AHS Blog

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.



Common Waters

Date Posted: April 15, 2013       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: Anthony Dimond, Bristol Bay, Japan, salmon, W.C. Arnold

By: Ross Coen

When it came to Alaska fisheries, Anthony Dimond and W. C. Arnold didn’t see eye-to-eye very often. As the territory’s congressional delegate from 1933 to 1945, Dimond advocated local fisheries management, a hiring preference for Alaska residents, and the abolition of fish traps. As lawyer and lobbyist for the Seattle-based packing industry, Arnold opposed all of those things.

On at least one point, however, the two men were in full agreement.

In July 1937 at least ten and possibly as many as thirty Japanese fishing vessels entered Bristol Bay intent on catching salmon. They had neither license nor permission from the U.S. Fisheries Bureau to be there, but the Japanese government insisted the vessels were engaged only in a scientific research program. Alaska fishermen observed and photographed the Japanese crews harvesting large quantities of salmon, however. The outraged Alaskans estimated the catch of one factory trawler alone at 20,000 fish, a number that could only be for commercial, not scientific, purposes.

Both Dimond and Arnold—not to mention every other American with an interest in the Alaska fishing industry—supported political and diplomatic strategies that would exclude the Japanese from domestic fisheries. Dimond proposed extending the boundary of territorial waters as much as four hundred miles, a distance that would enclose all offshore waters over the continental shelf.

The Taiyo Maru, a Japanese factory vessel, and auxiliary
 trawler in Bristol Bay in July 1937

The 1937 controversy, for essentially the first time, aligned the interests of Alaskans and non-resident fish corporations. Just six packing companies accounted for well over half the annual Bristol Bay salmon pack at that time, a degree of corporate monopolization and attendant political power that infuriated Alaskans in normal times. But since the Japanese “invasion” might lead to a fishery collapse that would endanger the livelihoods of all stakeholders equally, common cause was not hard to find.
Arnold concurred with Dimond on the key points regarding the territorial boundary. The canned salmon industry had opposed Dimond for years and contributed heavily each election cycle to the campaigns of his Republican opponents. But now, Arnold wrote a letter to Dimond stating the packers were “deeply appreciative of your efforts.”

Political historians have tended to view Alaska residents and the Outside cannery owners as opponents with little to no common ground—or common waters, I should say. The statehood movement in particular has been characterized in terms of this conflict. Although such a focus is by no means misplaced, the 1937 Japanese fishing crisis shows an overlap in the interests of the two stakeholder groups was at times possible. As Alaska historians bring a renewed focus to the history of canneries, we would do well to consider interpretations that challenge previously accepted orthodoxy.

Canning Salmon at Excursion Inlet, Alaska: The First Century

By: Jim Mackovjak, Gustavus, Alaska

The first cannery in what was officially known as the Icy Strait District of Southeast Alaska was not at Excursion Inlet, but at Bartlett Cove, in Glacier Bay. The Bartlett Bay Packing Company operated for only three years, 1889 through 1891, before it was closed because of overcapacity and consolidation in the industry. In 1900, the Western Fisheries Company constructed and operated a cannery at Dundas Bay. The cannery operated almost continuously under various ownerships until it was permanently shuttered in 1931.[i]

The story of today’s cannery at Excursion Inlet began at Haines in February 1906 with the purchase by the Bellingham, Washington-based Pacific American Fisheries Company (PAF) of the Alaska Fisheries Union salmon cannery. A second cannery, that of the Astoria & Puget Sound Canning Company (APSC), was also located at Haines.

PAF’s purchase of the Haines cannery—the company’s first venture into Alaska’s fisheries—seems to have been untimely, because that year there was a great shortage of sockeye salmon in Lynn Canal. Of the five species of Alaska salmon, sockeye were by far the most desired by canners. The Canal’s principal sockeye streams, the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers, had been, in the words of a federal fisheries official, “fatally overfished.”[1][ii]To secure sufficient salmon to operate their plants, the operators of the two canneries at Haines brought in trap-caught fish from Icy Strait, nearly a hundred miles away. With Lynn Canal’s salmon runs depleted, there was little incentive to maintain operations at Haines, but very good reason to move closer to their salmon traps. The cost of transporting salmon would be reduced, and, since fish in transport at that time were not iced, spoilage would be reduced as well. PAF acquired a cannery site on the northeast shore of Excursion Inlet, in what the company called the “justly famous Icy Straits fishing district,” in 1907. The following year, it erected a cannery building, and, with the canning equipment from the Haines plant, began canning salmon. PAF was not alone in its new location: APSC, its former neighbor in Haines, also established and operated a cannery at Excursion Inlet in 1908, at a site just south of the PAF cannery. APSC’s “Glacier Cannery,” as it was called on the trade tokens it issued, did not operate in 1909, but resumed regular canning operations the following year.

