Building the First Cannery

This delightful image of laundry hanging outside residences at Carlisle Cannery perfectly evokes how the northern canneries, unlike any other salmon canneries on the west coast of North America, were home to the workers as much as they were industrial complexes. Without an urban workforce, the northern canneries were forced to establish seasonal villages of diverse people segregated but living in close quarters. This all began with an absolute reliance upon the skills and fishing rights of the Tsimshian—and the experience of Chinese canners—when investors built the first northern cannery. (Museum of Northern BC)

Charlie Lane was a man of opportunity. He was a self-styled “Colonel,” one of those San Francisco mining speculators who drifted into the Cariboo in the late 1860s even though the big gold rushes had come and gone. These men promoted mining companies that gambled on finding paydirt by digging deeper than the placer miners.

In 1870 Lane and partner John Kurtz—backed by investors as prominent as George Hearst—incorporated the Lane & Kurtz Cariboo Mining Company to work the “Meadows” claim at the mouth of Williams Creek. Lane set himself up as an expert, publishing a treatise through the British Colonistin 1873 that advocated more liberal treatment of mining companies, but all Lane & Kurtz dug was dirt and water. Judging from court records, by 1875 they were running out of other people’s money.

No doubt needing to appease his investors, Lane dashed off on an exploratory trip up the Skeena River at the height of the Cassiar Gold Rush in the summer of 1875. He arrived back in Victoria in August. He told the newspapers that he found a ledge of rich quartz, but that it had given out on prospecting. More bluntly, his partner on the trip said “the expedition was a complete failure.”

But it wasn’t a complete failure for Lane. In a sense he’d finally found gold after all—just not the gold he’d been looking for.

Inverness Passage, or Wilałoo, “the place of landslides,” became more commonly known as Cannery Row on the Skeena Slough. At one time five canneries operated in this one spot—Inverness, Dominion, North Pacific, Sunnyside, and Cassiar. (Lonnie Wishart Photo)

On his way back down the Skeena in August, Lane had stopped at Woodcock’s Landing—a roughshod little inn and trading post that had been established upon the first hint of gold in 1870, on Inverness Passage at the mouth of the Skeena. Here he met the Anglican missionary William Collinson.

It was a calm, overcast evening, muggy with looming rain, and Collinson commented that the fish were certainly jumping. That caught Lane’s attention. It had been less than a decade since James Syme founded the first BC salmon cannery at Annieville, and Alexander Ewan and his partners were now quickly expanding cannery operations on the Fraser.

Lane immediately asked Collinson if he thought that there were enough fish to justify a cannery on the Skeena. The missionary led him down to the shore and told him to see for himself—and then said that this was as good a spot as any for a cannery.

Convinced, Lane secured the purchase of 3 ½ miles of waterfront at Woodcock’s Landing and headed to San Francisco to find the money. On February 18, 1876, he incorporated the Northwestern Commercial Company with a capital stock of $200,000 “for the purpose of canning Salmon, Halibut, Oulachan, Venison, and dealing In Furs, Oils, and general merchandise in British Columbia and Alaska.” By the end of the month 80% of the stock had been disposed of, with the remaining 4,000 shares reserved for Turner, Beeton & Company of Victoria at $5 per share.

Like Turner, Beeton & Company, Lane was just a commission agent—in it for investment and profit. W.M. Neill was named as president of the Northwestern Commercial Company, and would be the actual manager of the canning operation. In March 1876, Neill headed north, and the company bought out Woodcock’s entire operation, right down to the goods in his store.

It had been a good gamble for William Woodcock. He had no real claim on the land, and his earlier attempt at bluffing had led Cunningham & Hankin to establish Port Essington at Spaksuut on the Skeena Mouth rather than pay him out.

The more important arrangement was securing a supply of fish, and that meant paying the Tsimshian people to fish—and for the right to fish. A single example of the various legal agreements was one between Neill and Paul Sebassah (Ts’ibasaa) at Kitkatla, providing exclusive rights to the chief’s fishing grounds and guaranteeing “that no one else but the men employed by the Company will be allowed to fish with the exception of my own family for their own food.”

