Salmon canning once big business in B.C. port

Visitors to Prince Rupert can get a slice of history at the nearby North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site of Canada

Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia is noted for its big grain terminal but the region also has a significant history as a major salmon canning industry.

Just south of Prince Rupert is Port Edwards, home of the North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site of Canada at the mouth of the Skeena River, the oldest salmon cannery on the West Coast of North America.

The history of the canning process used by today’s homemakers and the canning industry goes back to 1795, when Nicolas Appert of France began experimenting with ways to preserve food by putting it in sealed glass containers and then placing the jars in boiling water.

During the first years of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) the French government offered a 12,000-franc prize to anyone who could devise a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food. Appert won the prize in January 1810, but he did not know why his method prevented spoilage. Louis Pasteur wouldn’t discover the role of microbes in food spoilage for another 50 years.

However, Appert’s glass jars presented challenges for transportation, and British inventor and merchant Peter Durand patented the use of a tin can, thus creating the modern-day process of canning food.

Salmon canning has been an important economic influence in the Prince Rupert area and the province has a whole since the late 1800s when Angus Rutherford Johnston, John Alexander Carthew, and Alexander Gilmore McCandless formed the North Pacific Canning Company in 1888.

During this period there were more than 200 salmon canneries built along the West Coast of B.C. They were built on isolated rivers where the salmon runs were large. These canneries were self-sustaining with employee housing built alongside the canneries. The northern canneries were built next to the salmon fishing grounds because it was before the use of refrigerated fishing boats. The salmon catch had to be transported and processed quickly to prevent spoilage.

The canneries were also located near First Nation people to employ them for their long-time fishing experience.

Johnston and his group received a crown grant for 183 acres of land at a cost of $32, where they constructed their plant. It had almost 90 years continuous salmon production and fish processing until ending in the late 1970s.

Prince Rupert is known today for its grain terminal, from which western Canadian grain is shipped to countries around the world. | Duane McCartney photo

In 1890, the ABC Packing Company acquired the North Pacific Canning company in addition to other canning companies to produce more than one quarter of British Columbia’s total salmon pack and become the foremost packer of sockeye salmon in the world.

Coastal salmon canneries were built on high pilings so that they could continue operating during high and low tides, which could be as high as 26 feet twice a day.

Because the canneries were isolated and accessible only by boat or rail, staff housing was provided for the workers, who would live on site through the canning season. Workers stayed in clapboard bunkhouses and triplexes, while officials had their own cabin. Some First Nations workers brought their whole families. There was a mess house and restaurant, a wash house, and a store that also doubled as the community centre.

Labour was divided according to race and culture. Japanese did the fishing and net mending, First Nations fished and worked on the cannery line, while Chinese did the cooking and in the early days made the individual cans by hand. Europeans managed the company and also fished. Each ethnic group lived in their own housing area on the site.

Women were hired to perform less-skilled tasks, at a lower wage. This included fish cleaning and washing.

First Nations women were given more variety of tasks than other women. They were net-women and butchers, and later worked with the mechanical fish processing machinery.

In the early days, all of the labour was done by hand, from netting the salmon to cleaning, cutting up and canning the fish.

In the early 1900s there were mechanical advancements in the canning industry. A gang knife machine, an Iron Butcher and can soldering machines were installed at the cannery. The iron butchering machine, patented in 1905 by Canadian-born inventor E.A. Smith of Seattle, Wash., could cut and clean a salmon in about one second. Previously an experienced butcher could cut the head off, open up the belly and take off the fins at four to five fish a minute. Each Iron Butcher eliminated about 27 jobs of a 30-member team of butchers, thus requiring only two or three workers to operate a machine.

Salmon was canned by hand in the late 1800s but mechanization in the early to mid 1900s made the process more efficient.  However, many jobs were lost. | Duane McCartney photo

Later, automatic filling machines could fill cans with fish at more than 100 cans per minute. Whole cleaned salmon could be directly fed into the machines and rotating gang knives would cut the salmon into the correct lengths to fit the various sized cans. The sanitary can machine was another major innovation at this time because it sealed cans of fish without solder. Other machines invented included filling, salting, weighing and sealing machines. These machines greatly increased the efficiency of production and profitability and reduced the amount of hard labour required but resulted in the loss of many Chinese jobs.

To preserve the canned salmon the cans were loaded onto carts and wheeled into large steam retort ovens to cook for about 90 minutes.

The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was completed in 1914 linking the North Pacific Cannery to transcontinental service. This improved the plant’s ability to ship canned salmon to markets around the world. The cannery produced tins of pink, keta or chum, sockeye and cohoe salmon for Clover Leaf, Red Rose and Queen Charlotte brands.

ABC Packers owned and operated North Pacific Cannery until 1968, when the company folded. The North Pacific cannery was unique because of its almost continuous ownership by a single firm for more than 76 years.

North Pacific Cannery was bought by Canfisco, or Canadian Fishing Company, and reopened as a reduction and maintenance operation for Prince Rupert fishing firms. The cannery officially closed again in 1981.

The North Pacific Cannery is the oldest surviving cannery building in B.C. The site was rescued from demolition by a local historical group and transformed into a museum. In June 1985, the North Pacific Cannery was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.

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