by Tim Troll
The first cannery in Bristol Bay was the Arctic Packing Company cannery established at the Yup’ik village of Kanulik on the Nushagak River. It was built in 1883 and produced the first pack of canned salmon from Bristol Bay in 1884 – 400 cases of tall cans – maybe 6000 fish. It was sometimes known as Rohlff’s Cannery after its founder businessman Carl Rohlffs of San Francisco. The name Rohlff survives (often misspelled) on some maps as the name of the slough running in front of the site. The slough was once the main channel of the Nushagak River. Few people living in Bristol Bay today would know the origin of the name Rohlff, or even that this place was the beginning of cannery history in Bristol Bay.
The old photo shows the cannery around 1900. Nothing remains of the cannery as can be seen from a more recent photo taken from the same location. On the small hill above the cannery in the old photo the buildings of the Carmel mission of the Moravian Church can be seen. The mission was established almost contemporaneously with the cannery, and both closed not long after the turn of the last century. Rohlff often helped the mission with shipment of supplies on his cannery ships.
compiled by James Mackovjak
Here are some excellent shorts on seining in Alaska (complete with references) from the 1890s through the 1930s.
1890s: “In 1893, when our company started fishing, we found it very difficult to conduct successful seining operations at Karluk Spit due to large numbers of rocks and boulders in the fishing area which continually snagged the seines. Alaska Packers Association therefore found it necessary to remove these rocks and boulders by dynamite. The work continued over a period of years at enormous expense, with the result that the beaches at this point and adjacent waters were almost entirely cleared of these obstructions. Had the obstructions not been cleared, the purse seiners would have found it extremely difficult to carry on their operations in this area.” (Statement of A.K. Tichenor, Vice President and General Manager, Alaska Packers Association, San Francisco, California, October 9, 1939, reprinted in September 1939 Hearings of Special Subcommittee on Alaskan Fisheries of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, U.S. House of Representatives, p. 247.) http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?u=1&num=257&seq=11&view=image&size=100&id=mdp.39015023148375
1888: “Captain Killeran of the schooner Storey, is reported as saying that he saw [at Karluk in 1888] “drawn with one haul of the seine 31,500 salmon, of an average weight of 9 pounds, aggregating 141 tons of fish.”(Report of the Governor of Alaska for the Fiscal Year 1889, (Washington: GPO, 1889), 19.)
Karluk, 1898: “The fishing is done entirely with seines from 20 to 25 fathoms in length, 3 fathoms in depth, with a mesh of 3-1/2 inches.” (Seal and Salmon Fisheries and General Resources of Alaska, 1898, p. 274.)
1923: “seines from 2,500 to 3,000 feet long were towed and dragged around by powerful towboats and hauled in by steam donkeys on the beach, 300 feet from the mouth of the [Karluk] river.” (Statement of Ottar Hofstad, October 11, 1939, reprinted in September 1939 Hearings of Special Subcommittee on Alaskan Fisheries of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, U.S. House of Representatives, p. 262.) http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?view=image;size=100;id=mdp.39015023148375;page=root;seq=271;num=262
Purse seine in Southeast Alaska. “It was done by small purse seine boats. We had no gas boats then, however, gas engines were just coming into operation and use. They had two little open boats with a small engine in them, and they towed around a big flat skiff, and the purse seine was operated by a small hand winch.” (P.J. Watkinson, Kodiak Alaska, 1938 Congressional hearing on Alaska Fisheries, p. 192. See Moser, 1897 for Karluk seining, around p. 151
“One day a seine fleet might produce very tremendous quantities of fish, enough to swamp or flood the cannery beyond its production facilities. The next day the weather may turn bad, or some other cause may arise, and they may catch nothing.” (W.C. Arnold in Leasing of Salmon Trap Sites, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce and a Subcommittee of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee on S. 1446 and H.R. 3859, Bills to Authorize the Leasing of Salmon Trap Sites in Alaskan Coastal Waters, and for Other Purposes, 80th Cong. 2d. Sess., January 1948, (Washington: GPO, 1948), 86.)
Reconstruction project to incubate business and stimulate rural Alaska economy
History can come in all shapes and sizes. University of Washington PhD student Ross Coen was in Ketchikan in mid-November to give a presentation on the history of the canned salmon industry in Alaska, and to research a subject he’s passionate about, salmon can labels.
Ross Coen admits that he’s a “nerd” when it comes to his interest in salmon can labels. Just like someone might collect baseball cards, there are those who collect labels from fish packers. Coen was at the museum in Ketchikan recently to observe photos, documents and other archival information about the canned salmon industry for his research. He also helped to document and catalog salmon labels in the museum’s collection.
Coen says the canned salmon industry was at its height in the early 1900’s. At that time, refrigeration wasn’t generally available and canning provided an easy way to transport food throughout the world. Coen says part of his fascination with fish packing labels is that they tell a history of time and place.
Researcher Ross Coen views some of the labels in the museum’s collection.
“Each label is a snapshot, a moment in time of history, that reflects the political circumstances, the cultural conditions and economic conditions that were going on at the time that these labels were produced and the salmon was marketed.”
To listen to the story by Maria Dudzak of KRBD Ketchikan Radio click here: