After Alaska Purchase, the First Salmon Cannery Pops Up

Note: This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of Pacific Fishing.

“But this Treaty is the beginning… Our own Fisheries, now so considerable, were small in the beginning… Small beginnings, therefore, are no discouragement to me,” Senator Charles Sumner, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, said to the US Senate on April 8, 1867, speaking of the potential of Alaska’s mostly-unknown fisheries.

Just the week before, Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the Treaty of Cession with Russian Ambassador Eduard de Stoeckl. The United States was about to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million, but the treaty required Senate approval. Sumner spoke to the Senate at length about the opportunities available to the United States if the body approved the acquisition of Russian America.

Sumner waxed about the otters, the timber, the potential for mines (gold had not been discovered in significant quantities in Alaska), but he ended with fisheries. He detailed the reports of European explorers who caught hundreds of halibut with limited effort, of large Native communities subsisting on salmon through the winter, of the newly pioneered cod grounds off the Aleutian Islands. He envisioned an Alaskan fishing industry that would feed growing domestic markets in California, that would export salted fish to majority Catholic nations in Latin America, and that would provide seafood to nascent Chinese and Japanese markets.

Sumner knew that Alaska Natives were exceptional seamen, and imagined a day that

“The beautiful baidar will give way to the fishing smack, the clipper, and the steamer. All things will be changed in form and proportion; but the original aptitude for the sea will remain. A practical race of intrepid navigators will swarm the coast, ready for any enterprise of business or patriotism. Commerce will find new arms; the country new defenders; the national flag new hands to bear it aloft.”

He concluded his speech, stating, “…the Fisheries, which, in waters superabundant with animal life beyond any of the globe, seem to promise a new commerce to the country.” The next day, the US Senate ratified the treaty. Alaska and its marine resources became American.

The commercial salmon industry started soon after. Entrepreneurs salted fish in barrels at Karluk on Kodiak Island, in Karta Bay on Prince of Wales Island and elsewhere. But it was a Scottish entrepreneur named George Hamilton who claims the glory of founding what would become the first establishment to put out a can of salmon in Alaska.

Hamilton started a saltery at Klawock on Prince of Wales Island in 1869. He sold his concern to a California firm called Sisson, Wallace & Co and became a shareholder in the newly established North Pacific Trading & Packing Co.  In 1878, the first two canneries were built on Alaska’s shores. The North Pacific Trading and Packing Co. was established at “Hamilton’s Fishery” in Klawock, while the Cutting Packing Co. was built in Sitka. However, the Klawock cannery managed to process the first can of salmon, thus earning the distinction of being remembered as the first cannery in Alaska.

Fred Hamilton of Craig, the 96-year old grandson of the founder of Alaska's first cannery. Fred is also the oldest living Haida man. 

Fred Hamilton of Craig, the 96-year old grandson of the founder of Alaska's first cannery. Fred is also the oldest living Haida man. 

Little is recorded about the early American era of Alaska’s fishing history, and even less about George Hamilton. This summer I traveled to Prince of Wales Island in an attempt to track down new sources and old memories. There I met Fred Hamilton of Craig, Alaska. Fred is the 96 year old grandson of George Hamilton. Fred never met his grandfather, but recalled what he had heard of him. “He was a businessman. He did a lot of travelling. He built a sawmill here, along with a partner. They had a schooner here that delivered lumber.” Fred’s grandmother is a Haida woman named Maggie. Perhaps it is partly due to this family connection that many of the cannery workers at the North Pacific Trading & Packing Co. were Alaska Natives in the early years, when most other establishments relied on Chinese crews.

I asked Fred why Klawock was selected as the site for this early cannery. “They always looked for a good supply of water. And Klawock had a good supply. It’s a protected place, with a really good salmon stream there and a lake, with all species of fish except king salmon.” There were ample fishermen, as well; the cannery purchased salmon from local Natives.

At the time of the establishment of the Klawock cannery, eleven years had passed since Sumner’s speech and the subsequent Alaska Purchase. Alaska’s commercial salmon industry was tiny, but it was viable. It was Fred Hamilton’s grandparents who took the early steps to convert Charles Sumner’s vision for Alaska into reality.

Treasure, Trash, and Two Messages in a Bottle

The first message was inside a plastic water bottle, the label worn and faded. The letter inside traced the bottle's origin to a cruise ship passenger, who, like the bottle, passed time ambulating around the Inside Passage. Julie Yates-Fulton was out on a beach combing excursion with her family when she found it, boating around the inlets and isles of Prince of Wales Island.

For the last several years, beach combing for Julie and a group of POW residents had turned into marine debris removal. This message in a plastic bottle befuddled the slippery classification system between sea treasure and sea trash. Plastic: trash. Message: treasure. 

Julie's house and that of her friends in Craig are full of marine treasures. Glass balls from Japan, antique bottles, keys, marbles, molded feet from cast iron bath tubs--- these mementos from beach walks sit on the windowsills of many coastal homes. Switch the manufacture of these very objects from glass or metal to plastic, and from antique craftsmanship to recent production, however, and beach combing treasures become marine debris.

Beach treasures are precious and rare artifacts, they beacon the imagination. Marine debris is mundane, without individual merit. But even the most coveted of beach finds- the glass float- demonstrates that the divide is malleable. Japanese and Russian glassblowers made them on deck and attached them to trawl nets in the Bering Sea. These very factory trawlers fished right outside of the three mile limit delineating international waters before the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, angering Alaskans. Glass floats= foreign draggers. 

The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the resulting onslaught of debris from the disaster continues to befuddle the distinction between trash and treasure. Trash: Japanese oyster floats, pieces of dock, packaging, household goods. Treasure: crates with expressive kanji characters, toys, castaway fish, and the basketball from the Kesen-Chu Middle School in Japan that washed up on a Prince of Wales Island beach. Julie is a teacher, and she started a pen-pal program with Kesen-Chu. Craig students exchanged letters and gifts with these other Pacific shore dwelling youngsters, connected by ocean and a single piece of marine treasure/trash

Marine debris gathered from Prince of Wales Island beaches is available for viewing through the windows of the old Columbia Wards cannery office building in Craig. 

Marine debris gathered from Prince of Wales Island beaches is available for viewing through the windows of the old Columbia Wards cannery office building in Craig. 

Julie was pleased with her message in a plastic bottle that day, but she was supremely happy to be motoring on to her favorite cove of all. As the family cruised along, they passed canoe runs on the rocky shores, where stones had been cleared to the side to create safe passage for Haida and Tlingit canoes to launch and to return to shore. She and her family passed the remnants of traditional fish traps, some of which her own ancestors may have tended. These are special waters to the family. 

They arrived at the cove and jumped ashore, toeing rocks and eyeing where beach and forest meet. Julie felt acutely present to that very moment. Her husband, Chad, said it was time to go and walked back to the boat; the others fell in line behind him. Chad started the motor but Julie persisted on shore. She was called to a certain corner, and although the boat started to pull away, she ran to the spot that beckoned her. 

There, at her feet, was a glass float. Next to that was a green glass bottle stopped with a cork. A message was furled inside. In one day, Julie found two messages in a bottle. 

She ran to the boat and hopped on board, clutching the glass float and the glass bottle in her hands. She paused, marveling at her intuition. Later, an elder relative told her, "You slowed your spirit down enough so you were in the moment and feeling everything."

Julie uncorked the bottle and inside was this:

Truly, marine treasure.