By: Gabe Emerson
(Note: Visit Emerson’s website for much more information about the history of Funter Bay.)
Construction of a salmon cannery began at Funter Bay in 1902, but its story starts a few years earlier. In 1899, a Portland businessman by the name of James Thomas “J.T.” Barron organized the Thlinket Packing and Trading Co. His initial cannery locations were Santa Anna and Point Gerard near Wrangell . Salmon packing was a popular investment opportunity at the start of the 20th century, and Barron quickly sold his Wrangell plants to the Pacific Packing and Navigation Company, a “Salmon Trust” formed in 1901. Barron used the profits from this sale to finance a new cannery at Funter Bay on Admiralty Island.
On December 16 of 1901, Captain Campbell of the vessel Prospector
brought J. T. Barron to Funter Bay to scout cannery locations . Barron liked what he saw, and on January 1st
of 1902 he filed a mining claim for the “Irvington Lode”, a plot of about 12 acres on the Northwest shore . Other than a few token holes, no mining was ever done on this claim, but land laws of the time made this the easiest way to acquire property in Alaska. Barron also used loopholes in the Homestead Act to acquire property along the shores of Chatham Strait, Lynn Canal, and Icy Strait. These “homesteads” were used to base fish traps and cabins for trap watchmen.
Work began in the spring of 1902, with the steamship Yukon bringing supplies to the site on March 7 . Barron purchased the 53’ steam tug Kodat, and contracted with the Juneau Iron Works to do repairs . On May 7 Barron took the Kodat to Funter where it was beached for further modifications into a cannery tender . This vessel was later renamed the Buster, a nickname of both J.T. and his son (and later company Vice President) Robert Barron.
|Thlinket Packing Co cannery in 1907.
Photo by W. H. Case, courtesy of University of Washington Freshwater and Marine Image Bank
“Buster” was also a brand of Pink Salmon packed by Barron. In 1907 a portrait of young Robert appeared on the label, as well as on the cover of that year’s Pacific Fisherman Journal. The company re-incorporated that year as the Thlinket Packing Company with James Barron as president, M.G. Munley as secretary, and C. F. Whitney as sales manager . Munley was a Portland lawyer, district judge, and onetime mayoral candidate who was heavily invested in the company. Whitney had previously been sales manager of the New York Life Insurance Co.
Another 1907 event was the visit of Skagway photographer W. H. Case that August .His photos were used as postcards and publicity material, and even appeared on the company letterhead. Several of these photos are shown below.
|Steam tug Anna Barron tending a pile trap at the
Kitten islands outside Funter Bay, from a 1907 Case & Draper postcard.
Employment in the early years included many local Tlingit people, perhaps the background for the company’s name. In the first year (which may have included construction crews), it was reported that there were 65 white workers, 30 native Alaskans, and 38 Chinese workers . A 1905 description notes that the cannery employed 73 men, “All Indians except the superintendent and perhaps a half dozen Chinamen”. The men got 20 cents per hour, and children, including “one little boy eight years old who worked 9 hours every day”, received 10 cents per hour. In addition to canned product for the American market, wooden barrels or “tierces” were packed with salted salmon for export (Dog salmon to Japan and Kings to Germany) . Ironically, by 1906 the seasonal labor seemed to be more Chinese than Tlingit, a local paper noted that the steamship Cottage City had brought 73 Chinese laborers to Funter Bay that spring . The Tlingits were pushed out of their former fish camp adjacent to the cannery, and the site was used for an expanded saltery operation.
|Salmon being brailed from the trap,
from a 1907 Case & Draper postcard.
The cannery grew quickly during the first decade of the 20thcentury, and was sometimes described as the “Largest in Alaska” . The plant had a salmon pack every year from 1902 to 1931, and often came first in volume of cases sent South. As with other Southeast industries, cargo in and out was handled by flag-stop service with any of the steamship companies serving the area. Several times each year, commercial steamers from various companies would divert from their normal routes to pick up packed salmon or deliver supplies and workers. The cannery experimented with handling their own shipments, using the 203’ clipper ship General Fairchild as a barge in 1915 . This must have proved uneconomical, as the Fairchildwas sold in 1917 and the company returned to using commercial transport. Smaller boats used as cannery tugs or tenders included the Robert Barron, the Barron F, and the Anna Barron (named after James’ daughter). Barron’s children and his wife Elizabeth frequently joined him at Funter Bay for the summers, as did Judge Munley’s family.
|Funter Bay cannery in 1973, courtesy of Phil Emerson.
