By Alan Boraas
The last of the early 20th century salmon canneries on the Southcentral Alaska road system is being torn down. The Libby and McNeil cannery at the mouth of the Kenai River started operation in 1912, was rebuilt after a 1921 fire and canned salmon until 1998, although in later years it shifted to freezing salmon.
It is commonly held that the Gold Rush was the major transforming event in Alaska in the early 20th century. Not entirely. Gold mining certainly had an impact, particularly in the Interior, but economically, culturally and politically the Alaska canned salmon industry had more influence than mining. There are several reasons for this, but mainly, salmon fishing is a potentially sustainable value-added industry, while gold mining is not.
For its part, Parks Canada has done a remarkable job interpreting Gold Rush history by reconstructing Dawson City into one of the preeminent historic sites in the North. The project began in 1959 and now dozens of buildings have been painstakingly reconstructed to 1900 condition. Even wallpaper patterns have been duplicated. You can see Jack London’s cabin and his writing desk, have a drink at a restored saloon, and stay at a house of prostitution transformed to a bed and breakfast, if you are so inclined. And you can hear authoritative talks bring the past into the present. The project is so successful that the city has been nominated as a World Heritage Site. Unlike Skagway, which has sensationalized and trivialized its Gold Rush history, Parks Canada has let authenticity and accuracy be its guide.
The Libby Cannery could have been the site that told the story of salmon fishing like Dawson City tells the story of the Gold Rush. Through displays and talks centered on a cluster of reconstructed cannery buildings, the decisions people made to shape Alaska could have been told.
It’s a complex story, but could include when George and William Hume adapted canning to Sacramento River salmon in 1864, then shifted to the Columbia River in 1866 and had teams of horses hauling seine nets full of king salmon out of the river — a gut-wrenching thought today.
It could include that the industrial revolution came north and in 1882 a cannery was established at the mouth of the Kasilof River. The salmon boom was on and canneries, Asian cannery workers and West Coast and Scandinavian fishermen mixed with the indigenous population, transforming Native villages to cannery towns throughout coastal Alaska.
And it’s a corporate story. By 1891, the powerful Alaska Packers Association had formed and the conglomerate fixed prices and wages but also offered the public a good product at a fair price. The corporations had powerful influence in Congress and limited federally licensed fish traps mostly to themselves. The question was “Who owns the salmon?” and the Alaska Packers Association made sure they did.
The battle to control one of the greatest natural food resources in the world became the theme of Alaska statehood. The first act of the first Alaska State Legislature was to ban fish traps, thereby breaking the stranglehold of corporate canneries on the fishing industry. Mindful of corporate collusion, it is not surprising that the Alaska Constitutional Convention radically gave Alaskans ownership of our natural resources: a decision with resounding implications to this day.
We should tell the story of worker abuse as well. Chinese and later Filipinos worked the gut line cleaning an incredible four to six fish a minute for a wage approximately a fourth of what the white trap tenders received. Twelve-hour days were common and it is not surprising that the cannery store sold opium. Opiates are still the primary pain-killing drug today, mostly in the form of prescription morphine and synthetic opiates like hydrocodone. Workers on the gut line didn’t smoke opium to get high; they smoked opium to block the pain.
As with the salmon, the question is, “Who owns history?”
In 2004 a local developer bought the old cannery, gutted its artifacts and made it into a cannery-themed craft shop and restaurant. It failed, demonstrating once again sometimes enterprise does not interpret history well. Now, almost-century-old, full-dimensional 2-by-12 Douglas fir planks are being ripped out and old corrugated metal siding torn off and the chance to tell the story of the transforming effect of the commercial canning industry on Alaska at an actual cannery site is being lost.
We deserve the history we preserve.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.
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