AHS Blog

Dago Red: Bristol Bay Sailboat Days

Date Posted: February 28, 2016       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: Bristol Bay, fishermen, fishing, salon

submitted by Tim Troll


Dago Red

Photo from the album of Alfred J and Martha Opland with description that confirms the observation of Bristol Bay sailboat fisherman Suerre Gjemso “Those old fellers, they sure liked their whiskey. They was a rugged bunch, but good natured fellers. Drunk, but tough out on the water.”

Sailboats with Cannery Designations

Date Posted: February 21, 2016       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: Alaska, Bristol Bay, canneries, Naknek, sail boat, salmon
Sailing for Salmon

Painting of sail boats by Tim Troll.

Cannery Sailboat #59 to be Restored for Duty

Date Posted: February 15, 2016       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: APA, Bristol Bay, cannery, Diamond NN, double-ender, Naknek, sailboat, salmon fishing

By Tim TrollLogo DHM Dianmond NN59

Richard Sturgill and the folks at the Alaska Packers Association Museum in Blaine, WA have been busy restoring Sailboat #59 from the APA Dimond NN Cannery in Naknek.  The boat was originally saved by Katie Ringsmuth’s father, superintendent of the cannery. It was kept and displayed by Trident Seafoods for many years.  Not long ago Trident donated the boat to the APA museum.  

Former APA/Trident Shipwright Steve Alaniz along with fellow shipwright Steve Ince have volunteered their time and skill to restoring this sailboat.  The goal is to have a USCG  inspected  vessel certified to carry passengers for hire. If that goal is achieved the museum believes it will have the only seaworthy double-ender in original fishing configuration back on the water.

If you haven’t seen the APA Museum in Blaine it is definitely worth a stop. The museum maintains a summer schedule from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Restoring sailboat

Once restored, the plan is for the historic double-ender to be used on the water again.


Restoring sailboat

Restoring sailboat #59, preserved from the Diamond NN cannery by Trident Seafoods.

Iron Men of Bristol Bay

Date Posted: December 7, 2015       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: Alaska Packers Association, Bristol Bay, fishermen, fishing, salmon

by Bob King

Old time fishermen are often described as “Iron Men in Wooden Boats.” It honors their hard work in the days before motors and hydraulics.

Last spring I went to Bellingham’s Center for Pacific Northwest Studies to look through the archives of the Alaska Packers Association (APA), the largest of Bristol Bay’s historic salmon canners. Among other things, they had several boxes of 4 by 6 inch cards: the company’s records of their Bristol Bay fishermen from 1908 to 1941. They paint a vivid picture of the fishermen who caught sockeye during the bay’s sailboat era.

Records of Gill Net fishermen from Alaska Packers Association of San Francisco.

Records of Gill Net fishermen from Alaska Packers Association of San Francisco.

Who were they? Most fishermen were immigrants: Europeans from fishing nations like Italy and Norway. There were others from the Mediterranean: Croatia, Greece, and even one from Algeria. There were other Scandinavians: Swedes and Finns; also Germans, Danes, and Russians. One fisherman came from Australia. There were US citizens and Native Alaskans too but most came from overseas. Many cards noted immigration status: when they filed their first papers, or intent to naturalize, and second papers, the formal petition to become a citizen. At least one fisherman was reported held by immigration authorities. The cards don’t list race but do mention “complexion.” Scandinavians tended to be labeled as “fair” or “light,” while fishermen from the Mediterranean were usually listed as “dark.” Some were described as “ruddy.”

They list the canneries where the fishermen worked and the ships they sailed on: the barks of the APA’s Star Fleet and the steamers that succeeded them in the 1920s. They recorded injuries: fractured ribs and injured hands. There were several cases of fish poisoning. It’s often caused by eating raw or under-cooked salmon but can also come from handling fish.

Several deaths were noted. The work was hard, the hours long, and the tides, winds, and weather were unforgiving. Overall, two or three fishermen died in Bristol Bay every year.

Alaska Packers Assoc. noted in their records whenever a fisherman died while working for them.

Alaska Packers Assoc. noted in their records whenever a fisherman died while working for them.

