Story last updated at 12/26/2012 - 4:12 pm
The Baranof Packing Company moved its cannery to Redfish Bay in 1891 from Redoubt Bay near Sitka. By this time, Redoubt's operator, Captain L. H. Smith, knew there were more prolific streams than Redoubt Lake. It has been fished heavily for many years. Redfish Bay, located on the Pacific Ocean side of Baranof Island, is close to many other fjords. A creek would provide operational water and had potential for making power.
During the years of the new cannery's operation, the lake and stream were known as Redfish Lake and Creek. After 1933, the USFS renamed them for Tumakof, a Russian who was killed in the massacre of the first Sitka settlement in 1802. Tumakof Lake discharges into Tumakof Creek, flowing with considerable velocity into the head of Redfish Bay. With the creek's powerful flow, the lake was surveyed for a potential water power project site in 1947 but it was never developed.
The move proceeded quickly, buildings erected, machinery installed. The crews caught and packed 7,949 cases that first year using Chinese and Native laborers. After that not much was heard about the operations until 1896. At that time, George R. Tingle, Inspector of Salmon Fisheries for the federal government, visited. He reported that the return to the creek did not supply enough fish for a large pack. To augment the catch, Superintendent Smith used the steam tug "Baranof" to travel among the islands and bays along the west shore of Baranof Island where sockeye salmon ascended streams.
Tingle heard rumors that many of the streams had been fenced by weirs for the past seven or eight years. By damming the stream with primitive weirs, the fish would hold below it. Often fishermen placed dynamite or bluestone in the stream at the base of the weir so the fish would be dazed or back out into a seine.
This was against the law, Tingle pointed out to Smith. The superintendent assured Tingle that he had all the obstructions and fences removed in the streams fished by his company. Tingle did not have time, manpower, or a boat to check if this was true.
When Smith secured a full cargo of fish, he steamed by the most direct route to his cannery often not taking into consideration the conditions of the weather on the stretch of open Pacific Ocean waters. "So anxious is he to secure his pack," Tingle wrote, "that great risks are taken."
The company paid out about $5,000 to the Natives each year. Tingle felt that what the company paid to the Natives was their main support. During his visit several Native delegations came to complain about bad treatment. These dwelled on prior rights for salmon streams.
In his report, Tingle writes of Euro American values: the government's right to control all streams, bays, and inlets where tide ebbs and flows. He told the Natives that the occupancy of a home on the banks did not extend to property rights over the waters that must remain free for all, under restriction of the laws. This is the theory of common property rights are still in effect today in Alaska.
This was not the only cannery that he heard complaints. These complaints, he wrote, were never based on a vanishing food supply. The Natives wished the whites to stop fishing so the canneries would be forced to buy fish from them at "an arbitrary rate." He asked again and again, if they were worried the fish supply would be exhausted. "They want money; no longer wanting to dry salmon for their own use."
It appears no further inspection of the Redfish Bay cannery took place over the next years as canning continued. The 1898 Alaska salmon fisheries report does not include a trip to Redfish Bay. It does give numbers sent in by company officials: 139,490 sockeyes were caught, 8 whites, 17 Natives, 24 Chinese were employed. The pack was 12,681 cases.
The Chinese contract that year was 44 cents per case, about $5,580. I am unsure how it was divided between the contractor and his crew. Native fishermen were paid $1.75 per day with board. Because the company had trouble holding the Native labor throughout the season, $1.50 was paid, and the remainder reserved until the season's end. This was not unusual in very early canning operations because the Native culture did not fit well with extended hours, days, and months of work. The reserve money was forfeited if a Native left without permission.
The steamer continued to go from stream to stream. If a stream was found to have a good run, a seine crew was left to camp and fish. The streams were scattered over a territory not fished by another cannery. The range was from the outer coast from Cape Ommaney to Cross Sound and on both sides of Chatham Strait. Moser writes: "It is one of the hardest fishing routes in Alaska. The streams are in unsurveyed districts, and as a rule are small and uncertain."
The company continued to pack sockeye from the "home stream" at Redfish Bay. Moser was told the average yearly catch during seven years was 34,900, the largest number, 55,553 being taken in 1894.
An attempt to increase the output of the lake was made in 1896, when the company built a salmon hatchery and eggs were placed in it that fall. Located at the head of the lake, the hatchery was in a log and rough-board building 20 by 30 feet, shingle-roofed, having at one end a room partitioned off for the hatchery superintendent's quarters. Disaster struck about one week after eggs were taken when unexpected cold weather set in and froze the entire water system. To remedy this, in 1897, a system was installed to pump water from the warmer lake through a filter into the hatchery. No further details were found.
In addition to sockeye, the lake system produced cohos that spawned in several lake streamlets. When the water level was low, the cascades and stream froze the eggs in the exposed coho beds. In 1897, the company constructed a dam across the lake's outlet, with an opening about six feet wide. After the fish had gone upstream and before the cascades froze, the dam opening was closed so that the lake would be at a level to keep the eggs covered.
From 1892 through 1898, the cannery packed about 73,000 cases. Moser considered the cannery "small" with an output slightly less than Klawock.
Perhaps the cannery was too small and the fish too widely scattered to make the operation profitable because in 1899, Baranoff Packing sold everything to Alaska Packers Association. The machinery was shipped to Egegak in Bristol Bay. Alaska Packers, under the name of Egegak Packing Co., started a cannery that year, and finished it in 1900. This became known as the Diamond E cannery.
At Redfish Bay, the dam, hatchery building and cannery buildings were left to the scavengers. What was not salvageable deteriorated and slowly collapsed as the forest reclaimed the area.
In 2005, Karen Hopfer, of the USFS, examined the surface of the site. She found retort pieces, a rusty boiler in the beach grass, and a few wooden boards with nails in them on the beach. One small piece of pottery and a ring of metal were found in the woods.
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.