On April 5, Lane sailed north from Victoria aboard a 92-foot McQuade & Company schooner with all of the machinery and supplies needed to build a cannery. There were three Columbia River canners to set up the machinery, and 20 experienced Chinese cannery hands. On April 19 the Northwestern Commercial Company took official possession of Woodcock’s Landing.

At the end of June the Sacramento Daily Unionreported that construction was being rushed along. By July 7 the establishment, now called Inverness Cannery, was “not quite prepared for canning,” but the canners confidently made the wildly optimistic estimate that they’d be able to put up 5,000 cases that season. They did manage to make a start—though the cannery didn’t officially begin reporting until 1877, when they packed 3,000 cases. This was mostly red spring salmon. They wouldn’t permanently switch to sockeye until 1879.

Inverness Cannery as it appeared in a 1918 photography by William Wrathall. Inverness operated for 74 continuous seasons until it was closed in 1950. It was twice gutted by fire, in 1893 and 1920, and the site ultimately burned in 1973. (Museum of Northern BC / Prince Rupert & District Archives)

At first, Inverness wasn’t much like the cannery villages that came to be familiar on the coast. In August 1878 it was a row of whitewashed, two-storey frame buildings, stinking with “tall, smoking flues and steam jets,” and was served by a new 52-foot screw tug, the Iris. When a Colonistcorrespondent visited that month Neill claimed that the plant’s capacity was 300 cases per day, but, no doubt conscious that investors read newspapers, he complained that just now they were running short-handed. On the week of July 20 they’d averaged 700 salmon per day, but he insisted that in the past the plant had managed up to 1,500 in a single day.

In August 1878 there were 10 white people at Inverness, those 20 Chinese men, and about 80 Tsimshian—50 men and the rest women and boys. There was not yet “Indian housing” at Inverness—the people camped when not working their twelve-hour days in the plant. The Colonistcorrespondent was surprised to note First Nations daily wages—a dollar for men, .50¢ for boys, and “five bits” (about .60¢) for the women who did “a good deal of the light work, such as packing and piling up tins, japanning the cans, making nets, etc.” For the time, these were good wages—there was already fierce competition for labour, and the Tsimshian were very well aware of the value of their efforts.

The Tsimshian were also, of course, using their own boats and setting all the nets to feed the cannery—each fisherman on the traditional grounds of his house. In fact this led to a bit of a spat between Neill and Collinson. The mission people from Duncan’s Metlakatla refused to fish on Sundays, and an “indignant” Neill protested that the missionaries should be teaching these people “to obey as their first duty.” The equally indignant Collinson insisted that the wishes of the white man’s god outweighed the wishes of the white man himself, though no cannery manager ever would fully believe that.

For Lane and Neill the relationship with the Tsimshian might have been a marriage of convenience; if so, as with the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Simpson years before, they had underestimated the economic prowess of their new partners.

The Tsimshian leaders could not have known that this was not one cannery but an invasion—by 1878 Windsor Cannery was already a work in progress upriver at the mouth of Aberdeen Creek—but it seems likely that the intention was to absorb this new industry into the economic control of the Tsimshian, just as they had done with the fur trade.

Much would change in the coming years: legislation and gunboats, the introduction of new peoples and in ever greater numbers, company boats, segregated company housing. But in the beginning—not to diminish the vital presence of those first skilled Chinese workers—the first cannery on the northern coast of BC was very much a Tsimshian cannery. Charlie Lane might not have realized it, but he was just their commission agent.

First published in 1991, Salmon Canneries: British Columbia North Coast, by Gladys Blyth, remains the definitive overview of the northern canneries. When Lonnie and I arrived in Prince Rupert we quickly wore out our first copy of Gladys’s book, travelling by land, sea and air in our determination to make a first-hand study of every single site.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: