Story last updated at 5/7/2014 - 1:22 pm
Pillar Bay, one of the bays indenting Kuiu Island off Chatham Strait, was a busy place for many years. In 1972, Arlene Pickrell and son Randi and I explored the remains of a Fidalgo Island Packing Company facility, as reported in a recent Capital City Weekly. We spent the day wandering through the dilapidated buildings from a cannery operation. Then we camped in the abandoned bunkhouse used for the herring reduction plant workers. The next morning we headed out to see what we could find relating to that operation that produced herring oil and fish meal. Edible, well-cured, fat herring were in demand in Europe and the East Coast. Another market was for pickled herring. FIP started the operation in 1926 and closed it in 1931. It operated spasmodically until the end of the 1948 season.
"Herring oil? Who wanted that?" Randi asked.
The oil was sold to a large group of soap manufacturers as a basic ingredient. The manufacturing process must have removed the fishy smell. As for the meal, it was sold as farm fertilizer and to the animal feed market.
Behind our bunkhouse, through the wet brush, sticky devil's club and salmonberries, we found the Boltite herring oil tanks where the processed oil was stored until it could be shipped south. Nearby were two 35,000-gallon fuel oil tanks on the remains of a dock. Below on the beach was rusting equipment we couldn't identify.
Even at high tide, the building was only a couple feet from the top of the water. We had no boat. At low tide, the building towered above us, too much of a challenge. It would have taken a tall ladder to get above the pilings. At one time the tanks and the plant must have been connected not only with pipes but with a boardwalk to the shore.
The roof had been partially torn off, leaving jagged ends of plank roofing and the loft rafters exposed. A mass of tangled machinery balanced precariously on part of the roof that seemed only to be held up by a rusty 50-gallon drum! Hanging under the roof was one of the five refining tanks, and on closer examination we could see the coils still in place within the tank.
With research before we made the trip, I knew that the plant had used a wet rending reduction process.
Seiners brought herring to the plant. Once fish were inside the building, the process involved cooking, pressing to free the liquid, separating oil and water and screening to separate liquid from solids, recovering the oil and drying the residual meal.
Decanters separated the solids from liquids. Separators split the liquid into oil and water. This process, including grinders for the meal, could process eight to twelve tons of herring per hour.
To produce the meal, grinders chewed up the herring bodies, and the resulting mash was sent to evaporators. Some herring plants used steam dryers: hot-air dryers were also used. In the days before plastic, the dried meal was packaged in cotton or burlap sacks.
In 1926, herring harvest by power seiners in the Chatham Strait area was big business, 80 percent of the catches went through the reduction process and only 20 percent to edible herring. FIP was not the only processor of herring in the area: plants were in most of the larger Chatham Strait bays on Kuiu and Baranof islands.
Louis Hayseth, former superintendent of the company's Anacortes, Wash. salmon cannery, was superintendent. Harry Durkin was foreman that first year. Unfortunately for FIP, it was a bad year to get started in the herring business. This was the lightest pack since 1920. Although there had not been a holdover of products from the previous year, no big run arrived until late in the season, when southeasterly winds tend to hit the exposed end of Baranof Island off Cape Ommaney. Big runs were normally intercepted there, but vessels could not fish in late season storms.
By 1928, FIP continued to operate along with 10 other meal and oil plants in the area. In 1929 FIP sent out only six boats to fish herring because there was still a volume of oil and meal available from 1928. Heavy Norwegian and South Atlantic packs were now on the market. In addition, sardine and pilchard oils, particularly from California, were competing. Then heavy weather and small runs and bigger herring made it a dismal season. Despite this, FIP continued to operate through 1931.
In 1948, an especially good herring season was expected. Eight plants - including FIP - opened, but the herring were scarce and those caught were thin and of low oil content. This was the death knell for the herring processing plant at Pillar Bay.
After we finished exploring, we waited for our 5 o'clock pickup time. It came and went. The ceiling was low and fog hung over the islands at the entrance of the bay. It was socked in at the head of the bay. We played cards beside the fire in our reduction plant bunkhouse. The next morning the sun shone but the weather soon deteriorated and the fog came back. We were pleasantly surprised when our airplane flew through the open pass at the head of the bay.