Story last updated at 3/6/2013 - 1:42 pm
It is difficult, when standing on the Ketchikan Creek bridge overlooking Thomas Basin, to see the actual "mouth" of this creek. In the mid-1880s, when vast numbers of pink salmon returned there, they swarmed up a stream that rushed across an extensive tide flat extending over what is today Thomas Basin. Over the years the basin was dredged and much of the Federal building site and the building west of the basin are built on fill that now covers the tide flats.
A small cannery operated near the mouth of the creek from 1886 through the summer of 1889, at which time it burned. At that time, preserving salmon by canning was an expensive business in such a remote area, and the owners did not rebuild.
George Clark, one of the men who had been fishing for the cannery, immediately asked the crews to stay to fish the last of the pink run. He arranged for the Alaska Packers Association cannery at Loring to purchase the fish. Thus, Clark did not have to preserve the fish either by canning or by salting.
Over the next couple years, Clark and his crews fished Ketchikan Creek under this same arrangement. To catch the hordes of returning pink salmon, Clark's crews used drag seines. To operate a drag seine, the men tied one end to a post on the tide flats. Then the net was placed in a skiff and men rowed around a school of fish while one member of the crew played out the seine. Once the net was around the fish and brought to the post, the hard work began as the men dragged the heavy load ashore by hand.
The mouth of Ketchikan Creek was mostly mud and sand after all of the boulders, snags, and drift had been taken away at the beginning of each season. Each time the creek flooded, the men again removed new drift and snags before setting the drag seine.
George Clark had nearly 20 years of experience in mackerel and other fisheries in New England. There the purse seines were in use, and in 1893 he introduced the first purse seine in Tongass Narrows. Other purse seines had been used in this part of Southeast Alaska. Prior to 1893, two were in use for several years at the Yes Bay saltery. One of these was so large it required a small steamer to set it. But the superintendent of the saltery complained to the fisheries agent in 1893 that he could not find sufficient men who knew how to handle a purse seine. Another place where purse seines had been used with good success was at Metlakatla.
Undoubtedly, Clark was aware of these purse seine efforts, and, with his background with mackerel seines, he sent to the East Coast for enough twine to make a seine 150 fathoms long, 17 fathoms deep in the bunt, and 14 fathoms on the wings. This seine was considerably deeper in proportion to its length than a mackerel net to ensure, if the school dove, the salmon still could be captured.
Clark and a crew tied the twine into a seine by hand on site at what at that time was nothing more than a handful of shanties. The men also constructed a seine boat from local timbers. Clark experienced the same crew problems as the superintendent at Yes Bay: none of the men had ever fished anything but a drag seine, so Clark had to drill them how to set the net in deep water, how to purse it without losing the fish out the bottom of the net, and then how to pull a loaded seine by hand back into the boat.
Clark told the fisheries agent in 1893 that he found this method much more economical than the drag seines. But it must not have proved entirely satisfactory because drag seining continued on the tide flats as late as 1901.
In 1893, Clark paid his fishermen, whether they operated the drag or purse seines, the established wages of the time, which was $60 a month for white fishermen and a $1 per day for Native fishermen. With a guaranteed wage, the men were not inspired to hustle with the difficult work. About this time, Clark was forced to accept the custom of paying white fishermen for all salmon caught; 10 cents being the usual amount.
A fisheries official wrote in 1893: "In all fishing communities where fishing is performed on a pay of ten cents per number of fish that made a barrel when salted, much better results follow than when only stipulated wages are given. The constant expectation of good catches stimulates the men with energy, which wages have not the power to bring out. "
In addition to selling the salmon fresh to the Loring cannery, Clark, with his new partner Michael Martin, began to salt salmon in barrels in 1893. The fishermen must have kept the saltery plugged with salmon because when the steamer, the CITY OF TOPEKA stopped on its way south, one of the passengers wrote in his diary:" We landed at Kichican at 9 p.m. and lay there all night loading salmon, leaving at 5 a.m."
Clark and Martin continued to salt salmon caught in Ketchikan Creek until 1898 when the pair went bankrupt and began to sell off its property.
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.