Story last updated at 7/30/2014 - 11:14 pm
Editor's Note: This is Part II of a two-part series on the history of the Kell Bay cannery on Kuiu Island. The first part was published in the July 23 Capital City Weekly. Visit us online to read it.
One hundred years after a cannery in Kell Bay was torn down and moved to Bristol Bay, husband Frank and I decided to explore the site to see what had survived. Once in the bay on the southeast end of Kuiu Island, we began to search for signs of habitation. We held up a photograph from 1901 to compare the ridgelines. Frank watched the depth finder, looking for places large ships could navigate and maneuver to and from the dock. With the aid of a 1907 Coast Pilot, we finally decided on a site. It was time to go ashore.
This was the Union Bay Packing Company's attempt to make money in a fledgling business. Successful Klondike miners Louis and Knute Langlow were the investors who worked hard at the cannery during the season. It was difficult to track O. J. Ekre's involvement except as president, and he and the Langlows were from the same area in Norway. Dirk Blaauw, also from Norway, was treasurer.
Blaauw undoubtedly chose the Kell Bay site because of a strong run of pink salmon in the creek at the head of the bay. In Stavanger, Norway, he had been part-owner of a cannery. Coming to Alaska, he built a saltery at Boca de Quadra (near the Alaska-B.C. border) in 1899, canned halibut in Tacoma and soon became a salmon broker, undoubtedly eventually selling the Union Bay Packing Company's canned salmon.
From the two photographs we had, we knew there had been large buildings in the complex. The canning building was 150 feet long and two stories tall. The Chinese bunkhouse, constructed at an angle to the cannery, was 30 by 50 feet and also two stories. A warehouse contained supplies, and the management men slept upstairs. The steamboat wharf, shown in the accompanying photo, was 50 feet by 80 feet.
Steep rocks lined the shore, and a dense forest started immediately behind them. In a few places, we found small gravel beaches. We stopped at every one. There was nothing on the shore except sharp, hard rocks. Frank commented: "I would have loved to find this rock when we were building logging roads. It makes a lasting road that doesn't turn into mud under truck tires."
No roads here.
The only human debris on the beaches was a tangle of ropes and three red crab buoys with plastic Washington state registrations.
Crawling through the underbrush along the shoreline, we did not encounter any evidence - partly because of the muskeg in some areas. I pushed my way through second-growth timber. Frank found a small flat area that coincided with the buildings at the left of the photograph. Since we aren't diggers, we have no idea if there was anything under the matted, mossy surface.
As for the flat area where the cannery was undoubtedly located above the rock walls (also visible in the photo), there were no pilings. Why not a rusty nail, a piece of a bottle, a shard of Chinese dishware or opium or saki bottles? Would the workmen take all of that?
Frank examined the photo again and realized why there were no pilings. It was all bedrock and wooden pilings could not be driven. He pointed to X-shaped structures on the docks. These were braces to hold together the pilings, balanced on the sea floor.
Even if it had been low tide, we would not have seen evidence of pilings. The cannery operated in 1902 and 1903. In the latter year, assistant fisheries agent John Coyle visited. He found a small addition to the fish dock and Chinese bunkhouse. By that time, most of the fish were caught in Affleck Canal and Kell Bay. It also had two fish traps in Shipley Bay on Kosciusko Island off Prince of Wales Island.
This was the last year the cannery operated. In 1904, the buildings and machinery was moved to the left bank of the Kvichak River in Bristol Bay. By July 1905 the cannery was rebuilt in Western Alaska and ready to operate.
The Union Bay Packing Company wasn't any more successful in sockeye-rich Bristol Bay. In 1906, the Miami, its tender, ran aground at the head of Kvichak Bay and was a total loss. The company defaulted on an $8,000 loan from the Bank of California. The bank took the company to court and received a judgment.
When the 1907 season opened, it was obvious that the dream of fast money in Alaska had vanished for Knute and Louis Langlow, president O. J. Ecre, and treasurer Dirk Blaauw. The Union Packing Company cannery never operated again.
As for the Roppel explorers, it was also a bust! We found absolutely nothing. Before we left, we puttered into a deep, snug, dark blue, hole in the wall with magnificent, high, rocky-peaked mountains. Here we encountered the only wildlife we saw or heard. A pair of ducks took off in the distance, and a kingfisher swooped down a few times scolding us.
Back in Wrangell weeks later, friends introduced me to Tom Jacobson, a troller formerly of Port Protection. "I explored and found old pottery and iron things when I was there a number of years ago," he told me.
Like us, he doesn't dig, and these were on the surface. "Where?" I asked. His descriptions of the terrain, islands, and narrow basin were much like ours. I wonder where he went ashore? Will we go back to try again? Probably not. There are so many sites we haven't explored.
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.