In about 1910, Hoonah residents Steve Kane and Oliver Hillman constructed a water-powered sawmill on the west shore of the Inlet, in what became known as Sawmill Bay. Most of the material cut was used to build and repair salmon traps.[iii]The sawmill operated until 1928, and was then dismantled and moved to Hoonah.[iv]

Both of Excursion Inlet’s canneries, it seems, depended almost completely on traps for their supply of salmon. The traps, PAF wrote, allowed a canner to “maintain absolute control of the size of his catch at all times.”[v]Government officials looked favorably on fish traps, mostly because they were stationary and easy to monitor, as opposed to vessels that could enter the mouth of a stream and leave with a load of fish with no one the wiser.[vi]Fishermen resented the traps, which they felt caught too many fish and deprived them of a market for their catch. Robbing them, often with the complicity of paid-off watchmen, was considered good sport and an honorable occupation. Icy Straitwas considered a fertile ground for “fish pirates.”[vii]

There were few restrictions on salmon fishing before the passage of the White Act in 1924,[2]but PAF, nevertheless, managed to run afoul of federal fisheries regulators: Out of a total of 53 indictments of fish trap owners for violations in Southeast Alaskain 1908, PAF accounted for 23. (APSC had 1.) [viii]Over the following decade, the PAF cannery annually operated 16 to 19 traps.[ix]In 1914 there were about 180 salmon traps in all of Southeast Alaska. Of these, fully 20 were between Excursion Inlet and Point Couverden.[x]PAF’s most productive trap, however, was at George Island, in Cross Sound.[xi] The company also operated a pile trap at Pt. Gustavus, at the entrance to Glacier Bay. For a number of years, the trap was operated under a permit from the National Park Service.

A by-products plant was erected at the PAF cannery in 1916 to reduce fish waste into fertilizer and fish oil. The following year, the APSC cannery burned, but was rebuilt in time to operate the following season. In 1918, the PAF cannery had six can lines that could be operated simultaneously. Four were 1-pound tall lines, one was a 1-pound flat line, and the last was a ½-pound flat line.[xii]

The PAF and APSC canneries both canned salmon each year through 1931. The PAF cannery did not operate for the 1932 or 1933 seasons, but resumed canning for the 1934 season.[xiii]The pack at the APSC cannery in 1932 was 80,500 cases.[3]In 1935, PAF closed its cannery and with APSC began joint operations as Consolidated Fisheries.[xiv]Though its cannery would never operate again, PAF still owned 8 salmon traps in the area.[xv] In 1937 and 1938, Consolidated Fisheries was listed as operating 10 floating traps and 3 pile traps, and almost certainly purchased some fish from seine boats.[xvi]In 1939, only the APSC cannery was listed as operating, but it may have also canned PAF fish under contract.[xvii]In 1941, the APSC cannery’s pack was nearly 160,000 cases.[xviii]

World War II brought big changes to Excursion Inlet. In August 1942, construction began on an army shipping base just south of the APSC cannery. To produce an adequate supply of canned salmon with a minimum utilization of critical materials, manpower and, shipping facilities, a 1943 government directive ordered canneries to consolidate operations. As had been the case during previous years, the APSC cannery canned fish for PAF, an arrangement that seems to have continued after the war was over.[xix]The salmon pack at the APSC Excursion Inlet cannery for the years 1945-1947 averaged about 44,500 cases annually.[xx]

In the spring of 1948, the venerable APSC cannery at Excursion Inlet was destroyed by a fire that was said to have started from an oil stove in the watchman’s quarters. Also burned were three warehouses, the oil dock, and a shed that contained 150,000 feet of steel cable that was essential to trap operations.[xxi]This fire ended APSC’s canning history at Excursion Inlet.

