Story last updated at 6/5/2013 - 2:09 pm
For many years there were herring reduction plants in Alaska scattered along the shores of Alaska. In Southeast, most were in the bays of western Kuiu and eastern Baranof Islands because the herring runs returned along the southern end of Chatham Strait. A correction is needed on my column on the Washington Bay salmon cannery that turned into a herring reduction plant: it indents Kuiu not Admiralty Island. Here we learn about Big Port Walter and New Port Walter on Baranof Island.
In 1917, a herring plant started in "Big Port" as it is locally known. About that time edible salted herring were no longer being imported from northern Europe to the United States because of World War I. Entrepreneurs hastened to fill this niche market, but first had to learn how the Scottish cured the herring. Imported curers arrived in 1917 and soon many plants seined herring to process and cure with salt as the preservative.
However, it was herring oil and meal that became a staple product in all the plants. Big Port's plant operated under ownership of several companies through the 1920s and into the late 1930s, when the herring runs began to decrease. For the first time the plant was idle for several years. By the mid-1940s the reduction plant's main owner was Elling Artensen of Seattle. When he died in 1945, Harold Artensen took over the operation and production began again.
One of the young men who came to work at the plant about that time recently contacted me to share his remembrances. William "Bill" Frinsko, now a retired professor of the University of Illinois, came North in 1946, when he was a student of that school, to work at Big Port. He returned in the 1947 and 1948 seasons but worked as a tallyman at New Port Walter, a plant on the north side of the bay. By this time, Big Port Walter's plant was idle.
Bill, in addition to his regular job, was the union delegate representing the workers at New Port Walter. He sent me a copy of the 1948 contract "Agreement By and Between Pacific Herring Packers Association and the Fish Reduction & Saltery Workers, Local 7, International Fishermen & Allied Workers of America." This allowed for collective bargaining for all the employees. The contract described and classified the jobs, the accommodations and food, and pay scale in 16 single-spaced pages.
The section on Tallyman - Bill's job - said "All plants shall employ a regular tallyman. Other work performed by the tallyman may be performed at the overtime rate of the Utility man." In the Wage Scale section: Tallyman will be paid $327.00 per month. Any tallying done on Sundays and holidays shall be paid at the rate of $2.36 per hour. Any other work performed by him during the fishing season outside of his regular duties shall be paid at the rate of $2.04 per hour.
What did a tallyman do? Bill tells us "I operated a drum-type device that measured and counted barrels of herring from the fishing boats." In 1946, at Big Port the tallymen counted 309,139 barrels each weighing 250 pounds. The herring run in 1948 was so poor that only 128,869 barrels crossed the dock at New Port Walter.
Bill brought an Agfa Clipper (a $5 camera) that turned out to be the only one at the plant. In addition to sharing his pictures, he wrote me about some of the events that took place during his stay. He told about a death in the bunkhouse in 1948. I checked my files and found only one other reported death at the plant in all its years of operations. Apparently working in a herring reduction plant was not a dangerous job. Paul Dyer died at Big Port in August 1932; however he chose to take his own life with his gun. Bill's story is about a gun accident at New Port Walter.
Bill writes, "In summer 1948, I was working as a tallyman and maintenance worker at a herring reduction plant at New Port Walter. One of the workers was Helmer "Red" Helgerson, a tall, strong Swede in his mid-thirties with a fiancée in Seattle. Red complained of a sore neck, so the management arranged for him to see a doctor. Since the plant was in an isolated location, there was no town nearby, so Helmer had to go to Ketchikan to see a doctor. This would entail an absence of a week, because he went by the mail boat YAKOBI that came weekly to the plant.
"Before leaving, Helmer packed his belongings in a duffel bag, including a small rifle that he broke down to fit into the bag. On his return from town, he went to his room on the second floor of the bunkhouse to empty his duffel bag. As he was bending over to remove the rifle, it discharged and the bullet hit him directly in the chest. He screamed, 'I've been shot!' and began running from his room down the stairs.
He fell at the foot of the stairs, and I, along with other workers who heard him scream, ran to him. He was on his back, quiet, and unmoving. I opened his shirt and saw a small hole in his chest and did not see a drop of blood. One of the other workers said 'Let's cut out the bullet,' and was poised with his knife. I said, 'No, Nick, it won't do any good Red is already dead and you wouldn't be able to stop the bleeding.'
"Red's body was placed in an empty cabin nearby, and the plant workers kept constant vigil until it was removed to his home in Seattle, Washington. After the season, I went to see his family to give them a first-hand account of his death. It was a sad time for all of us.
A formal report was made of Helmer's death, along with eye-witness accounts by me and others. Every worker contributed to purchase flowers for his funeral."
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at email@example.com.