Cannery veteran lived local lore

Published on Thu, Nov 22, 2001 by Jan Hrutfiord

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Cannery veteran lived local lore

By Jan Hrutfiord

In 1893 a group of 15 canneries in Alaska banded together to form the Alaska Packers Association. In 1894 they bought the Drysdale cannery on Semiahmoo Spit. This was the beginning of the APA cannery at Blaine, which became the world’s largest cannery.

Art James was born in Point Roberts in 1907, and moved to the family farm on Shintaffer Road near Birch Bay when he was three. He still lives on the farm where he was raised. Art’s father had worked at APA since its beginning in 1894 and lived at the cannery during the week. When he was old enough, it was Art’s job to take the horse and buggy to pick his father up and take him home on Saturdays.

In 1918, when Art was 11, his mother took him to the post office to get a work permit, telling them that Art was 12. He started working at APA then and continued working at the Blaine cannery for most of the next 51 years.

When Art started, the cannery had two large steam engines, which gave power to a large maze of belts and pulleys mounted on the rafters and ceilings of the many cannery buildings. The cannery work was done by several different groups of people. The local workers included from 40 to 50 women, who were called by Mary Holtrop, (who also ran the lunchroom), every evening that there would be work the next day. These women would come to the plant from their homes, either walking or on the boat from Blaine.

The Chinese workers were contracted through “Big Jim,” the China boss, and came from Portland, Oregon. They had their own dormitory-cookhouse on the Semiahmoo spit. The China house was large, three stories in height. The 60 Chinese workers had their own cooks, and raised a garden to help supply the vegetables that they wanted to eat.

The Indian house, a smaller dorm/cookhouse on the spit, housed 12 to 15 American Indians who came from Canada, and worked as the fish cleaners or “slimers.” In later years, new machinery would cut the number of slimers needed to six or seven.

There were about 25 local men also working at the cannery, doing such work as was needed in the machine shop, shipyard, boiler room, and to actually keep the canning operation going.

Until 1928, APA made all its own cans right there at the cannery. The tin stock would come in by sailing ship and one of Art’s early jobs was to unload the tin onto a cart and wheel it to the steam-driven elevators, where it was raised upstairs to the can loft. The second story of the warehouses was filled with empty cans - as many as 90,000 cases of cans piled up ready to be used.

Art handled many different jobs, but remembers fondly his work on boats and as a machinist. In 1927, he was put in charge of the Partridge, the superintendent’s yacht. He was the captain and one man crew. Joe Elliot was superintendent at APA at that time.

The Partridge was about 55 feet in length, and ran with a 40 horsepower Frisco Standard engine. This engine was much larger than what would be found today, and weighed about 3,000 pounds. Most of the power boats belonging to APA at that time were run with these engines.

One of Art’s duties as captain of the Partridge was to take it out at night to guard the fish trap on Birch Point, which was plagued by fish pirates. He had one deck hand aboard to help watch the trap and keep the fish from being stolen.

Art was captain of the Partridge for three years and enjoyed the very large salary of $100 a month, plus board.
In 1929, while Art was running the yacht, the ferryman was not always available, and Art got a license to sub for him.

In 1931, Art was promoted to engineer on the Penguin, one of the two APA cannery tenders at Blaine. (The other tender was the Pipet.) The tenders put in the traps each year and cared for them. Each trap was pulled out at the end of the season and pilings towed back to be stored at Semiahmoo spit - as many as 3,000 pilings.

Until 1934, APA canned sockeye and pink salmon caught locally in the large traps owned by the company. They had 25 different trap locations, and used 12 of these each year. Art remembers going to Bellingham in the Partridge to get the surveyor to survey the traps. Each trap in use had to be surveyed every four years to make sure it was built in the right place.
In 1932, the cannery was closed, traps leased out, and Art had no job that year. In 1933, APA was reopened and Art, being the only one available with a license, ran the ferry which took the workers from the end of the Blaine dock across to Semiahmoo.

The ferry at that time was the Balaena, a fancy name for a very inelegant boat, built around 1911. It looked like a barge with a box-type house on it. It was powered by a Regal one lunger engine.

Art says he made pretty good money running the ferry. He was paid by the passengers. The fare was for a round trip, and was 10 cents for APA workers, 15 cents for other visitors (salesmen, etc.) and 25 cents for a trip to the Semiahmoo lighthouse.

The Balaena met an untimely end, being smashed up in the Columbus Day Storm on October 12, 1934. The last year for fish traps in Washington was 1934. The APA cannery was closed from late 1934 through 1938, and the old cannery torn down and rebuilt in a different part of the building. The warehouses, the largest of which was 495 feet long, were rebuilt, the wooden floors were torn out and replaced with concrete.

Art went into the U.S. Coast Guard in 1942, during WW II, APA reopened in 1946, and Art returned as a machinist until 1949, when he became cannery foreman.

“They always canned local salmon only, in later years from purse seine and gillnet boats. They did warehouse Alaska salmon, which would be brought down already canned, and the labeling would be done at APA in Blaine, usually during the slow winter months. This would provide work getting orders labeled and then shipped by APA boats to Bellingham, and from there by train,” Art says.

Art remembers a frantic time in the fall of ’62 or ’63, when the cannery was shut down for the season, machinery dismantled, only to have the superintendent of Alaska operations buy huge dog (chum) salmon - 30 lbs. and up in size - from Canada, to be trucked to APA for canning.

They didn’t find out about it until 8 o’clock in the evening, and the fish were arriving the next morning. Art and all available helpers worked all night getting machinery ready for cannery operations, and then found that the fish were just too big to fit into the machinery. For three days, dog salmon were trucked to the APA plant, everyone waded in fish two feet deep on the floors, the men cut and cleaned the fish, the woman hand butchered and packed. It was one of the most profitable canning operations the APA had ever done.

The last year fish was canned at APA at Blaine was 1965. Art finished his last three years at APA as a machinist, which was what he had always thought himself to be. He worked at APA for a total of 42 years. He retired the same time the APA plant at Blaine was closed.

This is a rerun of a series of articles that I first wrote in 1994 about the history of our local salmon cannery and those who worked in it. I hope that you will forgive me if you already read this, but there are many new residents out there who don’t know much about our history. There will be several more historical articles in future issues
There will be another installment on the APA plant and other local workers, what they did there and where they are today. If you were one of the APA workers, and I missed you last time, let me know if you have any stories to tell about your time at APA. Thanks!


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