A great catch:

🕔Jun 13, 2011

Toward the end of the 1870s, anticipating the inevitable end of the gold rush, northern businessmen looked around for their next ‘gold’ resource. With the potential market for canned salmon abroad, they invested in Skeena River salmon. Early explorers, anthropologists, miners and settlers had all noted the abundance of the Skeena’s salmon as well as the advanced technologies and knowledge the coastal and interior First Nations had for their capture, processing and storage. Canneries were built along the river to catch, can and export the salmon that gathered at the estuary and swam upstream.

The Skeena’s salmon runs include coho, pink, chum, spring and sockeye. The sockeye’s silver markings and bright pink flesh were a marketing dream; the canning labels prominently displayed a leaping silver fish and the words “Skeena River.” In this way the northern canneries distinguished themselves as unique from those in the south, and the Skeena gained a reputation for producing salmon that were superior to those of the Fraser.

The First Canneries
The Inverness cannery was built in 1876 and was quickly followed by the Aberdeen, North Pacific, Carlisle, Claxton and Port Essington canneries. Joan Skogan, in her book Skeena, A River Remembered, wrote, “...by 1902 fourteen canneries are scattered along the Skeena, from Standard Point off the river mouth to Aberdeen fifteen miles upriver from Sockeye Point on the slough… Clusters of wooden buildings united by boardwalks and docks dotted the estuary from Porcher and Smith Island off the Skeena’s entrance to Aberdeen fifteen miles upriver.” The canneries gave rise to small towns, with seasonal populations to support stores, doctors, and even a Salvation Army band. Skogan notes that canneries were quick to claim sites on the river mouth. “They built canneries as close as possible to the home-coming salmon and the labour force who traveled the river to reach the plants.”

Although the salmon-canning season didn’t start until June, there were months of preparation. Alfred Carmichael worked at the Aberdeen Windsor Cannery in 1891 and his reminiscences were printed in a 1970 Skeena Digest. Carmichael recalled that, “during the winter while in Victoria, the cannery manager makes a contract with a Chinese firm to do the following: first, make the cans, and second, handle the salmon, which includes cleaning, filling of cans, soldering, testing, boiling, putting on labels and casing. The tools are supplied by the company. When fishing commences, the Chinese-boss hires Indians to clean the fish and to fill the cans.”

First Nations women and men, in some cases even their children, found employment at the canneries. The upriver First Nations came down the Skeena by canoe and, after the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was built, by train. They were employed to catch and clean fish and to fill cans. Noted for their skills, First Nations women were hired to make new nets and mend old ones.

Brute strength
The fishing season started out on the ocean for three weeks as the salmon returned, then followed the fish as they moved into the estuary and up the Skeena. For manning the rowboats and handling nets, the canneries employed hundreds of men who had the brute strength to manage the tides and haul nets heavily laden with fish.

Gillnet fishermen’s boats were towed to the fishing grounds by steam tugboats. Walter Wicks wrote, in Pioneer Days of British Columbia, Volume Two, that the 26-foot-long boats were open—they had no cabin for shelter and were propelled only by a strong back, 10-foot-long oars and a sail. Each cannery painted its boats a different colour; some had flags displaying the cannery’s name. The gillnetters were left on the fishing grounds, two to a boat. Wicks wrote that one man worked on casting the net over the stern while the other rowed until the full 360 metres of net was laid out on the water. The men drifted all night, then hauled in the nets in the morning. Wicks wrote that, “the man rowing would back the boat toward the net while his partner hauled it in.”

When fishing on the Skeena, Wicks and other fishermen had to contend with sandbars, reefs, sunken logs and tides. Canneries sent out so many fishermen that nets tangled, boats were stuck on sandbars, and curses were exchanged in Japanese, Chinese, English and various First Nations languages.

As for the value of the fish, Alfred Carmichael, at the Inverness cannery in 1891, wrote, “This year 25 cents was paid for a spring salmon and 6 cents for a sockeye, not considering the weight. For instance, a spring weighing 10 pounds would fetch the same as one 80 pounds in weight. I remember a spring was caught weighing 78 pounds but no more than 25 cents was allowed for it.”

In an effort to allow a healthy number of salmon to escape the nets, the Fisheries Department enforced a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday closure. Wicks recalled that this was the day men found themselves a washbasin, repaired their boats, mended nets, and readied for the next week.

Men, women and children
Carmichael explained that workers at the early canneries worked in assembly-line style to produce as many cans as possible. First the heads, tails and guts were removed and dumped into the river, then the cans were packed full and soldered shut. The cans rolled down a shoot to the bath room before being cooled and stacked. This was not an automated system; hundreds of men and women (and some children) worked to fulfill each of these tasks.

Records show that the salmon catch, although abundant, was unpredictable. In 1877, the Inverness cannery—the first on the Skeena—packed 3,000 48-pound cases. Skogan shows the annual variations clearly: “In 1905, twelve Skeena plants canned 114,085 cases; in 1922 thirteen plants recorded 482,305 cases. The five canneries remaining in 1956 put up only 55,527 cases. In 1981…Port Edward and Cassiar produced over 300,000 cases.”

Successful canneries were those that could outlast the inevitable bad years until the next plentiful run. After the 1920s, the number of operating Skeena canneries steadily decreased. Skogan points out that bad seasons and boundary changes took their toll, sending some canneries into closure. Some suffered from fires that spread rapidly through the wooden buildings. Cassiar, built in 1903, outlasted all the others, operating until 1983.

Cannery owners and workers of the past carried on in spite of setbacks and adversity. Like those fishing the Skeena today, the canneries were endlessly optimistic that the next season would prove to be better and bigger than the last.