New Trash Cans Tell Old Story of Kodiak's First Cannery

Note: This article was originally published in Pacific Fishing

The downtowns of Petersburg and Kodiak both got a splash of historic color last spring, thanks to the efforts of Bruce Schactler, a Kodiak fisherman, and Karen Hofstad, a collector of fisheries objects and ephemera in Petersburg. Both communities joined the likes of Anacortes and Astoria to feature their fisheries history on trash cans. Old salmon can labels from local processing operations are wrapped around the trash cans and both delight the eye- a butterfly here, an old sailor there- and honor the communities’ maritime legacies.

One of the featured labels tickles my historian heart more than the others. Sitting next to the Orpheum Theater in downtown Kodiak is the Alaska Packers Association’s Horseshoe Brand. Examining this label, we can glean a lot about the earliest years of the North Pacific commercial salmon fishery and Early American Alaska, the era that corresponds to the first decades of US ownership.

Examining the label, note the letters that are woven together within the horseshoe: KP Co. The Horseshoe Brand was originally packed by the Karluk Packing Co., the first cannery to be established on Kodiak Island, back in 1882. The history of the Karluk Packing Co. not only brings us back to the infancy of the commercial salmon fishery in Alaska, it drags us clear back to 1868, a few months after the Treaty of Cession finalized the United States’ purchase of Russian America. Then, the US Army administered Alaska as Indian country, establishing forts in Sitka, Wrangell, Kenai, St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs and at Kodiak.

Meanwhile, as the Army attempted to get a sense of the massive territory they were to oversee, businessmen were quickly jockeying to control trade in Alaska. A representative of the business that purchased the assets of the Russian-American Company arrived in Kodiak before the Army had a chance to establish Fort Kodiak. This company became the Alaska Commercial Company. Charles Hirsch served as one of the company’s earliest managers in Kodiak. His future partner, Oliver Smith, wasn’t even supposed to be in Kodiak. Smith was a soldier destined to Fort Kenay [Kenai], but the Torrent, the boat delivering the soldiers and their supplies to the former Russian fort, wrecked in Cook Inlet before they could hang the Stars and Stripes there. The detachment was rescued and brought to Kodiak, where Company G became their unsuspecting hosts until the supplies required for Fort Kenay could be requisitioned.

Although it was an unlucky beginning to his Alaska story, Smith’s prospects improved. He was discharged from the Army but quickly returned to Alaska and started working under Hirsch in AC’s Kodiak office. The horseshoe symbol first appears in historic letterhead and invoices in the 1870s. By then, Smith had become a ship’s captain and together with his now-partner, Hirsch, had started a salt salmon enterprise at the mouth of the Karluk River, calling it Smith, Hirsch and Co. The address of Smith and Hirsch’s concern tells us they had access to wealthy investors: 310 Sansome Street, San Francisco, the same address as the Alaska Commerical Company. (To be fair, this was the address for all Kodiak and Alaska Peninsula residents who received mail from outside the region for years. Mail was shipped via AC’s San Francisco headquarters.)

Letterhead from Smith, Hirsch and Co., before the company became Karluk Packing Co. Note the horseshoe on the left. This letter comes from the Alaska Commercial Company Records at University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library's Alaska and Polar Collection. 

Letterhead from Smith, Hirsch and Co., before the company became Karluk Packing Co. Note the horseshoe on the left. This letter comes from the Alaska Commercial Company Records at University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library's Alaska and Polar Collection. 

In 1882, Smith, Hirsch and Co. reorganized as the Karluk Packing Co. and shipped the building materials, tin, tools and skilled Chinese tinsmiths to Karluk. From then on, most of their salmon was destined for cans, not barrels. One side of the tri-partite label pictures a jumping salmon, proudly advertising that there are “Karluk Red Salmon” within the can. The Kodiak commercial seafood industry thus had a foothold.

Karluk salmon were caught in beach seines, a fact that the label’s epinomious horseshoe might be hinting at. Oral tradition holds that horses were used to haul in beach seines at Karluk in the early years of the commercial salmon fishery. Imagine the condition of the horses once they arrived at the Karluk Spit, after spending around two weeks aboard cramped sailing ship heading north from California. It could be the horses were actually shipped from Astoria, the horse seining capital of the salmon fishery. In Astoria, fishermen replaced ploughs with seines, harnessing draft horses to haul in gargantuan Columbia River Chinooks. This certainly made the agricultural overtones within “harvesting the sea” more than allegorical.

When creating their Horseshoe Brand label, who knows if Smith and Hirsch were honoring the work of their fishing horses or merely hoping that the horseshoe would bring the fledgling enterprise a measure of luck. It seems to have accomplished the latter, since when the Karluk Packing Co. joined the Alaska Packers Association in 1893, the cannery had packed more salmon than any other in Alaska up to that point.