Story last updated at 9/19/2012 - 12:46 pm
Near the mouth of the Stikine River is a rounded point along the mainland shore. When Navy Officer Jefferson Moser investigated Alaska's salmon resources in 1897 for the federal government, he named it Gerard Point, but fails to tell us for whom it was named. At that time, Fort Wrangel (as Wrangell was then known) was about to experience the Klondike Gold Rush when prospectors and miners thought the Stikine River was a short way to the Interior.
It is at Gerard Point that a sawmill and salmon cannery were constructed soon after Moser passed by in the "Albatross," a coal burner ship. The site has been described in early fishery reports as being on the mainland opposite Point Highfield (today's airport site), at the junction of Eastern Passage and the "southeast stream of the Stikine delta."
More than hundred years ago, the Stikine River delta had not extended itself as far south as Point Gerard, and a substantial deep-water wharf could accommodate steamers, that today, would run aground.
With the Gold Rush men coming to Fort Wrangel, Theo Nicholai, an experienced mill man from Portland, Ore., saw his chance to make money that wasn't grubbing for gold. His company, Stikeen Lumber Mills, constructed a saw mill in early 1898 at the head of the Stikine's deep water navigation. As manager, he selected J. Milner as the general superintendent. The mill had a capacity of 20,000 board feet per day, cutting principally spruce and cedar, undoubtedly harvested from the mountainside behind the site. The wharf was constructed and other buildings erected. Once started from 15 to 20 men worked supplying lumber for the Wrangell and Stikine River trades.
Apparently Nicholai didn't make as much money as he thought he would, because he sold the sawmill to Thlinket Packing Company, organized at Portland, Ore., by James T. Barron. It was in Portland that Barron and Nicholai closed the deal in spring 1899. Barron used the mill to cut lumber for his new fish processing plant.
The site chosen was not on level ground. Consequently the cannery building was small and crowded with men and equipment. With the wharf and cannery over deep water, the current carried away the gurry (heads and guts). This made it one of the few canneries of the times that did not have unpleasant odors, which so often were associated with canneries, where rotting fish parts accumulated on the beach.
Under the superintendency of Barron, president of the company, the cannery processed mainly pinks or humpback salmon the first year. The fleet was made up of one steamboat, the "Perhaps," sixteen fishing skiffs for imported company fishermen, and the chartered "Baranof." Local Natives also sold fish to the cannery, and in 1900 it paid collectively $8,000.
The site was close the mouth of the Stikine River because Barron and his company surmised that any river of that size must support large runs of salmon. Compared to many smaller streams in the same region, the river proved a great disappointment. Fishermen were forced to fish at streams on nearby islands, Cleveland Peninsula and the east and north coasts of Prince of Wales Island. The "Baranof" packed the fish longer distances.
Before the runs began, a Chinese crew imported from the Pacific Coast made cans by hand. Once fish were delivered to the fish house, the Chinese butchered the fish, and then hand-packed pieces into cans. Eight hundred cases of 48 cans each could be canned each day using some machinery: two steam boxes for creating a vacuum, a crimper to put on can lids, two retorts for cooking the fish under pressure, and a can-washer to remove the oil from the exterior of the processed cans.
In early 1902, Barron decided to sell his two canneries: Point Gerard and Santa Anna, south of Wrangell. A newly organized conglomerate, Pacific Packing and Navigation Company chose not to operate either cannery that year.
The new company's grandiose plans did not work out. It went into receivership in 1903. The receiver inventoried the Gerard plant during the summer and took steps to perfect title to the land. However, the land was never patented, and it remains part of the National Forest today.
The receiver wrote that, "On account of nearness to Santa Anna...the Gerard site is of considerable value as a fishing station if nothing more. The buildings are in good shape." The wharf was somewhat dilapidated, so the receiver arranged to have it reinforced to stand the stress of water and ice until spring.
Crews removed the machinery and gear to other canneries the receiver operated in 1903. The remaining fishing gear, machinery, wharf and fish site were estimated to be worth $19,789. The wharf and building probably cost, according to the appraiser, in the neighborhood of $12,000 to $15,000.
The bankruptcy court sold the canneries, and Barron successfully bid on the Gerard site. He had no use for the small cannery so the site and buildings were abandoned. Barron, using money from the sale of his two other canneries, had built a cannery in 1902 at Funter Bay.
The Point Gerard cannery ran for only three years, packing a total of 63,300 cases. Today when boaters pass by, the former cannery site is impossible to distinguish in the brush and trees. The late Dick Stokes of Wrangell thought the site was just south of the point near a waterfall that provided water for the processing.
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.