Story last updated at 8/7/2013 - 4:16 pm
Kuiu Island Packing Company's cannery burned at Port Beauclerc in 1914 as we learned in last week's issue. With such a favorable site on east Kuiu, with a few buildings still standing and a water system in place, it was inevitable another company would be interested. This operation was through the endeavors of Waldemar F. Henningsen. In a surviving report compiled from memory and a diary, Henningsen described how he came to construct a cannery at Port Beauclerc.
Quoting this document: "The Superior Fish Company, a Henningsen corporation, purchased a boat, some fishing gear, and sent a crew to Alaska to salt-pack salmon during the season of 1917, with Victor Henningsen in charge. (This is not the Superior Packing Company at Tenakee.)
"Fred Cronkhite, together with a party by the name of William Frazier, was sent North to relieve Victor, and after spending a month or six weeks cruising the Alaskan waters looking over the fisheries, Cronkhite and Frazier succeeded in securing an option on a cannery site known as Port Beauclerc. The cannery there burned some three years ago, leaving some buildings and docks and a few other improvements that were sold to Mr. Charles Demmert.
It was this property which was the cause of my being sent to Alaska to look over the fisheries there with the idea of establishing a cannery at Port Beauclerc."
Henningsen had never been in Alaska and knew practically nothing of the territory. He was vice-president and general manager of Henningsen Produce Company, headquartered in Butte, Mont., and later in Portland, Ore. His 1918 report is full of fishery statistics for Southeast Alaska, descriptions of Territorial taxes required on canned salmon but not on cannery equipment or property. He found that after looking at balance sheets for a number of years of a successful and well-established cannery (that he does not name), the average yearly net earnings were about 52 percent on the investment. The poorest year showed 18.5 percent and the best over 200 percent.
In the company of Ketchikanites Dale Hunt and Harvey Stackpole, Waldemar made his first trip to Port Beauclerc in January 1918. John Burkland and Frazier, already on site, came aboard for dinner, and the next day was spent going over the buildings, rock piling and surroundings. After outlining work for Burkland and his crews, Henningsen proceeded back to Ketchikan where he talked to the Lighthouse Service. The navigational aids at Port Beauclerc were removed after the previous cannery had burned because steamers no longer called at that port. He was assured the aids would be reinstalled.
In early February he returned to Port Beauclerc. After checking Frazier's books and leaving new instruction, Demmert, Burkland, and Henningsen began a search for lumber with which to build the cannery and the warehouses. None could be secured in Wrangell, Juneau or Ketchikan.
"We decided not to build a cannery," Henningsen continues in his report, "on account of the fact that we were unable to secure a permit from the Food Department to go ahead with it, and conditions did not seem to warrant our making such a heavy investment at this time. We therefore gave up the idea of a cannery for Beauclerc this year, and decided to go ahead with the saltery. As it was impossible to secure any building material in Alaska for our requirements, and having some three or four hundred piling cut, that we intended to use for repairing the docks, but that we discovered we did not need, we decided to purchase a portable sawmill, cut our own lumber and figured we could do this at a considerable savings to ourselves."
Tunure continued to run the saltery operations. The contracts for fish with Demmert were in place, $500 worth of salt and hardware and cooperage supplies worth $2,000 were sent to Port Beauclerc. A pack of 5,000 barrels of 200 pound each was planned. No records have been found as to the actual pack.
Things came together and Beauclaire Packing Company built a new cannery in 1919 under the supervision of John Burkland. During the period 1918-1919, the Wrangell and Ketchikan newspapers reported on the movements of construction supervisor Burkland. He was unique because he always brought his big Italian harp that he had played for years. In 1918, Max Mason, a violinist, joined him at the cannery. The pair, it was said, played together frequently and were members of the American Federation of Musicians.
Henningsen, head of the company, personally managed the cannery operations in 1920. A mess house and two warehouses were constructed. Clare Matthews, a former Alaska Packers Association superintendent, was hired to supervise work within the cannery. A second line was installed and a pack of 20,000 cases was made with the increased capacity.
Practically the entire pack was distributed through the Henningsen Produce Company. Pacific Fisherman magazine's February 1920 edition, reported this company had some 30 branch houses in the produce business and also operated three plants that condensed and canned milk. Frequently wholesale food companies entered the salmon business to provide a steady, reliable source of that product. It saved money to eliminate the services of a salmon broker. The brands or label names for Henningsen's salmon pack were "Bepco" (red or sockeye), "Beaulaska" (medium red or coho), "Blanchard" (pink) and "Beauclaire" (chum). These brands remained in use until the cannery burned.
Many Southeast canneries, including the one at Port Beauclerc, did not operate in 1921. The entire salmon canning industry was in disarray. Seattle banks and wholesalers were closing the books with thousands of dollars due from Alaskan accounts. A general depression of business after World War I and low exchange rates hit the fishing industry as well as depressed prices and demand for canned salmon. A dozen cans of chums sold wholesale for 55 cents. Pinks were 90 cents per dozen. At those prices canners suffered a loss on every can on hand.
After settling its debts, it was necessary for the company to obtain financing for the 1922 pack. To do so, it took out a loan from the Canadian Bank of Commerce with Henningsen as president. When a new mortgage was signed for the 1923 season, J. L. McLean was president. Henningsen is no longer listed as an officer. Ira W. Kelly took charge as superintendent. He was an experienced cannery man who had been in charge at the Lake Bay cannery, Chomley for four years, Little Port Walter for two, and Kasaan for four years. He operated the Beauclerc cannery until it burned.
On June 23, 1926 at 2 a.m. fire was discovered. Winds of 75 miles per hour were blowing, and it was impossible to fight the blaze. The cannery building, all the cannery machinery, and main warehouse including 15,000 cases of empty cans were completely destroyed. The other warehouses were badly damaged.
Generally after such a disastrous fire, the superintendent would immediately tell newspaper reporters that the cannery would be rebuild in time for the next season's pack. Ira Kelly was no exception. However, no cannery was built. Canning salmon at this remote location was never resumed.
In early 1927, Nick Bez and his partners in Todd Packing Company purchased the remains of the cannery and moved what was salvageable to the new Peril Strait cannery.
After the first cannery burned, one of the undamaged homes, probably that of the superintendent or the manager, was moved onto a barge and taken to either Shakan or Klawock by Charles Demmert. It became the family home and stands today in Klawock. Building materials were salvaged by various individuals, and the remainder of the debris was left and eventually covered with new conifers, underbrush and moss. Several piling once under the warehouse and cannery were standing in the 1990s.
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.