Historians investigate old South Naknek cannery

Jul 20, 2016

Should a second piece of Bristol Bay's commercial fishing history be added to the National Register of Historic Places? That's the question some historians have set out to answer.

Historian Bob King checks out the button that calls for a servant from the old superintenent's house in South Naknek.
Credit Courtesy of Katie Ringsmuth

One of Alaska’s oldest canneries is in South Naknek, a town of less than 100 in the Bristol Bay Borough. A group of historians visited recently at part of the Alaska Historical Society’s canneries initative to investigate whether the old Alaska Packer’s Association facility should be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The cannery is one of the oldest in Alaska, and although it wasn’t the first in Bristol Bay, it was the first built on the Naknek River, said historian Katie Ringsmuth.

“It began as a saltery for Arctic Packing, it was very quickly transformed into a cannery for the Alaska Packers Association. And of course the Alaska Packers has very important historical significance to Alaska, and even beyond.”

Ringsmuth visited the cannery with fellow historian Bob King, and a National Park Service historic architect. The trio examined the buildings as part of their effort to determine whether the cannery is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Historians visiting the old cannery in South Naknek have dredged up the plan for the so-called "White House" where the superintendent used to live. That's now an office.
Credit Courtesy of Katie Ringsmuth and Bob King

The facility closed in the 1990s. It’s now owned by Trident. The old superintendent's house is now used as an office; most buildings are shuttered, and it’s those that King found particularly intriguing.

“This was a great opportunity to be able to walk through these old buildings, see the working conditions and the like of 100 years ago – and how that’s changed over the years,” King said.

Several days into their endeavor, Ringsmuth agreed.

“Beauty hides in plain sight here,” Ringsmuth said. "You really gain an appreciation for the people who built this place. The skill set, the wisdom that they brought to these buildings. You can see the personal connection that goes back 100 years. When you walk through the bunkhouses, you get a real sense still of the people who labored at this cannery. Even the graffiti left behind is a detail, a small echo of the people who really shouldered this industry.”

For Ringsmuth, the project is partly a professional endeavor, and partly a personal one. Her father Gary Johnson was the last of the APA superintendents.

“I was four the first time I came up to the cannery, and I spent my childhood summers roaming the beaches and getting doughnuts at mugup, and then I worked my way through college sliming fish at the cannery, I worked in the egg house, I worked on the slime line, I even worked in the kitchen for a little while, laundry,” she said. “I owe a lot of my academic, professional career to this cannery.”

In fact, the people involved in the cannery helped spark her interest in history. Her father suffered a severe head injury in a boating accident in 1994, and had to abruptly retire. The hospital waiting room, she says, is where the learned about her father from his many visitors.

“Fishermen came to see him, people who lived here in the village came to see him. It was really through those stories that I gained an appreciation for this place beyond just the summer camp mentality. And in many ways, it influenced the choices I made to become a historian. And now I teach Alaska history at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and I’m working with the National Park Service and people like Bob King to help ensure that this cannery is not forgotten. It has been pretty much closed down, and Alaska is not kind to old canneries, so if it does disappear on us physically, it is super important that we work hard to preserve the history.”

To qualify for the registry, a building has to be at least 50 years old, and meet at least one of four criteria – does it reflect an important period in American history, is it associated with a significant person or group, does it have architectural significance, and will it yield more information down the road.

Ringsmuth said that at first blush, it meets those criteria.

“I can say, pretty confidently, the cannery here meets not just one, but probably all of the criteria.”

But what happens next is still up in the air. Applying for the registry would probably take some more field work. But first, they’ll consult with the others who are invested in the facility.

“The next step is really going to be to share that information with the community,” Ringsmuth said. “Certainly with Trident Seafoods, with the property’s owner, to share with them the historic value of this cannery, and then to figure out a game plan – what should be our next steps? I think that’s something that the community and Trident Seafoods needs to be a part of, to determine where the project needs to go next.”

To kick-start that communication, the historians are presenting their work in both South Naknek and Naknek, King said.

“One of the messages we want to convey to people is really, this is there history,” King said. “It’s the history of South Naknek and Naknek and history really grows, and people understand it better, when people talk about it. It’s not just us talking – we want to listen. To people with their stories, their family stories, how they were affected by the seafood processing industry over the years and what it’s meant – both to their lives personally and to the communities in which they live.”