Story last updated at 1/23/2014 - 11:55 am
Remote canneries peppered Southeast Alaska in the days before transporting salmon in refrigerated vessels allowed processors to move operations closer to towns. The Bay of Pillars on the west coast of Kuiu Island was home to one of these canneries. This was one of the first locations to be fished in the southern part of Chatham Strait because of a stream that supported a run of sockeye salmon. The first cannery in the bay opened in 1890 and another was constructed in 1902.
It was the latter cannery and the herring reduction plant that Arlene Pickrell, her son Randi and I explored in 1972. None of us knew what to expect. As our Ketchikan Air float plane circled, we could see below us prominent red buildings, a long dock with a scattered array of machinery and boards, collapsed buildings in the circle of a small cove, and numerous red buildings scattered throughout the brush.
"Look at all the buildings. I didn't think there were that many," Pickrell said.
Pilot Don Ross smoothly landed on the water.
Once ashore with our gear, we decided it didn't seem like a good idea to set up camp in this location because of the proximity of a sockeye stream and maybe bears. The only suitable building was down the beach necessitating climbing over some of those "pillars" of rock. Pickrell had a map that identified some of the buildings, and she decided that our new home was the bunkhouse for the herring reduction plant employees.
We began the long trek from the cannery dock to our dry camp, not once but three times with all our gear.
After dropping off our gear, we headed for the site of the cannery complex. The actual canning building was gone. Wesley Walker razed it possibly around 1967. There was generally clear fir lumber in the older canneries and through arrangement with owner Fidalgo Island Packing, Walker tore down the building and some of the warehouses and sold the lumber.
My father-in-law Bob Roppel told me that he was part of the crew that went to Pillar Bay in 1961 for FIP to remove canning machinery. The machinery was taken to Ketchikan and eventually wound up in Port Graham in northern Alaska. The only canning equipment that we found was two big retorts. Bob Roppel told me these were so heavy they could not be easily moved. Randi Pickrell opened one, and we peered into the long empty chamber that once pressure-cooked millions of cans of salmon.
Pillar Bay Packing Company, based in Whatcom, Washington, built and operated this cannery in 1902. The plant was sold to Fidalgo Island Packing Company in 1918 and operated continuously except for the lean canning years of 1921 and 1922, until 1947. According to my father-in-law, a watchman was kept in residence until around 1970. That year it was Pappy and Helen Blanchard who lived on Gravina Island.
We followed portions of a decaying boardwalk, past a rotting barge before pushing our way through head-high fireweed. Here, we found the China house where the Chinese contract laborers lived. It was exactly the same as the one we had chosen, only this was damper and full of broken glass. There was no evidence that Chinese had boarded there.
The China house looked onto Kwatahein Creek (Trout Creek in Tlingit). I wondered if this was the site of the 1890 canning operations when Astoria and Alaska Packing Company moved from Pavlof Harbor (Freshwater Bay) on the east side of Chichagoff Island. It packed only 8,000 cases that year, increasing the pack to 16,200 the following year.
Then, the greatest fear a cannery owner can have happened. The cannery burned on May 1, 1892. One building remained and John H. Mantle, of Wrangell, operated a saltery there at least through 1900.
After a quick glance, we started through the salmonberry bushes to more buildings. Most seemed to be small residences, and there was another bunkhouse that had totally collapsed. I found the location of a water tank. A ladder led to the top of the staging so I climbed up for a view (I was young and infallible in those days). The stave tank itself had fallen, strewing boards on the ground all around the base. In the woods I could see a wooden pipe that supplied water for the canning operations.
I returned to look at can labels in a shack near the dock. The floor was a mass of unused, one-pound labels: Red Star, Tulip, Clematis Fancy for pinks; Sweet Pea for cohos; Lynx for chums; Golden Scepter for kings; and Heather-Bell for reds. There were also half-pound labels: Myrtle for pinks and Sweet Pea and Orchid for "Alaska Medium Red." This was a branding strategy to get people to buy cohos, with the hope the consumer would believe it was a kind of sockeye salmon.
The three of us explored the Native cottages. All the roofs had fallen onto the few furnishings left behind - metal bed frames, stools and tables, and a rusty stove. Behind each cottage we found a smoke house. They were all built much the same. A framework of poles was covered with corrugated, galvanized sheeting, some of it still shiny, but mostly rusty. The fire was built on bare ground, and in the center of the roof was a smoke hole much like those that Natives used in tribal homes in days gone-by.
At low tide, Randi Pickrell and I walked the beach that was littered with barnacle-encrusted machine parts, wheels, pipes and odd-shaped things with a use we could not figure out.
It was late afternoon, so we headed to our bunkhouse. I threw the debris left by previous campers into a pile in a corner. Arleen Pickrell found a part of a broom and swept up the incredible number of nails. It began to rain and my unused tent sat in the corner.
Randi Pickrell hauled firewood for the small metal stove, which stood by a window. The smoke went out a pipe, and the wind blew it back in the broken window. It wasn't until the following morning, that Randi Pickrell moved the cold stove, and we were able - when the wind didn't squirrel around - to sit beside it in comfort. Arlene and I sipped on Tang mixed with white wine. It was better than we expected.
Our plan for the next day was to explore the herring reduction plant.