Competition for salmon was fierce, with fishermen and packers using tactics both legal and otherwise to defend what they felt were their rights. In 1904 at the request of multiple cannery owners, President Roosevelt dispatched the revenue cutter Perryto Funter Bay, where two Japanese fishing vessels were seized and the crews deported . Independent fishermen hated traps, rightly considering them to catch too many fish and reduce future runs. Some turned to fish piracy, using stealth, bribery, or outright armed robbery to thwart watchmen and rob traps. Piracy became so bad that the Thlinket Packing Co. began hiring military veterans as guards. In 1919 several packers again teamed up to request government support, and the US Navy sent patrol vessels to the area . While packers banded together to fight certain rivals, their relations were not always friendly. Competitors sometimes “jumped” trap sites, a tactic analogous to claim jumping a mine. During the 1911 fishing season, J.T. Barron had just purchased land and begun installing a fish trap at Lizard Head, South of Funter Bay. When he left the territory on business, a rival company quickly built their own trap in front of his property. This led to a heated lawsuit which Barron eventually lost, the court ruling that land ownership did not include tidewater rights .
|Fairbanks-Morse gasoline engine at the former cannery site.
The next few decades saw changing fortunes for the Thlinket Packing Co. In 1917 at age 22, V.P. Robert Barron drowned at an Army training camp while trying to rescue fellow cadets . Salmon runs in 1915 were reported at record breaking numbers, with 140,000 cases packed at Funter Bay . However, the results of overfishing soon became apparent, with the cannery struggling to fill 25,000 cases in 1919 . In 1920 the cannery changed its name again, replacing “Company” with “Corporation” in an apparent fundraising bid . In 1926 the cannery, traps, and boats were sold to Sunny Point Canning, which became the Alaska Pacific Salmon Corporation in 1929. J.T. Barron
seems to have retained an interest in the property until his death in 1941.
Water was an ongoing issue at the cannery. Large volumes were required for steam generation, washing, and cooking the product. Even before finalizing his land survey, Barron had begun putting in water pipes at the site in 1901. The Thlinket Packing Co eventually built a network of redwood-stave pipes through the forest to several nearby streams, storing water in tanks and reservoirs on the property. Lack of water may seem a strange problem to residents of rainy Southeast Alaska, but this was the reason given for the cessation of packing operations in 1931 .
|Cannery tender wreck at Funter Bay.
After closing, the cannery buildings were used for storage and trap maintenance, until fish traps were outlawed at Alaska statehood. The P. E. Harris co, a former competitor, purchased the mothballed property in 1941; this company later became Peter Pan Seafoods .
During WWII, the run-down buildings were re-occupied by Pribilof natives who were forced from their homes by the US government. Evacuation was ostensibly for protection from Japanese invaders in the Aleutians, but the army also wanted to demolish village infrastructure which could aid the enemy. The evacuees were dropped off at the cannery with little to no planning, and left largely to fend for themselves with inadequate heat and water. A cemetery at the site attests to the poor care these American civilians received; the casualty rate was higher than that of overseas servicemen .
Despite various on-site watchmen and caretakers, a lack of maintenance eventually led to the collapse of most of the large structures. Local residents salvaged some of the wood for homes and cabins. By the 1990s the property was in an advanced state of disrepair, and most of the remaining structures were razed.
|Salmon scow in the woods.
Today the Funter Bay cannery is mostly gone, with private homes and cabins replacing the former salmon packing operation. A few wrecks around the bay may have been former cannery tenders; the Buster caught fire and sank in Funter Bay in 1926. The Anna Barron sank at Point Couverden around 1931. A Harris Co. boat, the Morzhovoi, also caught fire in the bay in 1955 . At least one former cannery tender survives; the Barron F, now named the Frank F, is currently a fishing boat in San Diego . In the woods at Scow Bay, the cannery’s wooden fish scows can be found rotting into the rainforest on the remains of their winter storage slipways.
Though the structures and vessels are mostly gone, the legacy of the Funter Bay cannery continues in other ways. It brought regular mail service to the community, first with boats and now with seaplanes. The cannery became known as “Funter” and is shown as a town on many maps. Mount Robert Barron above the bay is named in honor of the young company V.P. The company dock and store long served as a social and economic focal point of the area. Today the dock is maintained by the state and is a popular stopover for recreational boaters.
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