Craig cannery. Photo by Ralph Mackie.

Craig cannery. Photo by Ralph Mackie.

Then and Now: Craig cannery

Editor’s note: This week begins the monthly column “Then and Now” by lifelong Craig resident Ralph Mackie. Each month, Mackie will recall some aspect of Craig’s history, whether a place or event, and compare it to present. We hope you’ll enjoy his recollections.

Just about every town in Southeast Alaska has a cannery. Some have several. I don’t know if its true or not but I heard that at one time Ketchikan had 17.

For generations, the Craig cannery was like a vital organ, the heartbeat of town and the primary source of livelihood and activity. Craig woke up each spring with the cannery, and went into hibernation each fall when the purse-seining season was over.

I’m a commercial fisherman. My deckhand, who graduated from high school last May, wouldn’t describe the cannery that way at all. He might say something about a group of dilapidated buildings and broken down grids. Maybe he’d mention the park, or the mariner’s memorial stone that now marks the point. He might say something about the web loft, where people get married and have parties nowadays, without knowing anything about the long hours of work or steady stream of humor that flowed through the warehouse for decades.

In 1963 I was 10 years old. The Craig Cannery came to life in May that year, as it had done every year for decades. Carl Aspelund, the superintendent, and his wife Reba, flew into town on Ellis Airlines and settled into the white house at the edge of the cannery property. Carl supervised the arriving mechanics and maintenance men as they worked to get the shop in order and patch up whatever had fallen into disrepair. He organized the crews who climbed up on the grids to copper-paint the dry-docked boats. Reba was strong and lively, larger than life. I’m not sure what her official job at the cannery was, but I know she had lots of lady friends in town, and their large bonnets and colorful sun dresses added a great deal of class to the 4th of July celebration each year.

Much of the prep work for the season surrounded the grids. Grids are common in Southeast Alaska. Even today, with modern haul out facilities, tidal grids remain in wide use. At high tide, boats move into position above the submerged grids, and when the tide goes out, the boats settle on the large cross beams, giving fishermen a few hours to scramble around and do their bottom work before the tide comes back in. The Craig cannery had an additional set of grids that were built up on the beach above high tide, where the seine boats were dry-docked during the winter.

In 1963, the cannery wasn’t actually canning fish anymore. It had become a major maintenance and supply station, offloading the fish to tenders who would take them to Ketchikan. The canning had ended with the fire of 1958.

I remember the night of the fire. The fire hall siren went off, and my Grandpa Tom grabbed his coat and rushed out the door. A couple hours later a man knocked and told Grandma Jessie that we needed to leave the house and head down to Shelter Cove, because the Standard Oil tanks might explode, and the whole town could burn. We bundled up and hurried in the dark down to Maudi Richard’s place, where the floatplane dock is now. I looked out her kitchen window to the west, and the whole sky was blood red.

They fought the fire all night, but it was a losing battle, and by morning much of the cannery was destroyed. Somehow they got word to Carl, who was down at Dall Island on his way home to Seattle for the winter. When he flew back in to Craig the next morning, he said the burnt pilings were glowing like a sea of birthday candles.

By 1963 the fire was a distant memory, and the annual excitement around what continued to go on at the cannery attracted us like flies to honey. We tried to get as close to action as we could.

“You kids get off the grids! This isn’t a playground!”

But the truth is, it was a fantastic playground. The large green lawns were freshly mowed, and we were allowed to play there. We gathered for games of steal the flag and various forms of tag. At noon the cannery cook rang a big triangle, calling the crew to lunch, and all the kids in earshot to the back door of the kitchen for cookies.

In early June, when everything was ready, the timbers on the high grids were smeared with grease, and the generator shack on the hill above roared to life. Thick wire cables, strung down the slope through heavy blocks and over to the boat cradles, drew taut and skidded the boats over to the runway where they were reconnected and slid down into the water. The Libby No. 5, the Libby 6, the 8, 9, 10, 12 and 14, the R&H and the Top Notch, one by one had their ceremonial turn, descending to the water, floating off their cradles, and idling out to tie up at the dock.

The sandy beach in front of the cannery office was our favorite spot to go swimming. The low grids to the west were no longer being used for boat maintenance, and they were just right for wading on and jumping off of, depending on how high the tide was. On sunny days, Fish Egg Island blocked the west wind, and the beach would get nice and warm. The water was cold, of course, but it didn’t take long to get used to it. A couple of courageous dunks and you were ready to go.

One rainy day in July I was coming out of Mama Abel’s Confectionary and saw Evelyn and June Hamilton walking by in their bathing suits with beach towels around their necks.

“Are you guys going swimming in the rain?” I asked.

“Yeah. You should come with us. The water feels warmer when it’s raining!” I ran home, got my swimming trunks on and headed down after them. Sure enough, the water did seem warmer than usual. It was one of those mysteriously calm days, when the rain falls lightly, straight down. We swam back and forth between the beach and the cannery dock. It was pretty cool to swim in the rain.

When my mom was a girl in the 1940s, many of the cannery workers came over from the Phillipines each season. Once everyone was settled into a routine, there would be a dance at the Filipino bunkhouse every Saturday night. After years of begging her mother to let her attend, mom finally came of age. She was not disappointed. People were all dressed up and there was magic in the air. The band sported guitars and ukuleles, a harmonica, a trumpet, snare drums and a big washtub bass. Most of the teenagers in town showed up and had the time of their lives.

In those days, seining opened every Monday morning. The boats stayed on the fishing grounds all week, anchoring at night in coves near the open ocean. They would head back in to town every Friday afternoon, so we would go down to the point and watch for them. My friend Jimmy Hamilton had the knack of recognizing boats far out on the horizon. At first sight of them, he’d say something like, “Look’s like the Top Notch!” All I could make out was a speck in the distance, but pretty soon, sure enough, the Top Notch would be steaming through the pass between Fish Egg Island and Cannery Point.

One of my favorite seine boat captains was Nick Charles, who ran the Libby 6. One Friday afternoon we were down on the beach and spotted the first boats heading for town. As they drew close, we saw the Libby 6 in the lead, running just ahead of the Libby 14. As the two boats approached the green buoy that marks the southern end of Fish Egg Reef, I could see the 14 was gaining, and was going to pull ahead around the outside. Then Nick did something completely unexpected. He cut the corner and charged to the inside of the green buoy, which nobody, especially a seine boat captain, was ever supposed to do. The Libby 6 raced out into the narrow pass a good 40 feet in front of the Libby 14. We all cheered, and ran back up the beach and down the cannery dock to watch them tie up and shout our congratulations! Acting as if nothing had happened, Nick barked a few orders to his crew, climbed up the ladder, and led the whole bunch of us to Florence’s Lunch Room, where he bought a milkshake for every kid in the gang.

Well, time marches on, and unfortunately small town canneries have mostly been left behind. But they leave the memory of a very colorful past, and we owe a debt of thanks to the women and men who continue the work of keeping the memory alive.

• Ralph Mackie operates the Hill Bar in Craig, and gill nets out of Coffman Cove.

Ralph Mackie. Courtesy image.

Ralph Mackie. Courtesy image.

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