The company identified “trouble makers,” probably shorthand for union activists, and noted detentions and fines for insubordination. Other problems were listed: One fishermen refused to sail on the Star of France. A Dillingham fisherman tried to deliver old fish. Another fisherman was caught using small mesh gear. Fishermen were paid by the fish, not the pound, so they padded their catch by adding sections of net with mesh under 4½ inches to catch more small fish.

The meanest comment was made about some greenhorn who was the poorest fisherman at the Kvichak’s Diamond J in 1923 and blamed it on a sprained thumb. They described him as “no good man,” and there was a big X on his card. He didn’t come back for a second season.

But others filled out their cards for 20 seasons in the Bay. The cards list both the individual fisherman’s catch and the cannery average, in numbers of fish. This was before they weighed the catch but you can estimate poundage by multiplying the first number by 6: 20,000 reds are 120,000 pounds; and there are plenty of years when the average was 30,000 reds, or 180,000 pounds.

Alaska Packers Assoc. kept detailed records of salmon catches by each fisherman.

Alaska Packers Assoc. kept detailed records of salmon catches by each fisherman.

Remember, these fishermen worked in sailboats. No motors, hydraulic net rollers, or power reels. Just two guys in a wooden boat who pulled their nets in by hand and pitched each fish to the tally scow with a pew. When the wind went slack, they pulled out their oars. For them, the Bristol Bay season lasted five months, from May to September. It took a month to sail north, a month to set up the cannery, a month to fish, a month to close the cannery down and load the pack, and a month to sail back to San Francisco.

During the sailboat years, Bristol Bay fisherman averaged 120,000 to 140,000 pounds of sockeye every year, even more on the East side. These catches did not come from exceptional runs. Total harvests averaged about 15 million sockeye annually, and rarely topped 20 million. Compare that to today. In  hat’s been a banner year with a catch of 36 million, Bristol Bay driftnetters, with their hydraulic rollers, brailers, and a crew of three or four, averaged less than 100,000 pounds.

There are reasons why catch rates were higher then. Fishing wasn’t regulated. Bristol Bay was open 24/7 until 1924. They used 200 fathoms of gear. There weren’t any district lines. Enforcement was non-existent. Effort was also a lot smaller. Back in the 20s and 30s there were usually only 800 to 1,200 gillnetters in Bristol Bay and maybe a few hundred setnets. Now there are almost 1,900 drift permits and 1,000 setnets. The catch is spread out much further – and that’s actually a good thing.

Let me tell you about one of these fishermen. Gennaro Camporeale was born in Italy in 1893, came to America and lived in San Francisco, half a mile from Fisherman’s Wharf. He was an Able Bodied seaman and started fishing in Egegik in 1914, when he was 21. He filed for US citizenship in 1929. He fished Egegik for 19 seasons. And maybe more.

He stands out because after looking at cards of fishermen who routinely landed 20,000 and 30,000 fish, Camporeale landed over 40,000 fish in 1918, 240,000 pounds. And in 1922, he landed 45,500 reds, 270,000 pounds of salmon pulled onboard by his hands and pitched into the tally scow. I didn’t get to look at all these cards closely but that was the biggest number that I saw.

All combined, in 19 seasons Camporeale landed over half a million sockeye at Egegik, 3 million pounds. He had his off years too but he caught 15% more salmon than the average Egegik fisherman, 25% more than on the Kvichak, 40% more than Naknek, and twice as many as on the Nushagak.

And what do you think he was paid for that? The APA cards don’t record prices but contracts with the Alaska Fishermen’s Union show in 1914 Bristol Bay fishermen were paid 3½ cents per fish, just over half a penny a pound. By 1937, the price was up to 12 cents a fish, two cents a pound. Add it all up, for those half a million sockeye, Camporeale earned a grand total of $18,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s almost $300,000 today, an average of $15,000 a season.

Camporeale was among the hardest-working highliners of the 1920s. For 19 years, he averaged about 170,000 pounds a year, fish pulled from Bristol Bay with his bare hands, and was paid an inflation-adjusted average 19 cents a pound. Of course, the company paid for his boat, nets, and the Blazo in his Swede stove. The cannery also fed him and gave him a bunk during closed periods. And Camporeale amassed a remarkable record. 3

The APA kept photographs of some of the fishermen: blurry head shots stapled to the card, but maybe only of a few dozen out of the thousands of fishermen who worked Bristol Bay’s sailboat days. These are the faces of the iron men of Bristol Bay. There isn’t a picture of Gennaro Camporeale. But each of these fishermen have their stories too.

