Story last updated at 2/13/2013 - 2:48 pm
Speculating as I search the forest for artifacts at an abandoned place is a special treat for me. What was this piece of equipment used for? Why are those fragments of pottery at this spot? Was it a home or a bunkhouse? Instead, did a workman drop a cup or a plate under the boardwalk? What was built on these pilings?
Having said that, you can imagine how excited I was in 2008 when Chuck Mobley asked me what I knew about the Burnett Inlet cannery site and accepted my proposal that I needed to accompany him to explore. Mobley, an independent archaeologist from Anchorage, had a contract to examine the sites where the Aleuts were placed after evacuation from the Aleutian Islands during World War II. In Southeast Alaska, the Aleuts were housed at Burnett Inlet after temporarily being at Wrangell Institute. Other sites were at Ward Lake in Ketchikan, Funter Bay, and Killisnoo near Angoon. Becky Saleeby, an archaeologist with the National Park Service's Regional Office in Anchorage, accompanied us.
Burnett Inlet is on the southwest coast of Etolin Island off Clarence Strait, west of Wrangell. The cannery buildings were inside the entrance on a peninsula that forms Cannery Cove. As our chartered floatplane circled the site, we could see a series of pilings along a sloping gravel beach on the west side of the small, protected cove. However, this was not where the cannery buildings were constructed on piling. They were facing the mouth of Burnett Inlet and deep water for the supply ships to navigate.
Sanborn Cram Company, organized in South Bend, Washington, incorporated on Feb. 15, 1912 to construct a cannery in Southeast Alaska. The trustees were from South Bend except for B. F. Armstrong of Wrangell, George W. Sanborn of Astoria, and W. S. Cram of Raymond. The latter two had been involved with salmon packing on the Columbia River for a number of years.
It must have been a wild scene of activity as men, brought forth by ship in February, unloaded building materials and equipment from ships, and pile drivers set up piling foundations for the main buildings. I envision carpenters, mechanics, and machinists scurrying around between the various construction projects. Amazingly, the cannery was completed in time to pack 22,170 cases that first year. The one-pound cans were labeled with the following brands: Knighthood, Peter Pan, Red Raven, and Turret. Each year until the end of 1917, the size of the pack continued to grow as newly developed equipment was installed. For instance, in 1917, 47,700 cases were packed - more than double the pack five years earlier.
For some reason in 1918, Washington State insisted that Sanborn Cram Co. change its name to comply with that state's law. It became Burnett Inlet Packing Company, with Adolph Hall as manager. He was a pioneer Willapa Harbor cannery superintendent before joining Sanborn Cram Co. The label brands changed at that time to Barnes, Defender, Good Living, Cable, Dollar, Lincoln Rock, and Bluebell. Karen Hofstad has a Navy Peak label for choice pink salmon with the company name on it. A stylized version of a peak in Burnett Inlet is shown on the graphics.
The newspapers and trade magazines did not tell me much about what was going on at the Burnett cannery during the summer season other than company officers and size of the pack. In 1925, Superintendent Hall was replaced by Albert Thompson and the following year Thompson was replaced by Leonard Sundblad. Hall left because of an ulcerated stomach that caused his death in 1928.
By 1930, the packs had decreased to below what it had previously been. The owners sold the two-line cannery to Alaska Pacific Fisheries of C. A. Burkhardt, who planned to consolidate his other operations at the Burnett Inlet cannery. Ole P. Nergaard, long associated with Burkhardt, was placed in charge. Not all went as outlined. The cannery was closed from 1931 through 1936. Trade magazines suggested it was principally due to unfavorable market conditions.
In 1937, a new company under the corporate name Burnett Inlet Salmon Co. purchased, reconditioned, and operated the cannery. This company was made up of Ole P. Nergaard, Martin Kildall, and A. R. Brueger, the latter of Wrangell. The cannery continued to fill cans with salmon until the fateful night of Nov. 20 or 21, 1940. Fire broke out and destroyed the main cannery buildings, the store, and warehouses, as well as the superintendent's dwelling.
By 1944, all the machinery that was still usable had been removed. The docks and remaining buildings were in fair condition and were used as warehouses for storage for Brueger's Wrangell operations.
In 2004, Jane Smith, Wrangell/Petersburg USFS archaeologist, mapped the locations of most of the remains, and she shared this with Mobley. Even with this, we quickly saw that trees and brush consume a site in 64 years and made for bushwhacking!
