Dispatch, Alaska: The cannery, a manufacturing marvel

By Tom Stieghorst
While private cruise ports are a staple in the Caribbean, they’re rare in Alaska. The exception is Icy Strait Point, which for the past 10 years has lured visitors with a zip line, seafood restaurants, and a base camp for wildlife and other excursions. Cruise editor Tom Stieghorst recently visited the port, which was developed on the site of a defunct salmon cannery by the Native American-owned Huna Totem Corp. His second dispatch follows. Click to read Tom’s first dispatch.

Visitors arriving at this cruise port step off the tender pier into a bit of history — the cannery that gave jobs and purpose to this small Alaskan town for more than four decades.

Icy Strait Point canneryThe Hoonah Packing Co. opened in 1912, one of 30 salmon-processing plants under construction in Alaska that year. By 1914, it was packing 2 million cans of salmon annually.

After it closed in 1953 in a consolidation of the processing business, the red wood shed was used as a repair and servicing shop for the fishing fleet. Ten years ago it was rededicated as a museum, the focal point of Icy Strait Point.

I loved learning about how salmon was packed a century ago. The shop floor is full of the kind of ingenious gear typical of the heyday of American mechanical invention.

The Iron Chink, for example, seized the fish with prongs, cut and cleaned it in a series of blades and brushes, and then slit the belly on a rotating wheel so that the viscera could be scraped and removed.

The museum is a storehouse of such cast iron contraptions, bristling with springs, bearings and gears. The fish were eventually sliced into can-sized portions and conveyed to another machine that was fed from above with a supply of cans. The clatter and rattle of the line ended at the Retort, a long cylindrical tank where the fish were cooked in the can.

All of this was powered not by electricity but by a wood-fired steam engine that drove a shaft near the ceiling. The individual machines were powered by belts that descend from the shaft.

It is something to see in action.

The rest of the museum is equally interesting — detailing the types of salmon and fishing techniques used to catch them. A display shows the many colorful brand labels affixed to the cans. Another shows the company coins (struck at the San Francisco mint) that were common currency in Hoonah.

The cannery employed about 60 people, and there were dozens like it in Southeast Alaska. But eventually the manufacturing economy could no longer sustain itself. Like factories in many places, the packing plant closed.

Today, there’s a new industry that drives the economy in Hoonah, population 760. It is tourism. The transformation of the old Cannery Point into modern Icy Strait Point has revitalized Hoonah’s economy.

About 120-150 people work at the attraction during the summer season, 85% of them local. That’s double the number that worked in the cannery. Profits go to Huna Totem Corp., an entity set up under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 that is largely owned by Native Americans.

If all goes according to plan, by 2016 passengers will arrive at Icy Point Strait at a new dock for cruise ships in a location that will emphasize the attraction’s natural scenery. I hope they don’t skip the cannery museum as a result. It is too good to miss.
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Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly. 
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