Salmon were not canned again at the Inlet until 1951. In January of that year, PAF purchased a 180-foot by 400-foot former Army warehouse building at the Inlet, and not long thereafter entered into a joint venture with the Columbia River Packers Association (later Bumble Bee Seafoods) to form Excursion Inlet Packing Company (XIP). The new enterprise quickly began moving canning machinery into the warehouse building. Though XIP managed to can a few fish that season in the cannery, its pack was mostly made aboard the floating cannery, Neva.[xxii]Full canning operations began with the 1952 season and continue to this day in a building that has proved admirably suited to the purpose.

XIP began operations with one pile trap (Point Gustavus) and five floaters (two at Dundas Bay, one at the southwest end Pleasant Island, one just west of Pt. Adolphus, and one at what is locally-known as Trap Point, on Chichagof Island just east of Port Fredrick).[xxiii]Stan Tarrant, president of PAF, wrote in 1951 of the need to build up a seine fleet of local fishermen, but little seems to have been done.[xxiv]

Ole Syre was the XIP cannery’s first superintendent. Syre had first come to Excursion Inlet in the early 1920s to be superintendent of the APSC cannery, a position in which he remained for about 25 years. In 1957, his son, Bob became superintendent of the XIP cannery. Bob had first come to Excursion Inlet in 1927, when he was nine months old. From that year through 1946, he spent every summer at the Inlet. The young hero of the book Pirates of Icy Strait, a tale of the thwarting of fishermen who were robbing the cannery’s fish traps, seems to have been based on his experiences as a boy.

The canned salmon industry in Alaska had changed little between the time Syre was first brought to Excursion Inlet and when he was made superintendent. It faced a major upheaval, however, with the advent of Alaska’s statehood: fish traps were outlawed in State waters. If the cannery was to continue operating, it would have to secure a reliable supply of fish from independent fishermen. In 1959, the year of Alaska’s statehood, XIP had only five seiners that regularly supplied fish, and none were particularly productive. Fortunately, XIP was able to “buy” a seine fleet from the Pelican Packing Company. A poor salmon run prediction may have precipitated the sale.

The 1960 canning season was a good one at Pelican, and the one-line cannery managed to put up 120,000 cases. The prediction for the following year’s salmon run in northern Southeast Alaska, however, was dismal. Faced with the possibility of operating at marginal capacity, Pelican Packing chose to contract XIP to custom can its fish. Unlike most canneries, Pelican Packing owned no traps, and had based its operation on seine-caught fish from Cross Sound and Icy Strait.

The fish were of excellent quality—they were fresh from the open ocean, still feeding, and showed few signs of the deterioration in appearance and flesh quality that occurs as salmon approach their natal streams. The Cross Sound/Icy Strait fishery had one major drawback: It was an “intercept” fishery. The fish being caught were bound for streams throughout the northern half of Southeast Alaska, and Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) managers could not determine which stocks were being caught. This uncertainty did not mesh with the Department’s efforts to ensure sufficient spawning populations in each of the region’s principal salmon streams.

Many of the seiners who fished for Pelican Packing were Hoonah Natives. The men were legendary in their ability to fish the fast-flowing, often turbulent waters of the Inian Islands area. And they caught a lot of fish. The principal reason they fished for Pelican Packing was because they had no good alternative; Pelican Packing owned the mortgages on their boats.

In 1961, XIP bought out Pelican Packing Company, including the mortgages on the Hoonah seine fleet. A.W. Brindle, of Ketchikan-based Wards Cove Packing Company, financed the purchase and became one-third owner of XIP. The Pelican cannery’s equipment was moved to Excursion Inlet.

Bob Syre saw the need to upgrade the Hoonah seine fleet and soon contracted for the construction in a Seattleshipyard of three new seiners, the Gypsy Queen, Ocean Queen, and Vagabond Queen.[xxv] Under Syre, the company also established a freezing operation and began buying halibut and troll-caught salmon. It also began processing salmon eggs into caviar for the Japanese market.

In 1965, PAF was liquidated and its share in XIP purchased by the two remaining partners. In 1974, the salmon seine fishery in Cross Sound and Icy Strait was terminated by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Up to 400 vessels had annually fished the area. For the cannery at Excursion Inlet, a substantial portion of the fish lost by the closure was made up by fisheries at the HiddenFalls and Douglas Islandsalmon hatcheries, which came on line during the late1970s. Bumble Bee Seafoods pulled out of the XIP partnership in 1983, and Wards Cove Packing became the sole owner of the Excursion Inlet cannery.

