Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Aug 22, 2010

Part Three: Life at the Canneries

As well as the fishers, the canneries required an army of inside workers to wash, gut, butcher and pack the fish. With the completion of the transcontinental railway, Chinese workers became available in large numbers. Canneries hired them under the contract system. At the beginning of the season a Chinese labour contractor negotiated to provide a crew for a set price. He paid the workers and appointed a “Boss Chinaman” to look after their requirements. At Port Essington (shown above in 1915; source: BC Archives) , the Chinese crew began arriving on the coastal steamers in the spring, before the fishing season opened. Their first job was to manufacture the cans that would hold the salmon. Using shears, they cut out the can bodies and tops from large sheets of tinplate, then formed and soldered them.


With the arrival of the fish in mid-June, the actual canning began. The anthropologist Franz Boas, who was in Port Essington in June 1888, visited Robert Cunningham’s plant. “Work starts in the cannery at 7 a.m.,” he wrote. “Two hundred Indians are used for processing the salmon, and Chinese solder the cans. It is quite interesting to watch the processing of the salmon. At the first table, women cut them open; at the next table heads and tails are removed. Then they are drawn and thrown into a bath where they are washed. They are then put into a machine which cuts them into seven parts and throws them into a trough from which they are distributed to be stuffed into cans. The lids are placed on top at another table and then they are placed in a soldering machine which fastens the lids. They are then placed on a large iron frame. The soldering is not checked in any way. The entire frame is then placed into boiling water for twenty minutes and then cooled. Finally the cans are packed into boxes.”


Boas described the industry in its early adolescence. If he had returned a few years later, he would not have recognized the cannery floor because the plants innovated relentlessly. What began as a series of manual processes -- fishboats were rowed; nets were hauled by hand; cans were cut individually; workers on the line butchered the fish one by one and stuffed the pieces into the tins – quickly became a mechanized assembly line. The steam retort, a large pressure cooker, replaced the ordinary kettles which had been used to cook the cans. Soldering machines replaced hand soldering, and the automatic can-making machine was introduced to mass produce the tins. Multi-bladed gang knives cut up several fish at once into uniform sized pieces. Then, in 1906, the Smith Butchering Machine was introduced. Also known as the “Iron Chink” because it displaced so many Chinese workers, it cleaned and butchered several fish at once, sixty to seventy-five per minute.


The fishery also mechanized. Gillnetters began adding small gas engines so that by 1913 more than eighty percent of the Fraser River fleet was motorized. At Port Essington and other north coast canneries, the adoption of engines was delayed. On the Fraser, many fishers owned their own boats but in the north the canneries continued to own most of the boats and they wanted to spare themselves the expense of gasoline and motor repairs. Still, by the mid-1920s, gas engines became the norm north of Cape Caution as well. As Duncan Stacey points out, in the decade before the outbreak of World War One the canning industry shifted from manual production to mechanized production, with resulting increases in productivity. The number of plants fluctuated from year to year, reaching a peak of 84 in the middle of the war, but the size of the pack increased steadily until by 1930 it exceeded 2.2 million cases annually.


The cannery workforce lived close to the plants in neighbourhoods that were as racially segregated as any big city ghetto. The Chinese occupied “China houses”, wooden dormitories provided by the company, where they spent their off hours sleeping, eating, gambling, playing with their children, making bootleg liquor, and tending to the pigs and chickens they brought with them to supplement their diet. In his memoir about growing up in Port Essington, E.A. Harris recalls that the Chinese workers used to make kites which they flew in their spare time. As the years passed, Japanese fishers joined the Aboriginal boat crews, though the Japanese seldom took inside jobs. They lived in their own part of town, sometimes with their families if they brought them along. Many of the First Nations workers were from the local Tsimshian reserve; others came from around the north coast and lived in huts they rented from the company. Supervisors were always Euro-Canadians, who lived in large houses away from the clamour of the waterfront.


The result was a heady mixture of cultures and languages that was every bit as “multicultural” as Canada is today. In 1897 George Dorsey, curator of Chicago’s Field Museum, happened to be visiting Port Essington on a collecting expedition when the river steamboat arrived. “What a motley crew you will find on one of these British Columbia wharves!” he observed. “What colouring, what a Babel of tongues – Tlingits from Alaska, Haidas from the Queen Charlotte Islands, Tsimshians from the Skeena, Kwatiutls [sic] from Vancouver, Chinamen, Japanese, Greeks, Scandinavians, Englishmen and Yankees; men, women, children, dogs, and from two to six wooly bear cubs.”


Though the canneries at Port Essington remained in operation, the town itself did not fulfill the promise of its early years. Robert Cunningham, the founder, died in 1905 but his son George carried on the family enterprises: the sawmill, until it burned in 1908, the steamboats and the general store. (The cannery was sold to BC Packers in 1902.) In the spring of 1914 the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway opened its main line along the north bank of the Skeena to Prince Rupert. With the opening of a rail connection to the interior, steamboat traffic on the river dwindled and Port Essington lost its strategic position as a port of call. Economic activity dwindled and life took on a slower pace. After the last cannery closed in 1936, the community limped along until it was snuffed out altogether by two major fires in the 1960s that destroyed almost all the buildings.


Next time: Developments in the Industry