KETCHIKAN — The Tongass Historical Museum is holding an exhibit of Ketchikan publisher Emery Tobin’s notebook: “New England Fish Co. — A 1930 Photo Album.”
Each photo has an informative caption, some with just a touch of humor. Museum Director Michael Naab said the book likely was a marketing device, and was compiled by Tobin when he worked as the company’s bookkeeper and accountant.
Naab said Tobin later went on to found the Alaska Sportsman magazine, and was its publisher for many years.
The notebook is 105 pages, Naab said, and the exhibit was created by scanning, enlarging and mounting most of them. The book was donated in the late 1970s by the cannery’s manager. Naab said it was senior curator of collections Richard Van Cleave’s idea to show the entire book as an exhibit.
Photos include “A Sturdy Cannery Tender,” one of several photos depicting boats that supported cannery and cold storage operations. Other photos of vessels included a “speedy runabout,” a refrigerated ship and a fishing steamer that Tobin wrote was used to haul up to 200,000 pounds of halibut.
Several photos show operations inside the Ketchikan and the Noyes Island canneries. The latter facility was built off the coast of Prince of Wales Island and began operations in 1924.
One photo depicts workers loading finished cans into boxes labeled with large block letters: “EAT MORE SALMON.” The caption stated that in 1930, the two-line cannery could pack up 2,200 to 2,500 cases of salmon per day.
Tobin explained the purpose of a clinching machine, which crimped the lids on the cans after they passed through the “patching table,” where the fish received a final inspection and trim, if needed.
One caption explained that the patching table’s top was “magnesite topped to ensure cleanliness.” Magnesite was a type of cement used to make constructions such as stairs, countertops and floors, according to a January 1922 issue of National Builder magazine.
Outdated attitudes are revealed in some captions, such as one for a photo of a woman posing near stacks of rolled up chicken-wire fish-trap fences. Tobin titled that photo “A Chicken and Some Chicken Wire.”
Another photo depicts a machine called an “iron chink,” and Tobin explained that it was so named because it did the “formerly oriental” work of beheading, gutting, finning, washing and de-scaling salmon.
One photo depicts “Some of the Men Who Run Things at Noyes,” and Tobin quipped, about the roundest man, “Andy admits weighing 345 pounds in his stocking feet.”
“There was no attempt to explain his explanations or typos,” Naab said, when museum staff prepared the exhibit.
Several pages illustrated the building, operation and storage of the cannery’s fish traps and anchors.
Each trap was stabilized against currents and winds with three to six 10,000-pound anchors, according to Tobin. In the photos, they almost appear cartoon-like in their shape and colossal size.
Tobin explained the operation of traps, which were outlawed in 1959 in Alaska. The traps were constructed of logs, strapped together in a carefully prescribed manner to prevent chafing of the cables and logs. Each had three parts: the heart, the pot and spillers on each side, from which fish were brailed.
A watchman was employed to keep kelp clear of the traps, Tobin wrote in the captions, and also to close traps when fishing wasn’t allowed and to protect the catch from “trap pirates.”
The exhibit includes photographs of the George Inlet hydropower facility that the New England Fish Co. built to provide electricity for its operations. The company built a dam at Whitman Lake and a powerhouse at Herring Cove in about 1906.
The exhibit also includes a slide show, highlighting pages and photos that weren’t suited to hanging with the others.
An informational plaque, created by museum staff, explained that the New England Fish Co. began operating a cold-storage facility in Ketchikan in 1908, and by 1929 had expanded to be the “largest on the West Coast.” A one-line cannery was added in 1923.
Employee housing also was built in 1923 on the hill above the cannery. It was called Belleanna Heights, after the company’s main canned salmon line.
In 1965, according to museum information in the exhibit, the cannery burned. The cold storage was salvaged, but the cannery was not. In 1980, the New England Fish Co. went bankrupt. The facilities have changed hands several times since, and have been rebuilt, remodeled, and have had new crew housing built near the facility.
Museum attendant Andy Brown said there was a reunion of two former cannery employees in the museum Tuesday when a visitor in a Ketchikan Pioneers’ Home group met a man who had been visiting the exhibit. He said it was enjoyable to hear them reminisce.
A family “funday” is planned for 10 a.m. to noon, Feb. 9 in the museum that will offer activities for families related to the exhibit.
Naab said the show has generated a great response, and had a “wonderful opening” on Jan. 4. The exhibit will be on display through Feb. 23.
“It’s kind of a time capsule,” Naab said. “It’s a terrific record to have in our collection.”