AHS Blog

Alitak Superintendent Finds Purpose for Everything

Date Posted: October 4, 2013       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: Alitak, Kodiak, Ocean Beauty

By: Mike Rostad

(Note: This article was originally published in Mike Rostad’s column for the Kodiak Daily Mirror, “Kodiak Tapestry, on October 4, 2013.)

Woody Knebel, superintendent of Ocean Beauty’s Alitak processing plant in Lazy Bay, sees beauty in the ordinary. Everything serves an aesthetic purpose — even rusty old wrenches that crumble with the slightest torque or an old wooden dory that was used in beach-seining operations at the turn of the century. The dory is the centerpiece of a museum Knebel has been developing for the last four years.

Alitak Brand salmon, showing the location of Alitak on the south endof Kodiak Island. Image courtesy Rick Metzger. 

“You can see rub marks on the side where they pulled the web, corks and leads,” said Knebel. Once Knebel had cleaned up the aging, dirt-corroded dory, he considered painting it. But, respecting the fact that it took 100 years to get this way, he covered it with linseed oil instead. After all, “original” is beauty in museum terminology.

The museum is located next to the mug-up room in the very first cannery building that officially opened at Lazy Bay in 1918. Since then, Alitak has been operating continuously under different owners, including Alitak Packing Company, Pacific American Fisheries, Wards Cove and now, Ocean Beauty.

Items for the museum were donated by local seiners and set-netters and gathered from Alitak, Moser Bay, Olga Bay and other canneries. The Akhiok-Kaguyak Native Corporation, which owns the land where some of the canneries are located, gave Knebel permission to transport artifacts to the museum. Some board members donated historical paraphernalia. The museum is a “community” project. “It’s a work in progress,” he said.

The weather-beaten equipment and gear tell the story of how fishing, processing and marketing were done a century ago: labeling machines, old salmon cans with Norman Rockwellish labels, cannery store ledgers, buckets, pues, tool boxes, wrenches, salmon seine and pilot-house wheels. The museum even has a pair of hand cuffs used by a superintendent to keep rowdy, drinking workers in line. Enclosed in the museum is a radio room that has a lazarette covering for a door. Pictures of Chinese, Filipino, Native and Caucasian workers show the cannery’s ethnic diversity, which continues to this day.

If Knebel can’t find a spot for his treasures in the museum, he’ll use them as artistic ornaments which make Alitak perhaps the most unique processing plant in the state. Metallic and wooden art, paintings and murals catch the attention of cannery worker, fisherman and fish buyer. A metal sculpture of an Alutiiq hunter with bow and arrows is firmly planted on a wall of one of the buildings. Knebel designed it in five minutes. “I found all the pieces in the recycle bin. The body is from old copper pipes, the head from a broken grinder/chopper assembly and the arrows at one time were used to drill holes for drift pins used in dock and piling work.” 

The wind gauge is a metal salmon on top of a flag pole. “We bring it down during the winter and, prior to putting it back up, we have people engrave their names on it.”Local artists have also contributed to Cape Alitak’s uniqueness. Ralph Christiansen of Old Harbor carved the mask on the tin warehouse; Knebel added the tusks. Kay Underwood, one of the set-netters who sell fish to Alitak, painted a life-size picture of a Kodiak brown bear that looks a lot like the one that charged Knebel at Cape Alitak. Underwood’s mural of the mythical god, Trident, guards the entrance to the bathrooms.

Recently Knebel constructed a chapel that provides spiritual refreshment during the long, weary summer. Topped with a cross, the buildings stands away from the cannery complex, with a mountainous backdrop. People of any creed can come to the chapel to pray and meditate. The son of a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor, Knebel said the chapel allows room for the spiritual and mystical.

The novelties at the Alitak cannery break the monotony of a job that can be exhausting and painfully routine. When fishing is at its peak, cannery workers stand 16 hours a day on their feet at the canning and slime lines. “They always seem to get the brunt of everything,” Knebel said. By the end of summer, workers are ready to shed their rain gear and boots and head to warmer climes.

“We can’t wait to get out of here this time of year,” Knebel said one early September day as the skeleton crew was closing the place up. “But come January and February, we wonder what’s going on up here.” By spring, Knebel looks forward to returning to his summer home, where the atmosphere and “hardworking, good people” provide good company. “I think that’s what I like the best about the place,” he said. “I’ve met people from around the island and different parts of the country. There is something that brings them together here.”

In spite of periods of monotony at Alitak, there always seems to be some diversion that keeps Knebel and his crew from letting their guard down and slipping into the misconception that life is ordinary and predictable.  Often they are reminded of the wonder that surrounds them.

The ancient petroglyph cliffs at Cape Alitak a few miles away, provided Knebel with many hours of fascinating study and research which gave him abundant material for a book.During his field research, Knebel had the terrifying privilege of coming close to a bear. He found friendlier company while diving with a beluga whale that had been hanging around the docks for a couple of months. “The whale let the kids rub his tongue, but he wouldn’t let adults pet him.

Knebel’s escapades, encounters and accomplishments are depicted in his photographs and in sketches painted on a piece of walrus ivory by artist, Dick Freeman. A group of Kodiak Island fishermen commissioned Freeman to do the work as a gift of appreciation to Knebel. Knebel is well known for his rapport with fishermen and his employees. That relationship is a “two way street,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of interesting people and I get along with them pretty well.”That conciliatory attitude probably explains why roughly 95 percent of the workers at Cape Alitak return, year after year. Knebel said it’s important to be “upfront with people, and treat them the way they like to be treated.”

The ivory story board is a testimony to Knebel’s adherence to the Golden Rule. Some day the art piece will make a nice entry in Knebel’s museum. But for the time being, it will stay in his office where he can keep a good eye on it.

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.

Filipino Cannery Workers in 1915

Date Posted: April 11, 2013       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: cannery worker, Filipino, film, Kodiak, Larsen Bay

By: Anjuli Grantham

Last summer, the Baranov Museum in Kodiak taught a history and film workshop for middle school and high school students. These students created mini-films about topics related to the history of Filipinos in Kodiak. Kodiak has a large Filipino population; Filipinos comprise around 30% of the population of the city. Most of them were born in the Philippines and came to Kodiak through their service with the US Coast Guard or to work at a local cannery.

Yet there are local Filipinos who are second or third generation American citizens. Their relatives came to Alaska in the early 1900s to work in salmon canneries. Some of these early Filipino cannery workers were pensionados, or students from the Philippines who attended university in the US. Others were taking advantage of their new status as American nationals to find work in the US. Recall that after 1898, the Philippines became a US territory at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. Although Filipinos were not citizens, as US nationals they could immigrate to and work in the US. To discover a bit more about this early history, see this blog post.

During the film intensive, high school senior Olivia Bennett focused on the story of one such national, Denis Rodill. Denis worked at the Alaska Packers Association’s Larsen Bay cannery during the 1915 season. His image is captured within the Nichols Family Collection of photographs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library. In these photographs, Filipino cannery workers are in the midst of a Fourth of July celebration that included a parade and a pageant. Yet none of the workers are identified in the photographs.  It took Denis’s daughter, Diane, to identify her father as one of the merrymakers. The short film highlights a portion of Denis’s incredible story, which Diane is in the process of documenting. Although it seems at this point that Denis only spent one summer in an Alaskan cannery, Diane’s research has highlighted what Alaskan historians long have attempted to articulate: our ports are international crossroads. By extension, canneries have often served as economic border crossings- the first place through which many new immigrants have passed.