Fishermen's records kept by Alaska Packers Assoc.

Fishermen’s records kept by Alaska Packers Assoc.

As do fishermen today. Fishing remains a tough business. It’s cold and wet, and out in the weather. Despite the power reels hydraulics and electronic conveniences of today, it’s still hard work. It still can be deadly. And prices? Well, that’s another story. Just don’t complain to these guys. I hope fishermen share their experiences. The Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative was created to document and preserve the iconic buildings that are centers of our fishing communities and also to preserve the stories of the individual fishermen and processing workers.

I encourage all fishermen record an oral history before their story is lost or left to whatever records are boxed in some archives. Don’t think it has to be profound. Often it’s the most common observation of day to day life on the boat or in the cannery that gives perspective to what this industry means to fishermen, fishing communities, and the broader scope of our history.



August Buschmann Speaks

Note: What follows is an excerpt of the testimony of August Buschmann, pioneering cannery operator and fish trap operator, taken from the Special Subcommittee on Alaskan Problems, House Committee on Merchant Marines and Fisheries, on the Elimination of Salmon Traps in the Waters of Alaska, November, 1949. Not only does Buschmann describe the genesis of many canneries in Southeast Alaska, his testimony clearly shows the speed at which canneries proliferated around the bays and inlets of Alaska. Readers interested in discovering more about specific cannery locations and personalities engaged in the fisheries are encouraged to spend time with historic Bureau of Fisheries and House Committee reports, which contain priceless, untapped information related to Alaska’s fisheries history. For those interested in fish traps, Jim Mackovjak’s newest book, Alaska Salmon Traps, is the place to begin.  A huge thanks to Jim Mackovjak for sharing this transcription. 

