Story last updated at 2/27/2013 - 2:33 pm
This was a photograph of the Clark and Martin saltery! Huddled over a desk in the National Archives building outside of Washington D.C., I was pouring over a dusty, original manuscript written by Jefferson Moser. This Naval captain, commanding the U.S. Fish Commission's steamer ALBATROSS, had undoubtedly proof-read these very pages about his voyage to Alaska in 1897.
I turned the fragile, typed pages, and there it was: A photograph of the rickety buildings on the shore of Mink Arm in Boca de Quadra that indents the mainland between the U.S. border and Ketchikan. Because this photograph did not make it into the published version of Moser's trip, it probably had not been seen for more than 100 years.
Salteries have intrigued me since I became interested in Alaska's salmon industry. These establishments flourished in Southeast Alaska after its purchase from Russia, but rapidly declined when canning salmon accelerated about 1912. Today dry-salting salmon is not a commercially viable industry.
For early entrepreneurs, salteries were an advantage because it was a small operation located at the mouth of any salmon stream. A man did not need a great deal of money, like the cannery men did. All an energetic man needed was a good cooper, his tools and barrel hoops to make the wooden barrels the salmon were packed in, and a crew of fisherman. Salt was a costly item.
Such an enterprise suited George Clark and Mike Martin. They chose to locate at the mouth of the outlet stream of Hugh Smith Lake (then called Quadra Lake). Maybe fishermen who had swooped up the salmon for the Cape Fox Packing Company told them about the seemingly endless fish clamoring up the creek. This company had built a cannery on the north shore of Quadra in 1883, moving it in 1886 to a site that became Ketchikan.
With the only commercial fishing establishment gone from Boca de Quadra, this gave free reign to Clark and Martin. Apparently construction began in 1890 on most of the saltery buildings shown in the photograph. Loggers cut down nearby trees and built cabins for the employees. They hauled out piling and drove them as foundations for the saltery buildings. The front of the largest building is covered with shakes. As far as I can make out the roofs, however, were dressed lumber, which was either sawn by hand on site or shipped in from the Puget Sound.
The fishermen, usually Native men, delivered salmon to the largest building. Early on, fish were probably caught with the use of a log barricade (or dam) across the short creek that leads from the lake to salt water. Later purse seines, strung out and pulled in by hand from rowboats, were employed.
In the saltery building, Native women washed, cleaned, split, and removed the backbone from the salmon by hand. The men received $1.50 per day and the women $1. This doesn't sound like much today, but that was the going rate for such laborers - no matter their ethnicity.
In most salteries, the actual salting was done by the owner or owners. However, I am unsure whether Clark and Martin participated in the first years. Later they brought in a salter. The salting was done in big vats that can barely be seen in the large building. The salmon halves were individually laid down, covered with salt, and another layer put on top until the vat was filled.
Salt was the most expensive item. When I was reading a journal written by a man aboard the commercial steamship TOPEKA in 1894, his July 22 entry read "After Mary Island, went up Boca de Quadra to Clark and Martin's saltery and discharged 60 tons of salt." That's equivalent to about 200,000 of those round containers we buy in the store today.
Once the majority of the moisture had been drawn off the fish in the vats, the workers repacked them in barrels. These were made on site possibly in the building on the left where a large wooden, circular vat and some barrels can be seen. Or it could have been in the structure directly behind.
Cooperage was a profession in those early days when so much of the food (salt beef, flour, butter, etc.) was containerized in barrels. Clark and Martin hired a cooper who brought his tools to Mink Arm. Someone else may have fallen the trees he needed, but he split off and shaped staves and put the barrels together with metal barrel hoops shipped up on steamships that made calls with freight many places along its route. The cooper also made the rounded ends and put in a bunghole. The fish, re-salted, sometimes continued to make brine and the excess liquid was drained out of this hole. The barrels of dry-salted fish were then stored until a sufficient number were on hand to request a steamer stop.
Clark and Martin salted red salmon until competition arrived. In 1896, a cannery was constructed across Mink Arm on the western shore. That year the pair did not operate the saltery and sold sockeyes to the cannery.
The next year Clark and Martin salted humpback or pink salmon instead. In the decade before 1900, pink salmon were considered undesirable. The public wanted the bright red color when it opened a salmon can. Salters, however, found that they could sell the rich, oily bellies. The remainder of this abundant fish was thrown away. This waste became illegal after 1906.
That year of 1897, when the photograph was taken by H. C. Fassett, the saltery produced 700 barrels of bellies. It also put up 50 barrels of cohos, again a salmon not often canned, and when it was, it was marketed under the species name "Medium Red."
That year, competition for the fish escalated. The canneries at Loring, Metlakatla, and Quadra fished near the Quadra Lake stream with fourteen seines from 200 to 240 fathoms in length. Clark and Martin fishermen used two purse seines, one 225 fathoms and the other 240 fathoms. Jefferson Moser commented in his 1897 report "If fishing is continued as extensively as at present, it would seem that a large reduction in the catch must follow."
Clark and Martin quit using the saltery at the end of the 1897 season. The competition undoubtedly contributed to this decision. However, the pair had begun to salt fish in Ketchikan about 1894 where they also had a general mercantile store. To do so, the men mortgaged both these operations and the one at Quadra. The Ketchikan saltery was much larger: in 1896 it packed 2,700 barrels. In 1897, the saltery used nearly a half-million pink salmon to pack bellies.
Becoming larger did not prove to be a smart move by Clark and Martin. Their partnership developed financial difficulties from which it never recovered.
When Moser returned in 1901 to continue his investigations, he found the Quadra buildings had tumbled down through decay, and the place was practically abandoned. In the photograph we can see that the larger building, even in 1897, had to be shored up to keep it from collapsing.
When husband Frank and I fished the eastern shoreline of Mink Arm more than 80 years later, the forest had reclaimed the area. We also walked along the creek to Hugh Smith Lake (Quadra Lake). There was nothing visible to show that people had once carried on a busy life during salmon season in this remote part of Southeast Alaska.
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.