Bob Syre remained superintendent of the cannery until 1991. In 2003, the Excursion Inlet Packing Company was sold to its current owner, Seattle-based Ocean Beauty Seafoods (formerly Washington Fish & Oyster).

Of the seven canneries established over the years in the Icy Straitdistrict, only one, Excursion Inlet, remains.[4]It has persisted for a century, through two world wars, the Depression, through good salmon runs and poor ones, through the elimination of salmon traps and other huge changes in the structure of Alaska’s salmon fishing industry. It is among Alaska’s most successful fish processing operations.

[1] The runs later recovered under more restrictive management.
[2] The legislation gave the Secretary of Commerce broad powers with respect to control of the time, place, and method of commercial fishing. 
[3] A case equals 48 1-pound tall cans.
[4] BartlettCove, Dundas Bay, Hoonah, Port Althorp, Pelican, and Excursion Inlet

[i] John N. Cobb, Pacific Salmon Fisheries, Bureau of Fisheries Doc. No. 1092, Fourth Edition (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1930), 445; “Chronological History of Salmon Canneries in Southeastern Alaska,” in 1949 Annual Report, Alaska Fisheries Board and Alaska Department of Fisheries, Report No.1, pg. 31.
[ii] Howard M. Kutchin, Report on the Salmon Fisheries of Alaskain 1906, Bureau of Fisheries (Washington: GPO, 1907), 27.
[iii] “Saw Mill Notice,” Daily Alaska Dispatch (Juneau), March 13, 1911.
[iv] Frank T. Been, “Inspection of Glacier Bay National Monument, Alaska, August 1 to August 27, 1939,” 32. Report on file at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Gustavus, Alaska.
[v] The Shield, May 1957.  Note: The Shield is the “official publication of the employees of Pacific American Fisheries and Allied Companies.”
[vi] Barton Warren Evermann, Alaska Fisheries and Fur Industries in 1913, Bureau of Fisheries Document No. 797 (Washington: GPO, 1914), 46.
[vii] Ward T. Bower and Henry D. Aller, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Sea  Industries in 1920, Bureau of Fisheries Document No. 909 (Washington: GPO, 1921), 29.
[viii] Fisheries of Alaska in 1908, Bureau of Fisheries Doc. No. 645 (Washington: GPO, 1908), 33; Act of June 6, 1924.
[ix] “Hoonah Packing Company,” The Shield, Vol. 1, No. 8 (December 1918): 58. Note: The Shield is the “official publication of the employees of Pacific American Fisheries and Allied Companies.”
[x] E. Lester Jones, Report of Alaska Investigations in 1914, Department of Commerce, Bureau of Fisheries (Washington: GPO, 1915), 6, 14.
[xi]Bob Syre, personal communication with author.
[xii] “Hoonah Packing Company,” The Shield, Vol. 1, No. 8 (December 1918): 58. Note: The Shield is the “official publication of the employees of Pacific American Fisheries and Allied Companies.”
[xiii] Ward T. Bower, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries in 1934, (Washington: GPO, 1935): 30.
[xiv] Robert Syre to Steve Langdon, April 4 and July 18, 1997.
[xv] Ward T. Bower, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries in 1934, (Washington: GPO, 1935): 33.
[xvi] Ward T. Bower, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries in 1938, Appendix II to Report of Commissioner of Fisheries for the Fiscal Year 1939 (Washington: GPO, 1940), 125; A. Morris Rafn (Bureau of Fisheries), Juneau District Annual Report, 1937, pg. 19.
[xvii] Ward T. Bower, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries in 1939, Appendix II to Report of Commissioner of Fisheries for the Fiscal Year 1939, (Washington: GPO, 1941), 135.
[xviii] “Excursion Inlet Cannery Destroyed by Fire,” Pacific Fisherman (May 1948): 71.
[xix] “Concentration Program Announced for Alaska Canned Salmon Industry,” Pacific Fisherman (April 1943): 11-14; “Excursion Inlet Cannery Destroyed by Fire,” Pacific Fisherman (May 1948): 71.
[xx] “Excursion Inlet Cannery Destroyed by Fire,” Pacific Fisherman (May 1948): 71.
[xxi] “Excursion Inlet Cannery Destroyed by Fire,” Pacific Fisherman (May 1948): 71.
[xxii] Stan Tarrant, Pacific American Fisheries, operating recommendations for 1951 salmon season, February 26, 1951; “Excursion Inlet—Back on It Feet Again,” Pacific Fisherman(September 1952): 19; Seton H. Thompson, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries: 1951, Statistical Digest No. 31 (Washington: GPO, 1954), 35.
[xxiii] Seton H. Thompson, Alaska Fishery and Fur-Seal Industries: 1952, Statistical Digest No. 33 (Washington: GPO, 1954), 33.
[xxiv] Stan Tarrant, Pacific American Fisheries, operating recommendations for 1951 salmon season, February 26, 1951.
[xxv] Robert Syre to Steve Langdon, April 4 and July 18, 1997.

