Note: This was originally published in Pacific Fishing magazine.
Salmon made the human geography of much of coastal Alaska. For Native Alaskans, salmon runs spawned fish camps and villages. When the US purchased Alaska, white newcomers established salteries and canneries at these traditional fishing places. Some of these processing plants grew into year round villages, which then turned into towns. Cordova is one such town.
In 1889, the Pacific Steam Whaling Company constructed the Orca Cannery on the Odiak Slough in present-day Cordova, which was then called Eyak. In 1895, the cannery relocated four miles north.
Eyak was renamed Cordova in 1906, when Copper River and Northwestern Railway moved in to the old Odiak cannery buildings and started building a railroad from Cordova to the Kennicott mine. The town became a supply and transport center for the productive copper mine, but from its very beginning, Cordova has been a fishing town.
Orca seems a curious name for a cannery, and the Pacific Steam Whaling Company is an even stranger moniker for a salmon business. While no whales were canned at Orca, these names are indicative of what first brought the business to Alaska. The Pacific Steam Whaling Co. started in San Francisco in 1883, financed by men who made their money during the California Gold Rush. The company used steamships to hunt for bowhead whales in the Pacific. Pacific Steam’s whaling fleet is attributed with discovering the whaling grounds off Herschel Island.
But by the late 1880s, the whaling industry was in serious decline due to overhunting. The company turned its attention towards another Alaska-based, aquatic resource and founded the Orca cannery near Cordova. In Prince William Sound, enough people moved to Orca cannery from the village of Nuchek to turn Orca into the major port within the Sound. The company too expanded, and within a decade, Pacific Steam either built or bought additional canneries in Nushagak, Chignik, Hunter Bay on Prince of Wales Island, Kenai and Uyak Bay on Kodiak Island. It also operated a facility on the Copper River Delta.
In 1901, the Pacific Steam Whaling Company sold its canneries to Pacific Packing and Navigation Company, a brand new enterprise that purchased 18 canneries in Alaska and 7 in Puget Sound during the first year of its existence. With such production capacity, it rivaled the Alaska Packers Association. APA took note of this and slashed the price for canned pink salmon. Most of Pacific Packing’s canneries were in pink salmon country (Southeast Alaska), while APA dominated the land of sockeyes to the north and west. Sockeyes and the APA won the battle. With only one salmon season under its belt, Pacific Packing folded and retreated to bankruptcy. Northwestern Fisheries, Inc. purchased many of the canneries, including Orca. Subsequent owners were Pacific American Fisheries and New England Fish Co.
Cordova grew into a substantial town (by Alaska standards). There was no road that connected the cannery to town, just a weekly boat trip. The isolation doesn’t indicate that it was a boring place though. Alice Reyser, originally from Cordova but now a Kodiak resident, worked at Orca in the early 1960s and recalls with a smile her time at the cannery. At the NEFCO plant, Reyser usually worked on the reformer, the machine that converted flat cans into cylinders. But one day, she was moved to the sealer, which places the lids on the cans. While the machine slowly worked, she pulled a bobby pin from her hair and scratched “Write me,” with her address onto the surface of several of the lids. Much to her surprise, she received a letter in the mail from a man in North Carolina nearly a year later.
The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 caused uplift in Prince William Sound, meaning that the land around Cordova shot upwards, drying out clam beds and reconfiguring much of the coastline. Suddenly, land existed where before it did not, and Orca could be connected to Cordova by a road. Chugach Alaska Fisheries was the last company to process salmon at Orca. It closed soon after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Today, Orca cannery is the Orca Adventure Lodge. A banya (or sauna) on site is made from an old fish trap watchman’s cabin and guests gather for meals within the old mess hall.