Story last updated at 7/23/2014 - 4:22 pm
On the southwest end of Kuiu Island, in remote Kell Bay, a cannery was built in 1901 by a few Tacoma miners who struck it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush. One hundred years after the cannery was torn down and moved to Bristol Bay in 1904, husband Frank and I visited the bay in the Twinkle to see what remained.
I had a 1901 photograph Joe Sebastian sent me of the Union Packing Company's buildings, a large steamer, and the ridgeline behind the site. We also had a short description from the 1907 Coast Pilot.
After maneuvering among islands and rocks, we chose a site matching the ridgeline and some of the rocky shoreline. The depth was over a hundred feet in front of the site. Not a place to anchor! Maneuvering among more islands, we finally found a bottom at 57 feet. Once secure, we headed in our skiff toward the old cannery site.
On the way from Point Baker to Affleck Canal and into Kell Bay, I read aloud pertinent points from "Alaska Silver," written by Martha McKeown. She recorded the stories of Mont Hawthorne during his years in the salmon industry.
How had he come to Kell Bay? Hawthorne lived in Astoria, Oregon when he wasn't building canneries mostly in Alaska. Between jobs he worked with John Fox, who invented the first Iron Chink to clean fish. Fox told Hawthorne that he had received a bid on canning machinery: "The fellows building the cannery don't know the business but they've come back from the Yukon with a barrel full of gold and they want to put it in circulation," Fox said.
Hawthorne agreed to go to Tacoma where he met Louis and Knute Langlow. Hawthorne was offered the foreman's job at $100 a month, with board, lodging and passage.
Hawthorne tells us the Langlows decided to put their money into canneries because the boats they went to and from the Klondike stopped at all the canneries. Seeing cases upon cases of canned salmon stimulated their interest.
Soon after Hawthorne's arrival in Tacoma, Louis and the head carpenter sailed on the cannery tender Miami, taking along Scandinavian fishermen who said they knew something about rough carpentry. Hawthorne went North with the Fox machinery, tin and supplies. Knute arrived on a later ship with the rest of the fisherman and Chinese cannery workers hired out of Seattle.
The buildings were being erected along one side of a point and the adjoining bank. We can see this in the Hawthorne's photograph.
A two-story mess hall and a small China house were built; the cannery was barely started when Hawthorne arrived. The wooden, water pipe was still stacked on the beach. There was lots of work to do.
When Knute arrived, he brought the two Langlow wives who were assigned to live in the back of the cookhouse. Nels Waldorf, the cook, formerly on a whaling ship, was their brother-in-law.
Once the pinks/humpbacks started to run, the fishermen set the small-meshed 50-fathom beach seines. It took 16 men to each seine, not counting the ones who rowed or played out the seine from the boat. After pursing the seine, the men hauled it and the fish back into the small boats. The cannery tender towed skiff loads of salmon to the fish dock.
The two Langlows worked as hard as they rest of the men. They had close to $100,000 invested, according to Hawthorne. As the season progressed Hawthorne realized how small the fish were - consequently, labor ate up the profits. The fish didn't weigh much more than five pounds each and were, Hawthorne said, "thin and bony".
It took 16 to 20 fish to fill a case of cans. The Kake Natives, who had a fish camp in Kell Bay, were hired to help with the fishing.
The Chinese boss did not bring enough men for the work, so he hired the Native women to cut the heads and tails off, split the fish open, and run the gang knives. Fox hadn't invented the Iron Chink yet. The women also took out the blood and slime. The waste went on a barge and was taken to deep water.
As for Hawthorne, he stayed by the retorts, watching the cooking and being sure the cans were sealed correctly. In addition, Hawthorne decided, with the big runs and night canning, the cannery needed lights. He had previously built a generator in Oregon, so he and Mark, a Kake Native educated in Metlakatla, built a generator to provide lights.
At Hawthorne's urging, the Miami and some of the fishermen traveled to bays that had sockeye runs. This helped the Langlows to finish a reasonable pack despite the cost and time of transporting fish from Shipley Bay, Point Ellis, Redfish Bay, Whale Bay, and Affleck Canal.
At the end of the season, the buildings were put in order and the windows boarded over. A Swede named Moe Larson agreed to take the job of winter watchman, staying until spring alone in the remote bay.
Hawthorne never returned to Kell Bay. The following year he helped build the Kasaan cannery.
The Kell Bay cannery canned for two more years.
This column will be continued in a future edition of the Capital City Weekly.