Sharing the history of the northwest salmon cannery

In the late 1800s about a thousand salmon canneries dotted the west coast between California and Alaska.

In the late 1800s about a thousand salmon canneries dotted the west coast between California and Alaska.

Thirty-eight of those canneries were on the Skeena and Nass rivers, beginning with Inverness Cannery in 1876, and they made salmon from northern rivers famous. Skeena River sockeye even made it into ration packs in the trenches of the First World War. We’re fortunate, both in terms of tourism and community heritage, that this remains vital on the North Coast today. We have operating canneries, and, at North Pacific, the largest remaining wooden cannery village left on the west coast.

North Pacific Cannery was founded in 1889. It was built by John Alexander Carthew, and sold to Henry Ogle Bell-Irving in 1891. He founded Anglo-British Packing Company in 1892 to consolidate his holdings, including North Pacific. The final year of salmon processing was 1968 – though after the cannery was bought in 1969 by The Canadian Fishing Company, it ran for the 1972 season following the Ocean Dock fire in Prince Rupert. Thereafter the cannery was used as a boat station, repair and maintenance facility, and the production of fish meal and oil.

Of course there were many changes over the years at North Pacific. In 1900 it was a one-line cannery, and had two rooms for mild cure fish that weren’t closed until 1920. In 1918 a can-making factory was installed, closed in 1936, and re-form lines were installed in 1937. A reduction plant was added in 1955.

Of course North Pacific Cannery, thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers working over the past 30 years, is today a National Historic Site. A visit recalls many of these physical changes to the cannery, as well as the human landscape of the cannery village.

Another fragment of the past lives just down the road from North Pacific. Cassiar Cannery opened in 1903, and when it finally ceased salmon processing in 1982 it had become the longest-operating cannery on the B.C. coast. Today it is privately owned, and offers campsites and guest cabins in beautifully rehabilitated cannery houses.

When we promote North Pacific and the cannery history to visitors, we talk of how the canneries set the stage for the culture that exists here today. Prince Rupert’s multiculturalism, the community’s roots in the fishing industry, were in place years before the city was incorporated in 1910. And it resonates with visitors. Every travel writer who visits North Pacific comes away with a story, told over and over again. “Old tins of salmon are stacked on white shelves in the general store,” wrote Diane Slawych earlier this year in the Toronto Sun. “Typewriters from the 1930s top large wooden desks in an office that hasn’t been used for decades, while in a nearby building, canning machines, that once chugged along noisily, now sit silent.”

Last year noted travel writer Kerry Banks told the story of North Pacific in a major feature in Westworld Magazine. “There is plenty of room here for the imagination to roam,” he writes. “The sight of a stooped man in the empty net loft causes my heart to jump, until I realize it is only a dummy. The late afternoon sun streams through the windows, lighting the wood floor and the nets that hang from the ceiling. Time has stopped here, but history lives on.”

The full story of the salmon canneries of the North Coast is told in the authoritative Salmon Canneries: British Columbia North Coast, by Gladys Young Blyth. This classic study was first published by Oolichan Books in 1991, has been reissued by Trafford Publishing and is available in Prince Rupert bookstores.

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