New museum explores Alaska's canning history

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HAINES, Alaska -- A former fisherman is hoping a new museum here will give visitors an appreciation of Alaska's fishing industry.

Jim Szymanski, an Alaska fisherman for 28 years, opened Tsirku Canning Co., Alaska's first museum dedicated to salmon canning, an industry that fueled southeast Alaska's economy starting more than a century ago.

The museum includes a restored and operational canning line with antique equipment gathered and salvaged from canneries around the state.

Szymanski said the six-month search for the equipment took him to such places as Larsen Bay on Kodiak Island and Mountain Village, a Yukon River Eskimo village 150 miles northwest of Bethel.

The reconstructed machinery is housed in a 30-by-140-foot building that includes maps, graphs and historic photographs that capture the heyday of salmon packing in Haines.

"It's a lost art," said Szymanski, describing the salmon canning industry. "It's surprising how little that history is represented throughout the state of Alaska," he said.

The photographs, acquired after extensive research in local and state museum archives, depict some of the canneries that operated in the Haines area at the turn of the century. It's believed to be the first photographic exhibit of the area's fishing industry.

The centerpiece of the museum's more than 60 tons of equipment is the last three-piece, half-pound can reform line in existence. It demonstrates how flat metal pieces were shaped into a usable can.

In 1982, a single incidence of botulism in Belgium changed the course of salmon canning history. Because of the health scare, the company that leased the reform equipment in Alaska issued a massive recall.

After the recall, the three-piece cans used for more than half a century were replaced by a one-piece can with a lid. Thousands of tons of equipment used to manufacture the three-piece cans were reduced to scrap metal.

Szymanski said his reform equipment was salvaged from the only company in Alaska that owned the equipment outright.

Beginning at the reform line, flattened steel straps are rounded into cylinders to which a bottom is added. The reform line eventually connected to an automated process line where salmon would be beheaded, their tails, fins and guts removed before the fish was chopped and placed into cans.

Other equipment in the line would weigh the cans, remove the ones that were underweight, seal the cans and cook them. Approximately 6,000 cans would be prepared every 90 minutes.

The tour, which lasts about one hour, costs $13.50 per adult; children under age 12 get in free when accompanied by a paying adult. Group rates are available. The tour operates daily at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Commission is 10%.

For information or to book a tour, call the museum at (907) 766-2434, fax (907) 766-2585. The museum's Web site is at www.cannerytour.com.

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