Salting Salmon in Taku Inlet

Date Posted: January 26, 2013       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries       Tags: lox, Northwest Fisheries, Polar Fish and Trading Company, salmon, saltery

By: Pat Roppel, copyright held by author

Salmon salteries were usually an establishment of small capital. A cooper, with a handful of tools could go into the woods, fall a few trees, and make barrels. Hoops to hold the barrels together, salt and fishing gear were shipped North. Fishermen, sometimes Natives, harvested sockeye salmon by seines from skiffs in or at the mouth of a fish stream or river. Wooden vats, usually in a rough wooden building, held the fish in salt until they were processed sufficiently to be packed into barrels.

The Taku Riverthat flows into the inlet of the same name sustains a run of salmon. Charles Brown came there in 1882 to salt fish, financed by his partner Peter Eussard, the discoverer of the Treadwell Paris mine. We learn from Brown’s 1884 mortgage that the saltery consisted of houses, sheds, fish tanks and fishing boats. When Brown died in 1889, his estate included the Taku Fisheries, with cabin, smokehouse and shed and three old boats, two fishing nets and some barrels of salmon backs and heads. This is the last mention of Taku Fisheries.

Perhaps Gilbert, Stephens, and Murray used the site in 1891 when the Juneaupaper reported they were ready to ship several tons of dry and salted salmon from the inlet. The next men, Billy Layton and A. Hipe, salted only 15 barrels of salmon bellies in 1894. The following year, J. P. Whitney, the resident manager of Polar Fish and Trading Company, a New York concern, started a saltery, but no more was found about it.

As we can see these were short-lived. Marketing may have been a problem, and shipping expensive.

The next operation lasted longer undoubtedly because it was financed by a company with established markets and access to more fishing gear, Quadra Packing Company with Peter Buschman operated a cannery at Boca de Quadra. It chose Brown’s site at Taku Point near the head of the inlet to establish its saltery in 1898. By 1900 it had a large force of men with gear from Petersburgwhere another cannery had just been constructed. Only red king salmon were salted, and if the kings were white only the bellies were used. A New York City Jewish market had developed. The salt was soaked from the fish, it was smoked, then made into lox.   With two canneries to manage, Buschmann ceased salting at the end of 1901. This was the last operation that solely salted salmon from the Taku River. For a number of years the Taku Harbor cannery salted and mild cured the Inlet’s fish at that facility.

Ron and Nan Schonenbach asked me about Taku Point that they currently own. Bob DeArmond told Ron that J. L. Carlson acquired the site from Buschmann and had the site surveyed in 1902 but did not have it patented. This survey shows the salt house location. The Schoenenbachs located rusting pipes coming from the water source. Carlson had a cannery at Sunny Bayin Taku Inlet and sold it to Pacific Packing and Navigation Company in 1901. After a bankruptcy, Northwestern Fisheries obtained much of the company’s assets including Carlson’s Taku Packing cannery.

The Taku Point site is not listed among these assets. Northwestern Fisheries needed legal title if it wanted to use the Taku Point site.  Part of an 1898 federal law allowed the acquisition of title thought soldiers’ additional homestead rights. This script was used for the most part by the cannery people, who failed or were hampered under the act of 1891 to obtain title to Alaskan land upon which the cannery or saltery was built.

I suspect that Northwestern Fisheries management had James Sackett or his estate apply for the site as a solders’ additional homestead. Ron tells me the federal patent was issued on January 13, 1908 with Northwestern Fisheries Company as the assignee of Sackett’s minor orphan children. 

How long did the company use this site for temporary fishing crews’ quarters, storage of boats and gear? It is on my list of things to research!