By: Wallace Fields
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.