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Kake works to save historic cannery

Posted: August 17, 2013 - 8:33pm  |  Updated: August 18, 2013 - 12:03am
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Kake Tribal CEO Gary Williams tours the Keku Cannery in Kake with Sen. Mark Begich's Southeast representative Sally Smith, left, and state Rural Affairs Advisor John Moller. The cannery is at risk of collapse. Kake residents worry that clean up would be more costly than stabilizing the structure.    Jennifer Canfield | Juneau Empire
Jennifer Canfield | Juneau Empire
Kake Tribal CEO Gary Williams tours the Keku Cannery in Kake with Sen. Mark Begich's Southeast representative Sally Smith, left, and state Rural Affairs Advisor John Moller. The cannery is at risk of collapse. Kake residents worry that clean up would be more costly than stabilizing the structure.

KAKE — Gary Williams fears that the historic Keku Cannery in Kake might collapse at any time. An earthquake in January gave him cause for alarm. Fortunately, the dilapidated landmark survived. Two of the main cannery buildings have already come down because of natural events: one in 2007 because of heavy snow load and the other in 2011 because of high winds.

Williams is the executive director for the Organized Village of Kake. Earlier this month, he led a few visitors on a tour of the cannery. Sally Williams, a representative for Sen. Mark Begich, and John Moller, the rural affairs advisor to Gov. Sean Parnell, treaded carefully through a maze of fallen steel and asbestos dust.

“If this comes down, we just don’t have the capacity to deal with the hazardous material. It’d be a disaster,” Williams said as he stepped over a pile of debris. “The asbestos could get in our clam beds and would affect our subsistence fishing. Once it hit the beach, it could become airborne.”

The tribe has worked with the Alaska State Historic Preservation Office and an engineering firm to come up with a structural assessment of the building. The National Park Service has also taken an interest in the building.

The cannery — which closed more than 30 years ago — is filled with tons of old machinery and vehicles, including a vintage Kake Fire Department engine. Water damaged business ledgers, stacked boxes of files and unused salmon roe boxes are reminders of a time when the cannery was the lifeblood of the town.

“You talk to some of the elders and they have such great memories of working here,” Williams said. “For many decades it was such an important part of the community. There’s no reason — if it was saved — that it couldn’t become that again.”

At the very least, Williams would like to see the building stabilized. Even better, Williams said, would be to turn the cannery into a tourist destination where locals could set up small shops.

Earlier this summer, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the Keku Cannery as one of the nation’s most endangered historic places. The National Trust says the cannery is worth saving because of the role it played in developing Alaska’s canning industry during the first half of the 20th century.

“The cannery attracted workers from many foreign countries, and was notable for its multi-ethnic — yet segregated — workforce,” reads a description of the cannery on the National Trust’s website. “In addition, Kake Cannery also serves as a reminder of the influence organized labor and unionism had on improving working conditions in the industry.”

Williams said the tribe has been trying to get funding support from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to save the building. The building is on BIA trust land, so it might qualify for some kind of support from the federal agency.

“We’ve got support from the Anchorage office but haven’t heard anything from the central office,” Williams said.

The tribe is also looking at Department of Transportation funding.

“The fallout of the asbestos could close down that main arterial over there,” Williams said.

There are other avenues for funding and the tribe is pursuing as many of them as possible, Williams said. Not saving the building would be a tragedy, he said.

“When we were doing the cleanup on the last one, I couldn’t help but notice how much it felt like a funeral,” Williams said. “So many people here have memories of this cannery.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at jennifer.n.canfield@juneauempire.com.

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