Story last updated at 3/13/2013 - 2:06 pm
The Cutting Packing Company, a San Francisco-based corporation, built one of the first two canneries in Alaska in 1878. Although two canneries were built and operated that season, the facility at Klawock is often called the first cannery in Alaska. It appears that the one at Klawock holds the honor of being the "first" because it put salmon in the cans before Cutting Packing did later in the season.
At the time Cutting Packing and North Pacific Packing Company (Klawock) started in the Alaska salmon canning industry, there were 10 canneries on the Sacramento River and 29 on the Columbia River, with only one on Puget Sound. It was a major speculation to venture as far as Alaska went.
Only an experienced packer would decide to take the first step. Francis Cutting started in the food packing business in the San Francisco Bay area with pickles in glass jars eventually going to tin plate cans. He moved to the Columbia River around 1875 to enter the salmon business. Cutting Packing Co. later began to extend its season by canning beef for English and German markets. Over the years the number of cases of salmon packed in his Columbia River plant began to dwindle as the intensity of the fishing on the river increased.
Cutting Packing may have learned about the salmon resources of Alaska through George Pilz, a Sitka entrepreneur who grubstaked the men who discovered gold that lead to the founding of Juneau. In his unpublished Reminiscences at the Alaska Historical collections, he said he "saw all the fish there during mining experience and tried to get Cutting Packing Co. to go in with him, but they were scared off by the talks they had with Alaska Commercial Company." He said that he asked Cutting Packing officials to find him a crew and let him buy a canning outfit. He then arranged to have the cannery erected and operated.
Not so, Bob DeArmond, the noted Sitka historian told me. He felt that "virtually every story of Pilz's was a fabrication, and it is doubtful that he had anything to do with canneries."
In a report about the cannery, written in 1878, to the federal government by Wm. Gouverneur Morris, special agent of the U.S. Treasury Department, does not mention Pilz. Morris states that Cutting Packing Company communicated with him asking permission to occupy one of the government buildings in Sitka, with the ability to purchase it if the government wished to dispose of it. The Treasury Department officials explained to Morris that this was irregular. A request had to be presented directly to the department instead of to Morris, stationed in Sitka, or otherwise it would not be considered. Morris suggested to Thomas Heath of Cutting Packing that he write directly to the Secretary of the Treasury.
Apparently Heath did so and was turned down. Crews began to construct buildings at what today is known as Old Sitka near the present Alaska State ferry terminal.
Superintendent Hunter, formerly with Eagle Cliff Fishing on the Columbia River, brought all the machinery and supplies and a Chinese crew north. As soon as the local Natives saw the Chinese, they rushed for the "heathens," according to Morris' account. A chief made a speech to the young Native men that the Chinese must not be allowed to land. Hunter had been instructed not to put ashore a pound of material unless there was no prospective danger. The owners were under the impression a U.S. Revenue cutter was stationed at Sitka. There was but she was not in Sitka when Hunter arrived.
Hunter vacillated whether to abandon the enterprise. Morris is unclear in his report whether Hunter actually told the Natives or thought about telling them that the Chinese were there just to make tin cans and after they were finished would be sent away. In any case, the Natives had a lengthy, intense discussion and finally allowed Hunter to use the Chinese during the season. The Natives fished and sold the salmon to the cannery.
Cutting Packing packed 2,757 cases that first season and 5,855 in 1879. This was the last year the cannery operated in Sitka. Perhaps packing ceased because in 1878, the stock of canned salmon in the United States was very large, and weak holders began to cut prices in order to recoup some of their expense money. Nearly all the salmon was bought up by speculators. A new product from a new area was probably not in demand.
Pilz's memoirs give this reason for the cannery's demise: " ...but when I tried to bring them [cases] into the market, nobody wanted Alaska salmon. Of course, it was the influence of the Alaska Commercial Company, what done it and I never sold a case. I lost $30,000 in the attempt." Alaska Commercial Company at that time was only shipped salted salmon in barrels. Cutting Packing already had a distribution system out of Astoria. This lends credence to DeArmond's theory that Pilz had no involvement in the Sitka cannery.
At the Bancroft Library of the University of California Berkeley, there is an oral statement taken from an unidentified person about this company. The reason for ceasing to operate was "The supply of fish was found to be irregular, owing to that, and the high freight and the uncertainty of communications, the site was abandoned as a canning place." He added: "The condition of Alaska has not been encouraging. The amount of capital required to (procure a) business is very large and payments on all materials has to come from some source five months in advance of getting any money from the product. And the necessary transportation of men and wages, repairing machinery, getting fresh supplies make it necessary to carry a great deal of surplus stores."
In 1882, the company sold the machinery to Alaska Packing Company, also of San Francisco, for installation in the first Cook Inlet cannery at Kasilof. As for the building, Alonzo Austin, a missionary, started a home and school for Native boys. Austin took some of his boys to the old site, tore down the buildings and took the lumber to town where it was put together to become the first two building of Sheldon Jackson school.
It was many years before Sitka was home to another salmon cannery.
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.