Critchley's quest: A search for family history

Published on Wed, May 15, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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After driving to the end of Semiahmoo spit to see where a large salmon cannery once stood, Robert Critchley approached a curved hulk of weathered gray wood lying in the grass near the shore. He quickly identified it as a 29-foot converted Bristol Bay saliboat that once fished for salmon in Alaska. Critchley leaned over the rail to peer into the dark cockpit, hesitant to step aboard the rotten deck.

“That’s never stopped you before,” said Robert’s wife, Nancy Critchley.

In a flash, Critchley was inside the wheelhouse doing what he loves best – exploring a piece of maritime history.

“It’s an old Gray Marine 4-cylinder, probably from the ’50s,” he said, referring to the rusted engine inside.

A self-described boat fanatic, Critchley is on a lifelong quest to preserve the scattered artifacts of the Northwest’s fishing and canning heritage. He and Nancy live on Vancouver Island and have amassed one of the largest private collections of cannery memorabilia, boats and old fishing equipment in the world. They came to Blaine on May 10 to visit the Alaska Packers Association (APA) Museum at Semiahmoo Park and meet with local history buffs. 

Salmon canneries thrived in dozens of ports from the 

Columbia River to Alaska from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. The Semiahmoo spit cannery, owned by the ubiquitous APA, was the predominant industry in Blaine and Birch Bay for many years. Hundreds of local men and women worked in the cannery or on the fishing boats. The cannery shut down in the ’70s and was later turned into the Semiahmoo Resort.

In 1984, the APA Museum opened in one of the cannery’s bunkhouses, which had been moved to Semiahmoo Park a few years earlier. An Iron Chink – the name by which a machine that cleaned and filleted salmon was called due to the fact that it took the place of Chinese laborers – sits out front, and other machines and artifacts can be found inside. Critchley stopped to examine the machine before entering the museum. His grandfather maintained an Iron Chink at a B.C. cannery for many years, and Critchley is familiar with how they work. He described how the machine sliced and cleaned the fish, tasks that were previously done by several workers. 

Inside the museum, Critchley found the purpose of his seven-hour journey to Blaine: A restored 29-foot Bristol Bay sailboat occupies most of one room, helping to tell the story of a forgotten era.

Richard Sturgill, director of Drayton Harbor Maritime, said Bristol Bay sailboats (also known as Columbia River salmon boats) 
were used to gillnet salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska from the 1880s until the 1950s. Sailboats were used instead of motorboats in order to limit the number of fish caught.

“Canners were worried that if fishing boats had motors they would overwhelm the canneries with fish,” Sturgill explained. “A lot of these boats were built right here at the cannery. They could be built in seven days.” The boats were then shipped up to Alaska to fish on Bristol Bay for the six-week salmon season.

Critchley is looking to add a Bristol Bay sailboat to his extensive collection, and he has located one for sale on Bainbridge Island. Looking over the beautifully preserved boat in the APA Museum, Critchley pointed out the various fittings.

“This here’s the stern roller, and you see these oarlocks. The one on Bainbridge is the same as this one here, an identical boat,” he said. “It doesn’t have all of the same fittings, but it’s supposedly in pretty good shape.” 

He took photos of the boat from all angles with a goal of accurately reproducing those fittings on his own boat when he gets it.

Critchley grew up in a coastal B.C. fishing village near Port McNeill. His interest in collecting cannery artifacts was sparked at the age of eight when his grandfather gave him some colorful fish can labels.

“There’s so much involved in collecting cannery artifacts – it snowballs,” he said. “You get one aspect, but there’s so many other components.”

Having always been a collector, Critchley said his father jokes that he should have carried on collecting stamps because they’re lighter and easier. Critchley’s passion goes beyond acquiring pieces of history, however.

“My family has worked in the canneries for over 100 years,” Critchley said. “So it’s a part of my family history, but it’s also a regional history that’s being thrown away. Once something loses its earning potential it’s thrown to the wayside. Everything’s disappearing so fast, you try and save as much as you can.”

In 2003, Critchley purchased most of a canning line from a First Nations Tribe in Bella Bella, B.C. Coincidentally, the equipment had also been used in the Semiahmoo cannery and was sold to the tribe in the ’70s.

The Critchleys have painstakingly preserved and reconstructed what amounts to a whole cannery on their own property, stitching together artifacts they’ve picked up over the years.
“I’ve got it all in place, but there’s a lot more to do with hooking up belts and lines,” Critchley said. “That’s part of the fun – there’s always more you can do.”

“It goes beyond collecting things,” he added. “It’s really fun to share this experience with others who are interested, and it’s a neat part of our history that we can preserve.”

The history of canning in our region has modern repercussions, said Sunny Brown, volunteer coordinator for the APA Museum.

“Many of the workers at the canneries were immigrants from Japan and China, and many of the descendants of those workers still live here,” she said.

Interpretive signs, diagrams, photos and models at the APA Museum tell the history of fishing and canning in Drayton Harbor.

“The cannery was a major part of how our community developed,” said Judy Thorson, a volunteer at the museum.

The museum was shut down in 1999 after the county declared it structurally unsound, but it was reopened in 2001 after renovations and improvements to its collection.

The APA Museum, a Whatcom County Park facility, will open Memorial Day weekend, and will operate Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. through September. Admission is free, but donations support the museum and keep the historic Plover ferry running. The Plover was built in 1944 to cart cannery workers to and from work, and now brings visitors out to the spit from Blaine Marina.