‘Caretakers of their history:’ The Naknek cannery

For some Alaskan communities, the local cannery is the most important building in town. They pack and ship wild Alaska fish down to the continental U.S., giving others a taste of what locals take for granted. Most often, it performed its typical functions for the town, creating jobs for local and foreign workers alike. Nowadays, empty cannery buildings are sometimes converted into recreational spaces. They operate as wedding venues, dance halls and lodges.

The Naknek Cannery is located in the Bristol Bay area. The cannery was the longest running in the state, operating for nearly 120 years. Photo credit: Katie Ringsmuth

Katie Ringsmuth, a UAA history professor and Alaska historian who grew up in the Bristol Bay village of Naknek, spent her teen years working in the Naknek cannery.

More than 100 years after its opening, the Naknek had run its course. Trident Seafoods, its owner as of 2015, ceased operations at the location. After visiting the abandoned cannery that same year, Ringsmuth and colleagues decided that it was time to breathe new life into it.

Between 1891 and 1982, the Alaska Packers’ Association operated many canneries across Alaska, running a group of fishing and transport boats across the state. Their buildings each bore the proud diamond shape around its initials, a signature of the immensely successful company’s ownership.

In 1919, the Spanish flu epidemic wiped out small town populations across the state. A 1920 U.S. Coast Guard report on Alaskan towns impacted by the disease stated that at one of the settlements visited, the entire population, numbering seven persons, had died, and the native dogs had stripped their bones.

During this time, the Naknek cannery served as a lodging place for children from surrounding villages who had been orphaned by the flu. The children stayed in the cannery before being transported to Dillingham. There, they received care that would ultimately save many of their lives.

Ringsmuth approached the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation, where President Anne Pollnow took a personal interest. According to her, the AAHP acted as an “umbrella corporation” for the project, seeking funding for what some considered a “one in a million shot.”

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That one in a million shot came in the form of several prestigious grants, including ones from the National Park Service and the National Endowment for Humanities. Working alongside Trident Seafood, Ringsmuth and the AAHP secured the funding needed to move forward.

“What we’re trying to do in this project is to create a project where people can be caretakers of their history,” Ringsmuth said.

The Alaska Historical Society will host a lecture on the project as part of its Knik Lecture Series. The lecture is open to the public and will take place at Chugiak High School on April 18. To read more about the project, go to www.aahp-online.net.