The Diamond NN Cannery and the Spanish Influenza

This was initially published in Pacific Fishing's November 2016 issue. 

On June 4, 1919, a sail boat drifted towards Naknek in Bristol Bay. On board were three children, weak from the Spanish flu, and two men who had died before reaching shore. The Spanish influenza pandemic that killed over 30 million people around the world had gripped the villages and canneries of Bristol Bay.

This summer, historians Bob King and Katie Ringsmuth walked the quiet docks of Trident’s South Naknek Diamond NN cannery and came across the very hospital in which Naknek villagers convalesced and died. This cannery served as the center of the relief efforts in Bristol Bay during the summer of 1919.

“Instead of outposts of civilizations, canneries served as global hubs, which brought men, women, and an array of ethnicities together for over 100 years,” Ringsmuth says. She and King are documenting the social and architectural history of the cannery. Diamond NN (often shortened to <NN>) became the first industrial processing plant on the Naknek River when the Arctic Packing Company opened it as a saltery in 1890. Several years later, it became part of the Alaska Packers Association (APA), which converted it into a cannery in 1895. Con Agra purchased the facility in 1982, and Trident gained full ownership of the plant in 1995. Until recently, fishermen who sell to Trident used the plant for boat storage.

South Naknek's <NN> Cannery. Photo by Katie Ringsmuth.

South Naknek's <NN> Cannery. Photo by Katie Ringsmuth.

At the time of the flu, APA’s <NN> operated as the head station for five canneries in the Naknek region. The superintendent, JF Heinbockel, lived at <NN>. It was also the location of a company hospital, at which nurses and doctors served both cannery employees and local Native villagers.

On May 22, 1919, the cannery steamer Kvichak anchored at the cannery. Four days later, four men from the village arrived at the cannery hospital, stricken with the flu. Dr. Frederick Spencer immediately informed the superintendent. Together they made plans to quarantine the cannery, enact a stringent sanitation program and prepare to care for sick cannery workers and villagers.

Over the next month, ninety Natives were treated in the <NN> hospital. Of those, fifty two died, which does not include the number who died in Naknek. “About eighty known died at Naknek. Adult population practically wiped out… Am giving all possible assistance at my command here and Ugashik. Nurses required to handle orphans,” Heinbockel wrote in a wireless message sent to a government agent in Dillingham.

Each day during the outbreak, Dr. Spencer, nurses, and cannery employees carried hot food, firewood, medicine and clean clothing to the village, since the sick residents were too ill to provide for their most basic needs. APA nurses also travelled to the villages of Ugashik and Savanoski, which were severely impacted. Thanks to the quarantine, the village of Egegik escaped unharmed.

<NN> was converted into a makeshift orphanage in order to feed, house, and care for all the children who lost parents to the flu. Forty-four children from Naknek and Ugashik lost their parents. These orphans stayed at the cannery until the salmon season was over, at which time they were taken to Dillingham.

These days, South Naknek is quiet. But the history of the cannery still speaks through its buildings. The bright blue paint that colors many of the structures is peeling away, exposing APA’s red underneath. Animal pens under the mess hall hint at how hundreds of people were fed before the advent of refrigeration.  The dilapidated buildings that constitute China Town provide testimony to Asian exclusion in the 19th century and segregation in the 20th century. But it’s the old hospital building that contains one of the most heart-wrenching stories of the 20th century: the Spanish Influenza.

Hospital at <NN>

Hospital at <NN>

As part of their efforts to tell the story of <NN>, historians Ringsmuth and King are planning an exhibit which will commemorate the history of the cannery and the 1919 flu epidemic in Alaska.  To learn more about this project and the history of <NN>, visit Tundra Vision's Facebook page or read this blog post at the Alaska Historical Society's website.