Story last updated at 5/8/2013 - 3:46 pm
The salmon industry rushed to meet the needs for canned salmon when World War I began to escalate. This became a staple food for the soldiers in the trenches. Because of this, two short-lived canneries were built in 1918 at Washington Bay, which indents Admiralty Island on its northwest shore off Chatham Strait.
The biggest of the cannery was that of Chatham Straits Packing Company. It was organized in 1917 by Juneau people, chief among them businessman Henry Shattuck. He started Icy Straits Packing Company in 1916 to operate two traps in Icy Strait and sell the fish to other canneries. It also salted salmon in barrels at Idaho Inlet.
In 1917, Chatham Straits Packing, he and others incorporated to replace his previous company, constructed buildings and packed edible herring at Washington Bay. Crews processed 8,500 barrels of herring.
Washington Bay must have been a busy place in 1918 as both canneries prepared for the season. However, in April Chatham Straits Packing sold out to Petersburg Packing Company. The latter operated the big cannery in Petersburg, what is now PFI.
Ernest Schoenwald came to Petersburg in 1914 to manage Pacific Coast and Norway Packing's operations. When it went bankrupt, Schoenwald purchased the cannery and apparently wanted to expand its operation as Petersburg Packing Co. He had a new company incorporated in Seattle on July 9, 1918: Washington Bay Packing Company. There were 200,000 shares costing $100 each. He was, of course, the president and manager.
Since it was too late to equip a cannery, the company used the buildings that had been constructed to salt herring. W. N. Williams, formerly with the Petersburg cannery, became superintendent. By July nearly 1,000 barrels of herring awaited shipment. The salmon from six traps were sold to canneries, most going to Petersburg.
The next year, 1919, Schoenwald hired crews to build a 60 by 230 feet cannery building and a warehouse of 60 by 300 feet. Modern equipment from Seattle Astoria Iron Works, a can-making outfit, and two Iron Chinks were purchased. Fish scows were towed from Petersburg by the KINGSMILL, a cannery tender that was formerly the VIRGINIA II. Williams' experience at Petersburg was put to use when he became superintendent. The other competing tiny, cannery ceased operations and moved to Douglas during those months having packed only one year.
No canned salmon pack is listed in the Pacific Fisherman Yearbook for 1919. It is unknown if fish were packed.
However, the year was not uneventful. Two Filipinos started a fight in the bunkhouse. It escalated until one hit the other on the head with a monkey wrench. The latter rushed to his room to get a knife and subsequently cut the attacker. Before too much damage was done, the other Filipinos and Japanese men broke up the fight.
Next it was high, southeasterly winds that swept through a canyon behind the warehouse in early December of 1919. The full blast struck the warehouse and twisted it, but the foundation remained intact. Part of the main cannery building's roof was carried away in the wind.
Repairs were made in time for fishing season in 1920. But another weather event caused a new problem. A company pile driver drifted away in Chatham Strait in a storm on April 17 and was recovered 50 miles away. The waves had capsized her and broke off an important part. That was recovered five miles away. Fortunately, the donkey engine and the hammer were still on the pile driver. This too had to be repaired before piles could be driven for traps.
The rest of the season apparently went smoothly. J.T. or F.L Freeman supervised a pack of 40,306 cases.
Another problem came up. A large surplus of canned pinks and chums was left in warehouses from the 1919 and 1920 pack. The forecast was for light runs of salmon in 1921. Schoenwald decided not to chance a low-priced market. The Washington Bay salmon cannery did not operate.
Schoenwald's Petersburg Packing Company was in financial troubles, and in 1921 it filed for bankruptcy and reorganization. Somehow he solved his troubles, and the company resumed packing in Petersburg in 1923, but not at Washington Bay.
That year in February, Washington Bay Packing Company sold everything to Petersburg Packing Company. The bill of sale included 44 acres at the head of Washington Bay as well as 18 buildings, the biggest being the cannery, two warehouses, a mess house and three bunkhouses. The fleet included the 55-foot CITY OF BLAINE, 42-foot NORTHWESTERN and the 55-foot DOLPHIN, three scows, and numerous small skiffs. In June 1927, a line of machinery was taken to Petersburg for installation. The rest of the plant was dismantled, and the buildings were left. Canning salmon in Washington Bay never resumed.
But the bay was not abandoned. In 1925, the buildings were leased to Marine Products and Reduction Company of California to pack mild-cure salmon and Scotch cure herring. Then again, in 1931, the wind whipped down the canyon, this time hitting the cannery building and destroying it beyond repair.
Another plant came to Washington Bay and started using herring reduction equipment to make oil and fertilizer. This plant of Storfold and Grondahl was the last Chatham Strait herring reduction operation when it closed in 1963.
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.