.A. Seaborg, decided to try his luck in Alaska under another of his company’s names, the Aberdeen Packing Company, This company owned a cannery at Ilwaco on the Washington side of the Columbia River and one at Bay Center, Washington (on Highway 101, south of Raymond).
In early April 1888, the company’s steamer EUREKA was refitted and set in sailing trim, She awaited an opportunity to cross the Columbia River Bar with a man named Wilson as captain. After she sailed, a few weeks later the GEO W. ELDER left with supplies not only for the Stikine River cannery, but for the D.L. Beck & Sons cannery at Pyramid Harbor. Twenty-two Astorians were aboard with fifty Chinese. How many of those men were bound for the Aberdeen cannery is unknown.
The crews built the cannery on what was described as “reasonably level ground.” The building was 24-feet wide with the inshore side resting on the rocky shore and the water side on posts 14 feet in length.
The Stikine River, despite its size and navigability, proved not to provide great quantities of sockeye salmon. Aberdeen Packing’s original intent was to make the entire pack from catches in the river. The fish were taken by gillnets, the method used on the Columbia River.
The Daily Morning Astorian newspaper received a few news items about the first year’s activities at the Stikine River cannery. The first was when the GEO W. ELDER brought down 1,200 cases of salmon in early July. The next shipment came in early October when the IDAHO, a coastal steamer, brought cases from both Aberdeen Packing and a cannery owned by Astorians at Burrough Bay. The first year only 3,400 cases were packed, but the following year, the pack consisted of 14,000 cases.
In November 1888, William Graham returned to Astoria and told a reporter that he liked Fort Wrangel where there was lots of work to do, “but found it mighty lonesome for an idler.” Robert Bell, the foreman, returned to Astoria with him.
No news came from the cannery to Astoria in 1889. This is unfortunate became after that season the operations were moved to the east side of Wrangell Island and renamed Glacier Packing Company. So far I have not been able to discover if Seaborg ceased his interest at that time.
It is a puzzle why the cannery was constructed on the river in the first place. Robert Bell, listed of Astoria, recorded a land claim for 35 acres in “Lamshier Bay” on the opposite side of the island from Fort Wrangel on October 20, 1887, the year before the Stikine River cannery was built. In the land records the claim was made “for the purpose of erecting and establishing a cannery.” Bell used the original Hudson’s Bay Company name for Labouchere Cove. This is the site that Bell and the Astorians moved the cannery in 1890. Crews tore down the old cannery and salvaged the equipment and lumber to build the new cannery.
After 123 years, people who cruise the Stikine River, mostly in jet boats, can not tell where this cannery was constructed. The timber and underbrush have reclaimed the area.