AHS Blog

Old Uyak, Kodiak Island

By: Wallace Fields

(Note: This article is reprinted from the Kodiak Maritime Museum‘s Spring 2013 newsletter.)

When Alaska was purchased by the United States in 1867, the salmon canning industry was just beginning. Salmon canneries were operating on the Sacramento and Columbia Rivers, and it wasn’t long before canneries were being built further north in Puget Sound, Canada, and along the coast of Alaska. Kodiak Island’s first cannery was built in 1882 on the Karluk Spit. By the end of the 1880’s four more canneries had been built along the gravel spit and bank where the Karluk River empties into the Shelikof Straits, and new canneries were operating in other areas of Kodiak and Afognak Islands. By the end of the 1890’s the Alaska Packers Association (APA) had consolidated operations of many of the canneries on Kodiak and controlled or owned all remaining facilities at Karluk, Alitak, Afognak, Uganik and Larsen Bay. Only two companies were operating independent of APA on Kodiak at the turn of the century. Both of these companies were located at Uyak Anchorage, the nearest anchorage to Karluk from the severe westerly winds that regularly blow across Shelikof Straits.

Both the Pacific Steam Whaling Company and the Hume Bro’s and Hume Company built canneries during 1897 at this anchorage and shared water from a small lake and stream that flowed between them. They struggled to compete with APA’s large conglomeration, and over the next decade consolidated into a new company, Northwestern Fisheries Company (NWFC). In June of 1905, a fire burned most of the Pacific Steam Whaling Company’s plant leaving only the Hume Bro’s and Hume plant further to the north, which continued to operate until its closure in 1931.

The NWFC warehouses and other buildings stood until the 1950’s when they were torn down and used for structures in the nearby village of Larsen Bay. Today, there are only two buildings still standing from the original cannery in addition to some of the pilings that are left where the dock once stood. Old canning retorts, engine blocks, winches for boat ways, and a variety of other machinery and infrastructure from the once vibrant canning facility litter the beach and landscape of what is now called Old Uyak.

Old Uyak in 1915 (above) and 1956 (below). Image courtesy
Tim Smith at Tanignak.com.

For the past thirty years Old Uyak has been my home during the summer months where our family gillnets for salmon. I have spent many quiet mornings looking out over the old dock and collapsed smokestack where the boiler once stood imagining the daily activity that would have been part of the Northwest Fisheries Company.

From my window I can picture the old sailing ships, like the AJ Fuller and Harvester, swinging anchor in front of the dock, or the mail boat Dora casting off from this dock the morning of the Katmai eruption in June 1912, and watching the sky grown dark a few hours later as they sailed for Kodiak, or the Bertha with a load of lime that ignited in front of the cannery in July 1915 and burned to the waterline (the boiler and ribs from the ship are still visible on the beach).

I think of the loads of salmon brought here from the Karluk beach seines and from fish traps around the island, and the Chinese laborers, the Scandinavian and Native fishermen, the plant managers and skilled craftsmen, and can hear the sounds and smell the smells that are so familiar to me from the cannery in Larsen Bay, only six miles away, which has operated from 1911 to this day.

Uyak Anchorage is still a busy place throughout the year, with the commercial fishing fleets coming and going to delver fish to tenders or to anchor for shelter or rest. Many of these folks may only see some old pilings and setnet cabins now when they gaze on the site of the Northwest Fisheries Company canneries, but others may see what I so, an important connection to our past and a standing record of the salmon industry which has been such an important component of Kodiak’s maritime history.

Serendipity in Historical Research

Date Posted: February 8, 2013       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: Dora, John Cobb, John E. Thwaites, mail, photo, purser, Shakan Salmon Company

By: J. Pennelope Goforth

Every now and then a serendipitous event occurs that defies the laws of rationality. I think it’s the magnetic law of attraction. That is, the attraction of old Alaskan historical stuff. Maybe you’ll agree after you read this.

I wrote a book some years ago, Sailing the Mail in Alaska, about early Alaska photographer and mail clerk aboard the DORA, John E. Thwaites. I’m now working on a book about the famous little steamer DORA. Last year, Anjuli Graham, Katie Ringsmuth, Pat Roppel, and Toby Sullivan and I decided to work on a historical project documenting Alaska’s canneries. During the Christmas season I took a fun seasonal job at the Alaska Mill & Feed store, and met Pam who worked there. She had a sister, Judy,  in California. Judy has all the family letters and photos. About a week ago, Judy and I sat down in Pam’s home with some of the family’s memorabilia.
Edwin Culbertson, 1st row 2ndfrom left in ships’ uniform and hat;
Harold Painter, 1st row, 5thfrom the left wearing fedora.
Photo by John E. Thwaites and courtesy
Miriam Culbertson Painter Collection, Judy Thompson.

Of course, the photos were taken by John E. Thwaites.

Of course, her grandfather and great-uncle worked on the DORA.

Of course, she had a great photograph of the Shakan Cannery.

Her grandfather, Harold Painter, was the radio operator and Edwin Culbertson was the purser aboard the DORA in 1913. Later, Painter also worked as purser and became the mayor of Seward. He was active in ‘territorial affairs’. He ran for the house as a Democrat. Ed Culbertson went on to Anchorage where he purchased lots on the sale day in 1915. Harold later married Ed’s sister, Miriam.

One of the several exciting moments for me was when Judy pointed out both men in one of Thwaites’ iconic photos, captioned “On the cruiser DORA”. For years I had tried to find out who were these men grouped on the DORA’s deck. Another moment was reading an actual note penned by Thwaites to his friend Harold in which he says he is bringing up his wife Isabelle on the SS ALASKA. But high tide definitely arrived when Judy presented me with a copy of Harold’s daily diary from 1915, when he served as the DORA’s purser! Nearly a hundred years ago, he noted on February 5: “Arrived Scotch Cap, Sarichef, Akutan & Unalaska. Snowing Bad & wind blowing. Feel good.”

Shakan Salmon Company cannery as it was in 1916.
Photo by unknown and courtesy
Miriam Culbertson Painter Collection, Judy Thompson.
The slightly overexposed print of Shakan Cannery isn’t signed, but it is quite possibly another undiscovered Thwaites photograph. A little more research may identify it as a John Cobb photo who also took a lot of photographs of canneries and salteries that proliferated along the lush Southeast Alaska coasts. This cannery was owned by the Shakan Salmon Company. On April 3, 1916 Harold wrote to Miriam: “This is the Shakan Cannery where we unloaded 132,000 ft. of lumber. Stayed here 18 hours. Juneau is our next stop and also get rid of our dynamite. Stop at Nanaimo going south.”

Another documented brick in our wall of canneries! Thank you, Pam and Judy!

I never believed totally in rationality anyway. Serendipity, now, that’s another story altogether!
J Pennelope Goforth
Anchorage, Alaska
February 5, 2013.