Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Aug 15, 2010

Part Two: Founding Port Essington

When Robert Cunningham arrived at the rocky point of land where the Ecstall River joins the Skeena not far from its mouth, no one would have dreamed that within a few years he would transform the site into a bustling commercial centre with every right to call itself the capital of the north coast. It was 1872 and the thirty-five-year-old Irishman had already spent a decade in BC, working with William Duncan at Metlakatla and then for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Simpson. Sensing that the discovery of gold in the Omineca region of the interior might create opportunities for an ambitious would-be entrepreneur such as himself, Cunningham quit the HBC and with a partner opened his own trading posts, one up the Skeena at Hazelton and another where the Ecstall and Skeena merged. The mouth of the river, he figured, was where all the eager prospectors hurrying upstream toward the gold fields would pause to take on their supplies.


Cunningham, a large, round-faced Irishman, began his little community by offering land to the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas, two upriver Tsimshian groups. Many families settled on a cleared “reserve” along the beach south of town. The Tsimshian had been camping at the point for generations anyway, calling the place Spokeshute, or Spukshut, roughly meaning “autumn camping spot”. Cunningham preferred the name that Captain George Vancouver had applied to the entire estuary, Port Essington. Before long the reserve and store were joined by a hotel, a community hall, taverns and churches, even a bandstand down on the waterfront. Lumber from the steam-powered sawmill built the plank streets, the wood frame houses and the rickety flume that carried fresh water down from a lake in the hills behind the town. Cunningham’s instinct proved correct and his little community became the stepping-off point for the interior trade. It also gained a reputation among the morally self-righteous as “The Gates of Hell”, based on the gambling, drinking and brawling that livened its Saturday nights.


In 1883, Cunningham, never one to miss a business opportunity, decided to add a salmon cannery to his list of enterprises. The Skeena Cannery was a vast, barn-like structure built on pilings along the waterfront. That first season, employing 225 workers, it shipped south 7,000 cases of Skeena River sockeye under the Diamond C label. It was the second cannery to open on the Skeena and would be joined by two others in the Port Essington area alone before the end of the decade. There was a rush on, and salmon was the new gold.


The first salmon cannery on the BC coast had opened on the Fraser River, across from New Westminster, just twelve years earlier, in the summer of 1871, shipping three hundred cases to the United Kingdom. Over the next few summers the focus of the industry shifted to the mouth of the Fraser at Steveston where canneries proliferated along the north bank of the river. By the end of the decade there were eight canneries producing more than 42,000 cases, and that was just the beginning. The appetite for tinned BC salmon among the working people of Britain proved bottomless. By 1900 there were forty-nine canneries on the Fraser, employing thousands of fishers and producing more than 316,500 cases (each case holding 48 one-pound tins, roughly 22 kilograms). Since the Fraser was not the only salmon river on the coast, the industry almost immediately spread northward, first to the Nass and the Skeena, where Robert Cunningham built his plant, then to pretty well every nook and cranny along the coast.


The rhythm of the industry reflected the life habits of the fish on which it depended. Pacific salmon are anadromous creatures, meaning they are salt water fish that return to fresh water to spawn. After emerging from their gravel spawning beds along the lakeshores and streambeds of the interior, young salmon spend anywhere from a few days to three years in fresh water before they set off on their ocean migrations. Several years later, when it is time for them to give birth, they return to their natal river systems, which is where the canners established their plants. Most of the salmon return during the summer and fall, making the industry a seasonal one. The canneries bustled with activity from April to October, then the machines fell silent and the workers departed until the following year when the cycle began all over again. There are five species of Pacific salmon: sockeye, spring, coho, pink and chum. All five were utilized at one time or another by the canners, but it was the sockeye, with its rich red meat, that was most popular with world consumers. In the years before World War One, sockeye usually comprised seventy percent or more of the total pack. In 1913 the commercial fishery took thirty million sockeye out of the Fraser alone.


Port Essington was a sleepy village of two-to-three hundred inhabitants during the rain-soaked winter, but its population swelled to several thousand during the height of the canning season. Each of the canneries –and there were nine in the immediate vicinity of the town by 1905 -- employed dozens of fish boats. These were double-ended wooden skiffs, about nine metres in length, powered by oars but rigged for sailing as well. A two-person crew handled each boat; one person, the fisher, spread the net while the other, the puller, hauled on the oars. Most of the boats were gillnetters, operating in the lower reaches of the river or out beyond its mouth. The linen gillnet hung like a curtain from a cork line which played out behind each boat. In the early years the boat crews were mainly Aboriginals. “It seems reasonable to estimate something in the order of 1,500 to 2,000 Indian fishermen and boat pullers working for canneries at the turn of the century,” Rolf Knight wrote in his study of the Aboriginal working class. At Port Essington, these men and boys were drawn from the local reserve and the nearby Tsimshian villages. An early resident of the community recalled the fishboats in the river: “We watched them drift up the Skeena past Port Essington on the tide in the long daylight evenings of the north coast. There were coal oil lanterns burning aboard each boat and at the end of the gillnets. And when darkness settled, the fleet, with their lanterns, looked like a floating city.” Sometimes the fishers would be singing. “Those on shore would join in the singing too, so that it was like a giant choir filling up the river. When the boats reached the boundary above Aberdeen Cannery they would turn with the tide and drift downriver out of sight.”


Next time: Life at the canneries