The Cannery

 

left overviewInspired by fisherman and author Jon Upton, I want to tell you about the cannery we visited near Port Edwards, British Columbia, just south of the Alaska border.  But first I’ll let Upton set the scene.   His poetic, informative Alaska Blues is the finest overview of what it’s like along this coast.   In a chapter entitled the “Ruins”, he writes:

 When we’re running past bay after empty bay, the country here seems lonely and desolate.  But if we go ashore and poke around in the underbrush, we learn a different story.  I’ve been in hardly a bay that didn’t show some signs of previously settlers if I looked around long enough.  And for the most part, the stories of these places seems to  be the same:  of fishermen and prospectors, of trappers and miners, all trying to make a go of it in an inhospitable land, and almost all failing. 

sign

 In the last century, and the first part of this one, prospectors combed the region, looking for gold and minerals, even for good marble deposits.  When the finds were promising and the price right, they dug a mine or opened a pit.  Some mines were small, just a shaft and a shack, and others were whole towns in themselves, with docks and railroads, stores and schools, spread out out the shores and hills of an entire bay.  But few lasted more than 10 or 20 years, and most less. The deposits were thin, the market collapsed, or the prospector’s luck ran out.  When it did, the towns died.  There was nothing to keep the men, and greener pastures beckoned….

The mink and fox farms went pretty much the same way… If you didn’t mind the isolation, a man with a family could have a pretty good life. But then the prices fell, the government said it was illegal to catch the fish for feed, and pretty soon the farms were all abandoned, the families moving on to something else…

frontMost of the larger ruins are not farms but fish plants of one sort or another: salteries, canneries, whaling stations and herring plants.  To travel through the bays is to go back through the history of the fisheries in the region.  All boomed for a while, and little settlements dotted the coast.  But the fishermen put no fish back and saved little for the future and pretty soon there was nothing to catch and the plants were abandoned and the forest took over….  Southeastern Alaska is a hard country to make a living in, and the ruins in bay after bay are constant reminders of it.   

The cannery we visited was built in 1889, about the same time as the canneries at Astoria and along the lower Columbia River.   For Canadians North Pacific is “the oldest cannery on the West Coast”; for all intents and purposes that coast includes Oregon, Washington and Alaska.  By adapting to odd niches in the economies of fishing, it managed to functioned until 1980.   Now a valiant band of preservationists is writing its story and fighting to keep the forest and sea from reclaiming the remains of a unique community.

To be continued:
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loftTo get to what’s now known as the North Pacific Historic Fishing Village and Museum we took city bus for Port Edwards.   Workers, Native elders and teenagers got on an off as we wended our way out of Prince Rupert though tiny communities along the route.  Finally the bus headed five or six miles down a densely wooded road along the Skeena River and stopped by an old rail line opposite a long line of old buildings.  Out of the bus hopped one of the teenagers, who introduced herself as Nicole, gave us a warm welcome, an overview of what was to come, and i two tickets and lapel tags in return for our $24.  

The village consists of a couple of dozen buildings on the wharf and on land, all connected with boardwalks.  The enormous building where processing and packing took place sits partially atop a wharf, which is in ruins at each end.   On one side is an imposing weathered grey building that houses the net loft.  

IMG_7807Opposite the net loft, on a parallel wharf closer to shore, was a row of perhaps a hundred small cabins, each housing a Native family.  Native men and women were key workers on the canning line and were responsible for net repair.  Native kids, particularly in the early years, performed all sorts of odd and dangerous tasks.   

At the other end of the village, lived the Chinese workers, the Japanese fishermen, and the European managers.  The boardwalk connects the pretty little bungalows where the managers lived, the cannery office, the company store, a mess hall, and the dormitories that housed the workers.

walks

The fishermen were Japanese.   Independent contractors, they practiced fishing using evolving technologies from both sides of the North Pacific.   Most sailed up the coast every summer from the cities of the south in their own boats but in time they settled with their families in the coastal towns of the north.  The long history of Japanese Canadians  mirrors that of Japanese Americans, with men coming in the early years of the timber and mining businesses, later families founding thriving urban neighborhoods and rural villages and in 1942 whole communities being torn out of North American society and sent to concentration camps.  

An exhibit in the cavernous halls of the packing plant is on the once prosperous, now non-existant town of Port Essington, BC.  The simple but compelling presentation that consists of artifacts from the day to day life of a Canadian town and old photos and captions thumb-tacked to the walls.   Here are a couple of excerpts:

Japanese Canadian girls

The Essington School Board was the only elected body in the town of Port Essington.  It was made up of 3 elected members drawn from local taxpayers.   

Japanese-Canadian parents were not allowed to vote or be elected to the school board, although Japanese-Canadian students made up two-thirds of the school population by the late 1920s.

In 1942, Canadian government policy created under the clouds of World War II decreed that all Japanese-Canadian residents of the coast be removed to camps in the interior mountains.  On March 21, 1942, the Japanese people of Port Essington were taken in open scows which were towed across the river.  They boarded a special train to Vancouver to join other Japanese-Canadians who had been picked up at other Skeena River Canneries.

In one day, Port Essington’s population was cut in half.

IMG_7807As for the Chinese workers, they were engaged twenty at a time by labor contractors based in Vancouver. Their primary role was at the front of the processing line, gutting and cutting salmon.  Jack and I were shown around the village by Chris, a youth Chinese ancestry who presented the history of the North Pacific in brilliant detail.   He’d actually memorized every word of a well written script; to protect his train of though we learned to save our questions for the natural breaks.   

The best part of the tour was the canning lines.  Two lines are set up.  One illustrates manual canning and sealing with lead as practiced prior to the 1920s.  The second one consists of 150 feet of huge green machines which did everything from slaughtering the salmon and chopping off their gills to forming the cans which come flattened from the supplier to loading them into cartons for shipment.  Amazingly, these machines work!  Some diehard historic preservationists must be putting long winter nights into this.  Chris would explain the packing process step by step and then switch on each of the huge, ponderous clanking machines.  Minus the salmon, of course. The brand name of the machine at the front of the line?  Iron Chink.

IMG_7845North Pacific became silent in 1980 after declining years when canning gave way to fish rendering and processing of the by products of the frozen fish industry.  The final reprieve came when a cannery several miles down the Skeena River burnt down and that season’s work was taken over by North Pacific.

Between fire – which has destroyed countless historic waterfronts – and flood – the site gets about 150 inches a rain annually, this preservation effort strikes me as nothing short of miraculous.    It’s a local grass roots effort spearheaded by a Port Edwards author, the widow of a North Pacific Cannery worker.  It seems to be mostly staffed by bright teenagers like Nicole and Chris.  The non profit behind it has gotten adjunct exhibits contributed by other groups, such as the model railroad club and the Coast Guard Auxiliary.  And they have obviously have been savvy about getting historic preservation status and grants.  The day we were there professional work crews in hard hats where busy shoring up the buildings and bringing electricity and plumbing up to code.    And a couple of gill-netters whose nets were across the Skeena River when we arrived had pulled up their catches and were chatting at the new float built on the old wharf.

gillnetters

This visit was one of high points of our cruise.  We went only because we were biding our time waiting for Piers.   Were it not for an oil spill on I-84 west of Portland that held up the Greyhound north to Seattle and caused Piers to miss his whole string of connections, we would have missed it.  Keep an eye on the North Pacific Historic Fishing Village and Cannery and consider making the trip all the way to Prince Rupert.

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