“I came over here with my parents from Norway in 1891. After arriving here we became interested in fishing and the salting of fish near Port Townsend, at Scow Bay, for a short period of time. Then we moved to Port Townsend and fished and salted and smoked fish there for a short time.
Then we moved to Bellinghamand did the same thing there. While we were there we put in the first pile trap that was put in on Lummi Island, that was operated by hand, with a hand windlass on a log float, and we also operated a small floating trap on Lopez Island. That was in 1892.
In 1893 I went to Alaskafor the first time with my father and I fished halibut on a halibut schooner in Alaska out of Ketchikan. And later on in the season we fished halibut and salmon, dogfish, and sharks. That fall my father located a cannery site in Mink Bay off of Boca De Quadra Inlet in southeastern Alaska.
In the spring of 1894 I accompanied my father to Alaska again, where he built his first cannery, in 1894 in Mink Bay, operated it through the season and packed about 10,000 cases. We operated there for several years and then my father located a saltery site in Taku Inlet, close to Juneau, Alaska, and operated a saltery there for several years.
We located a trade and manufacturing site at Petersburg in 1896, and commenced construction of a cannery that was first operated in 1898.
From there I was transferred to Sitkah [Sitkoh] Bay, to construct a new cannery there at a location now called Chatham, Alaska, it was called at that time, Sitkoh Bay, in 1900.
[Buschmann omits the fact that during the 1899 and 1900 salmon seasons he operated a salmon saltery at Bartlett Cove, in Glacier Bay, where he also constructed a cannery building that was never outfitted with canning machinery.]
At that particular plant, which was completed and operated that year, we packed about 60,000 cases. The reason for constructing this plant was that the Petersburg cannery, located about 100 miles away, which was operated the first year in 1898, received most of its fish from this area, since there were practically no salmon in the area around Petersburg that particular year.
The year 1900 was the return cycle for that heavy run in the Chatham area. There happened to be no fish whatsoever in that area, and it is believed that the tremendous run and escapement that was there 2 years before of which very few could be taken created the shortage of that year. Out of a pack of 60,000 cases which we had prepared to can, we could only get 20,000 cases of pinks in that area with 3 big tenders and 14 hand seine boats covering Chatham Strait, Icy Strait, Chichagof Island, and Baranof Island areas where we had expected to pack principally pinks that season.
That goes to show that even in olden times we had smaller runs of pink salmon in southeastern Alaskathan we have ever had since that time. This was in 1900.
In the fall of 1900 and spring of 1901 father sold out of the three canneries and two salteries that his companies owned, to a company called the Pacific Packing & Navigation Co. that has accumulated a number of canneries along the coast of Alaska and also on Puget Sound.
In 1901 I built and operated the first pile trap close to Port [Point] Couverden at the entrance to Icy Strait, and operated that pile trap with several others for 3 years.
In 1904 I operated a steamer for the Killisnoo fertilizer plant at Killisnoo, Alaska, and we caught principally herring, but when herring were scarce we would always load up with salmon at the neighboring bay so as to bring home a load of fish.
In 1905 I took a contract to deliver two shiploads of dog salmon for the Japanese Government. These ships sailed into southeastern Alaska, and with 1 little seine boat and a small crew of 5 or 6 men, including my brother, we loaded these ships with approximately 200,000 dog salmon at Chaik Bay. In 1906 I operated a cannery for the Northwestern Fisheries Co. at Sana Ana, and in 1907, 1908 and 1909 I operated a cannery at Hunters Bay, on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island, were we also operated a salmon hatchery, here we also built and operated the first power seine boat that ever came to Alaska, which was operated by my brother Eigil at that time.
In 1910 I was transferred, and instructed to build a cannery—on Cooks Inlet—for the Northwestern Fisheries, and I believe I had the luckiest season of my career that year, since we left here on Friday, March the 13th.
In 1911 I built a cannery of my own at Ford Arm on the west coast of Chichagof Island, southeastern Alaskaand packed about 20,000 cases, operating exclusively with seines.
In 1912 and 1913 we operated at Ford Arm on the west coast of Chichagof Island, putting up small packs. In 1915 I also built a cannery in Cooks Inlet on Knik Arm, across from Anchorage, which I operated for 3 years. Then in 1918 I built and operated a cannery at Port Althorp, at the entrance to Icy Strait, southeastern Alaskanot far from Juneau, where we had prospected the fishing conditions for some time. I supervised the operation of this cannery myself until the fall of 1919, when I sold this cannery to the Alaska Pacific Salmon Co.
I also in the meantime had become interested in the Hood Baycannery, at Hood Bay and I had financed Nick Bez on his first canning operations in Peril Straits, at Todd—the Todd Cannery. I think that was 1924.
I was also interested in a cannery at Sitka, which we sold just a few years ago.
Since the early 1930s I have not been so very active in the business, although I have had interests in several canneries, and up to the present time have made trips to Alaska every year, and I have since 1893 spent anywhere from 2 or 3 weeks to 9 months in the Territory every year.
I graduated from the commercial branch of the Pacific LutheranCollege, in Parkland, Wash., in 1899; received my pilot’s license to operate cannery steamers and other small steamers in 1902; I took out my United States citizens papers in Tacoma, Wash., in 1903.
I was appointed by President Hoover and served as a dollar-a-year man under Judge Royal Gunnison, Food Administrator for Alaska, during World War I, as fisheries consultant and advisor in connection with catching and canning salmon in Alaska.
I was selected a member of the Fact Finding Board of Three, operating under the supervision of the United States Department of Labor, to determine a fair price to be paid for fish and labor in the Alaska salmon industry in 1938…
I served as first organizing chairman of the consultant committee, appointed as a war measure by the Secretary of Interior in 1942. The purpose of this committee was to devise ways and means of producing the greatest quantity of canned fish by concentrating all fishing and canning operations along the entire coast line of Alaska into the most efficient operating units, to save labor, transportation, and floating equipment, since the Army and Navy had commandeered and actually taken over most of the salmon industry’s efficient tenders, scows, and other floating equipment, including several canneries, which were so desperately needed when war so unexpectedly broke out.
I have spent all or part of every operating season, ranging from 3 or 4 weeks to 9 months in Alaska since 1893, and expect to continue doing so since I am very much interested in the Alaska fisheries.

I am at the present time interested in a cold-storage plant at Sitka, Alaska; a cold-storage plant we built last year at Sand Point, Shumagin Islands, Alaska; have an interest in five fish traps in southeastern Alaska, and have a very small interest in the Alaska Pacific Salmon Co., operating canneries in Bristol Bayand south of the peninsula.”