Story last updated at 6/26/2013 - 1:42 pm
As we cruised the western shores of Warm Chuck Inlet in the TWINKLE, I saw no evidence of the cannery we planned to explore. In the 82 years since the complex was dismantled, the trees have grown so big and tall, all evidence, as seen from the water, is gone.
My husband Frank and I were coming back from Klawock in early June. I've always wanted to stop at Warm Chuck Inlet but the closest we have been is when we rode our motorbikes from Camp Island in Sea Otter Sound across Hecata Island. That island is one of the many that are often called "The West Coast of Prince of Wales Island." That time, hiking on a sort-of trail to the shore, I could tantalizingly see the approximate location on the opposite shore of the inlet.
This time I was able to go ashore at the cannery site!
The cannery started and operated in 1912, packing only 8,000 cases. Harry Swift started a company after resigning from the Klawock cannery where he had been superintendent. The company became known as Swift-Arthur-Crosby Company and used that name long after Arthur was out of the business.
L.F. Arthur, vice-president, apparently was the mechanical engineer. Swift was the president. Undoubtedly, the major investor was Harry F. Crosby, at that time owner of Washington Tug and Barge in Seattle.
Swift-Arthur-Crosby mild-cured king salmon in 1913, putting in a large ice machine and a refrigerating room. Germany purchased a great deal of mild cured (lightly salted) salmon in the early "teens" to make lox so this was the most lucrative market. In addition, a small pack of salmon was processed. Swift decided to pack it in glass jars. Libby and McNeill marketed it for the company. Since there is no record that this process was continued, the public must have preferred canned salmon.
In those first four years, much juggling of ownership kept the company alive. In 1914, Swift sold half of his holdings to Captain George Morgan, a former pilot for the steamship ADMIRAL SAMPSON, thus bringing in new money. Arthur wanted out: he sold his interest to Swift in 1915 and the remainder to Crosby.
Then Craig Millar, the namesake of the city of Craig, entered the picture in 1915, buying much of the others' interests. Prior to his purchase, he had been involved with salt and mild cure salmon. Millar announced that using the same company name, he would make considerable additions to the buildings and equipment and make "an aggressive fight the coming season for a pack of 30,000 cases." The cannery used local help reached the goal. Only half that amount had been put up in the previous four years.
For Millar's first year, he sent out his crew and supplies from Seattle in February. This was the earliest start North recorded for Southeast. This was prompted by World War I. Millar knew that when Germany started into armed conflict with the rest of Europe, that would be the death knell of the mild-curing industry. His plan was to give jobs for hundreds of trollers who normally caught the kings. The cannery would put up kings, something few canners did because mild cured salmon brought in more money.
In preparation Millar bought a new butchering machine, known historically and today as an Iron Chink by many people. Millar also sent North another retort - basically a huge pressure cooker - and a new boiler to produce more electricity. For the first time the company put in fish traps, both near Klawock and owned by Millar.
On June 5, Warm Chuck's cannery sent to Seattle the first canned salmon of the season; 6,155 cases of kings out of the 12,000 already packed. Again, Millar met his goal and more: about 40,000.
By 1919, the Ketchikan newspaper reported: "One of the largest packs ever put out by a single-line cannery is reported at Warm Chuck by Superintendent Craig Millar." The cannery packed 72,000 cases, the largest pack made by a cannery with the same equipment. The cannery's one processing-line out-did canneries with three or four times more equipment.
The market was flooded with salmon after that banner year, and Millar packed about a 20 percent less fish in 1920. However, improvements continued. The saltwater line, used to do everything in the cannery that required water, was replaced with a freshwater system. 1920 was the first year that Chinese were brought north to replace local help.
Marketing canned salmon was an art done by brokers. In 1922, the company selected Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company or A&P as it still is known today. A&P owned a chain of grocery stores to directly market the fish. The latter company took an option on the cannery and the six or seven traps that it fished. By 1927, A&P operated its fish plants under the name Nakat and in 1929, purchased the cannery. This enabled the company to consolidate its operations at Waterfall cannery, south of Klawock.
The Warm Chuck cannery never operated after 1929. The machinery was moved to other Nakat plants, mainly Waterfall, its largest cannery on the West Coast. The buildings were dismantled almost immediately after the purchase.
Pat Lloyd years ago gave me the photograph illustrating this column. It probably was taken in the early 1920s. As Frank and I looked at it, we chose a place to anchor we hoped was near the actual cannery building. He rowed us ashore. No piling visible. Were we in the right place? I started to find bits of broken glass on the beach. It is interesting to speculate what went on by looking at those remains: several canning jar rims, soda bottle pieces in clear, green, and dark brown none of them with embossed writing, a white cup handle. Surprisingly there were few pieces of rusting metal, prompting me to assume Nakat took everything. There was nothing in the shallow sea that would have dropped from the piled buildings.
Toward the forest and behind a raised knob of trees, we came upon four rows of natural-wood piling and a concrete base for a piece of heavy equipment. No creosote pilings in those days. Looking at Lloyd's photograph, it is apparent most of the buildings were on piling over the water. As we trudged back into the forest, we came upon very soft ground, too soft for pilings holding a heavy load. Our exploration was curtailed by a heavy, recent blow-down of very large trees. The same was true when we walked along the beach to the stream. There were massive pickup-sticks across it, so we didn't find the water system or a dam.
On the stream/tideline beach, I found lumps of coal and slag. The blacksmith shop must have been located at the north end of the complex. There also were two bars of lead that Frank speculated were foundry leftover. It was here that I found the only Chinese relic: three small pieces of a saki bottle. It is interesting we found no bits of Chinese dishes on the beach, the usual place to find it at canneries.
Since the Revenue Cutter CYGAN made a narcotic "clean-up" cruise in 1923, I had hopped to find remains of opium bottles left from two Chinese, George Mow and Chin Young and their entrepreneurship. Both were arrested for making and selling home brew and narcotics. In court George Mow was prosecuted for possession of opium, its smoking device, and yen shee, the opium residue from a smoking pipe and reused. Results of the arrest for both: $50 and confiscation of all illegal items. Mow spent 10 days in Ketchikan's jail, and Young forfeited $250 bail.
The artifacts that amazed us were four coils of rusting cable, probably for the traps. Three has spilled on the beach. I didn't see the fourth before moving on. Frank came to find me. "You have to see what you missed!" It had become a planter for a large spruce tree - the trunk filling the entire center of the roll and deep moss covered some of the coil. Any other man-made items at Warm Chuck cannery are hidden by the thick moss and bushes, in lots of muddy holes, and under downed trees.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.