Tenakee researchers looking for history, fish tales

Posted: Thursday, March 07, 2002

For the better part of a half-century, the fortunes of the Superior Packing Co. and the settlement of Tenakee Springs were closely intertwined.

Now, nearly 50 years since the cannery was shuttered and with most of the buildings long gone, local researchers are hoping to piece together its history through the stories and photographs of people who were there.

Tenakee Springs, on Chichagof Island about 45 miles southwest of Juneau, is home to about 100 people.

The project is being conducted by the Tenakee Historical Collection and is coordinated by Bob Pegues. It started a few years ago when the granddaughter of the first cannery owner came to Tenakee with an album full of photos and information.

Pegues said he wants personal accounts and memories like that, rather than stale technical documents, to form the basis of the project's result - a series of articles or a small book.

"People usually write these stories all facts and figures," he said. "But I said, 'Let's see if we can get a hold of the people involved and tell it from (their) perspective.' "

With only 50 years having passed since the cannery closed, Pegues said he feels there is a great potential to find stories, photographs and other items relating to its history among people living in the region.

"We do know there are people who worked there who live in Southeast Alaska, and lots of people whose parents and grandparents worked out there," he said.

According to Pegues, what eventually became the Superior Packing Co. began operation in 1916. In early years it was known as Tenakee Fisheries Co. and Standard Salmon Packers.

The first owner went bust after four years when his one contract was canceled, Pegues said. The operation then came under control of John Tenneson, who with his wife, Gladys, and sons, Jack and Jim, ran the cannery for the next three decades.

John Tenneson was a remarkable figure, Pegues said. While he continued to directly oversee the Tenakee cannery in season - becoming well-liked among the fisherman he purchased from - he eventually obtained full or partial ownership of two other canneries and became a noted figure throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Among many roles, Tenneson served as a director of the Federal Reserve Bank in Seattle and was chairman of the Alaska Salmon Institute.

Pegues said that when Tenneson died at the cannery in 1951, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran an obituary headlined "Noted financial leader dies."

After John Tenneson died, the cannery continued to operate for two years before government regulations on fishing and poor relations with local fishermen contributed to its demise, Pegues said.

At its peak, Pegues said, the cannery employed about 200 people and was the basis of the Tenakee economy - especially when visitors to the local hot springs dwindled after World War II.

"It played an important role in Tenakee for many, many years," he said.

For more details about the project or to contribute information, contact Pegues or project assistant Vicki Wisenbaugh in care of the Tenakee Historical Collection, P.O. Box 633, Tenakee Springs, AK 99841. They also can be reached by e-mail at wisentenakee@juno.com.

Andrew Krueger can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com.

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