Note: This was originally printed in the December 2015 issue of Pacific Fishing. To learn more about the early years of the Alaska Packers Association and canneries more generally, check out the Way Back in Kodiak episode, "Canned at Karluk."
It’s difficult to miss the towering masts of the Balclutha during a visit to the San Francisco waterfront. This square-rigged sailing ship is now part of the San Francisco National Maritime Historical Park and was formerly the Star of Alaska. This ship was one of the legendary “star fleet” that the Alaska Packers Association (APA) moored at Alameda during the winter months and sailed north to Alaska each spring. Tellingly, the most commonly recognized vestige of the once colossal APA is not even in Alaska. Nonetheless, there are plenty of remnants of the APA that persist in Alaska, if you know where to look.
The APA was founded to cope with the astronomical growth of salmon canning in the early years of Alaska’s commercial salmon fishery. In 1888 there were 16 canneries operating in Alaska. By the next year, that number had more than doubled, to 37. It was canners at Chignik in 1890 that first came up with the idea of joining forces to decrease competition for fish and increase efficiency in operation. It worked so well that the canners operating on the Karluk Spit and Bristol Bay paid attention.
The Alaska Packers Association was founded in 1893 when the owners of the major canning enterprises recognized that it would be more efficient to create a “salmon trust” to coordinate the catching and canning of Alaska’s salmon rather than engage in continuous competition, which was leading to an unsustainable growth in the pack. “Sustainability” wasn’t an ecological concept at the time, it was an economic one. The amount of salmon processed in Alaska exceeded the ability of consumers to eat it. The market was glutted, and it was not profitable to continue production at such a rate. Twenty seven of the thirty three canneries operating in Alaska sold their plants and re-emerged as the Alaska Packers Association. In so doing, the owners created a business which would become one of the most economically and politically potent institutions in the history of Alaska.
Although their assets were in Alaska, APA’s shareholders were comfortably situated in San Francisco (like the Balclutha is today). However, many of the founders of the APA had strong ties to Alaska and considerable expertise in the land that was known as Russian America less than two decades before. Some on the APA’s board of directors, like Louis Sloss and Charles Hirsch, were intimately connected with the Alaska Commercial Company (AC). AC today is a grocery store chain in Alaska, and this is the very same business that purchased the assets of the Russian-American Company following the US purchase of Alaska in 1867. In addition to providing early financing for salmon canneries in Alaska and sharing key shareholders, AC also provided the APA with one of the company’s most lasting legacies- the “diamond” naming convention.
To distinguish AC trading stations in written correspondence, AC employees created a symbol for each trading station. They enclosed a letter in the less-than/ greater-than symbols. For example <K> was Kodiak Station. The APA adopted this shorthand and applied it to their many canneries. <NN>, <X>, <KS> written in letters or stamped on a box became pronounced as “Diamond N,” etc.
Del Monte dismantled the Alaska Packers Association in 1982. Yet many APA-built canneries continue in operation today, and some continue to be referred to by their diamond name. Next time you walk the docks at an old APA cannery, pay close attention and you might even find <> etched onto a board, or fading from the bow of an old double ender. Although that diamond is less regal than the masts of the Balclutha, it is no less historic.
The following comes from a list located within the John Cobb Papers at the University of Washington Special Collections.
Location and Designation of Alaska Packers Association Salmon Canneries, 1917
<PNJ> Scandinavian Cannery, Nushagak Bay
<NC> Clarks Point, Kvichak Bay
<J> Koggiung, Kvichak Bay
<X> Coffey Creek, Kvichak Bay
<NN> Naknek river (upper)
<O> Naknek river (middle)
<M> Naknek river (lower)
<E> Egegik river
<C> Chignik Lagoon
<A> Alitak bay, Kodiak Island
<KS> Larsen Bay, Kodiak Island
<CI> Cook Inlet, Kasilof
<FW> Fort Wrangell, Southeast Alaska
<L> Loring, Southeast Alaska
<PR> Point Roberts, Washington
<S> Semiahmoo, Washington
<T> Anacortes, Washington