Saleeby and I were interested in the domestic remains lying on the mossy, needle-covered ground: flowered-bordered plate fragments, heavy white crockery pieces - some from the cups that were ubiquitous to the cannery mug-up rooms. At a site behind the cannery, we found three bed frames, fragments of white plates and colored glass from bottles, numerous broken clear jars with screw rings like those used for canning, parts of a small two-inch white jar with a corroded metal screw top, rusted gray enameled pans and cups, a shovel, leather shoe parts, a red boot part that I wanted badly to say definitely was a "Goodrich red-rubber pack." Saleeby identified two bones as coming from sea mammals. An enormous knucklebone from beef cattle, probably for soup, would have come from a supplier either in Wrangell or South.
There were numerous small buildings with tar paper or corrugated iron roofs collapsed into shapes that made it difficult to determine size or use. Most often they resembled a pile of green, moldy pick-up sticks. (Remember that game?) One building was very easy to identify: the dog house had been lovingly constructed and had a rounded front entrance with molded trim. Among the rotting floor timbers and walls, we often found remains of small, iron, wood-burning stoves. On one oven door were the words "COMPETITION F.S.L.M.F. CO. Seattle." Were these used by the Aleuts? Forest Service records state that the Aleuts helped build 11 cottages. Many blue 50-gallon drums were strewn about. Did the Aleuts also have oil-burning stoves?
For me, the most exciting part was all the old machinery. As the actual cannery building, constructed on piling, burned, all the machinery fell on the gravel beach. None of the remaining pieces looked to me as if they were actual canning equipment. Perhaps those pieces were salvaged if the fire and the dunking in salt water had not made them useless. The only cannery processing pieces found were in the woods: the metal trays used to move and remove the cans from the retorts. None of the heavy retorts were found. I've learned after exploring other cannery sites, retorts were often abandoned as well as boilers. This was an exception.
Mostly the beach was littered with motors parts. Encrusted with popweed and barnacles, machines with wheels for belting and/or fly wheels sat catawampus on the boulders. Endless piles of square-link chain continued to rust. The machine shop, at one side of the cannery building, dumped its equipment onto the rocks. A lathe, covered with barnacles, lay on its side. Embossed on it was the name "Fay & Scott Dexter, Maine." This family-run company specialized in plain turning, pattern-maker lathes.
Tangles of black web wound around the rocks and the timbers from one of the warehouses. A metal drum mounted in a 6 x 6-foot rectangle perhaps was used in the web loft to treat webs for fish traps.
Among the hemlock trees inside the beach line, a huge steam boiler sits in its rusty-red glory. Nearby are a few tan fire bricks that must have come out of it. On top of a large, maybe 8-foot-tall piece of concrete, sits a large piece of rusty equipment with fly wheels. Looking at my photographs, husband Frank thought it might be part of an air compressor or a diesel engine on a foundation that had gone up through the floor so the machine was in the cannery building.
Mobley found an enormous cedar (wider than my outspread arms) with two short boards tacked up its trunk and a staple driven farther up. We wondered, because of its size, if it had been a fairly large tree during the cannery days. If so, the radio antenna could have been placed on it. My research notes say that a wireless was installed at the cannery in 1912.
Canneries needed a source of water. Mobley showed me remains of two round, wooden stave storage tanks behind the cannery. Nearby was a "Gould's" pump base, manufactured in "Seneca Falls, U.S." The Internet shows that the company is still in business! Throughout the site, there were pieces of galvanized one-inch water pipe, and at one domestic site, some two-and three-inch iron pipes. Water had to have come from some nearby creek.
We tried to locate this source in Cannery Cove. A stream tumbles down a gully on the eastern side, but it seemed small to provide sufficient water. Although I did not climb up the hill to the top where light was visible through the trees. I found no iron or wire-bound, wood stave pipes. Several two-inch rusty iron pipes crossed the tide flats at the head of the bay. Beside a rock pinnacle we found a reduction valve, but time was too short to locate the pipe again at the cannery site. Perhaps this pipe led to the water tanks?
Other canneries my husband Frank and I have visited, such as Point Warde and Santa Ana near Wrangell, had much larger water sources. We always find much piping for transporting the water to the buildings. The water source for Burnett Inlet cannery remains a mystery in my mind.
There were other rows of piling in Cannery Cove. One on the west side near the head looks much like the kind used to store wooden fish scows out of the water during the off-season. Directly at the head, Mobley found rows of piling cut off or eaten off by teredos at below-tide line. He had a photograph loaned by an Aleut family that had lived at Burnett Inlet. The cabin was built on rows of piling. Mobley and Saleeby began to compare the numbers and placement. From several locations, we looked at the site's sky line and found both matched fairly well. This was the only site they felt could be attributed to the Aleuts' stay.
In April 1945, 135 Unalaska people were picked up by the Army transport ship DAVID S. BRANCH and, with Aleuts from other Southeast encampments, headed home to the Aleutians. Our float plane, such a different mode of transportation, picked us up on the sloping gravel beach at the end of the day.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at email@example.com.