Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 4:

Native Labor and the Rise of the Fishing Industry

Changes in the Kenai Peninsula's resource base affected the use and appeal of natural resources on the outer coast as compared to other areas. These changes gradually served to attract people to Seldovia, Port Graham and other villages in Cook Inlet. As hunting proved more challenging and less profitable to American companies and their Native crews, a new economy began to emerge that ultimately replaced the fur trade monopoly. By the late 1880s, commercial fishing and canneries gradually succeeded hunting and fur trading as the major source of local Native income but by 1890, the Alaska Commercial Company's English Bay facility was the only remaining trading station on the Kenai Peninsula. [50] As Porter points out, English Bay and Seldovia were already well established church communities, probably because they had been trading station sites.

The settlements of Seldovia and Alexandrovsk [English Bay] have small chapels built of logs, one of the residents in each serving as reader, and once or twice during the year the priest from Kenai visits these localities. [51]

The salmon cannery industry began on the Kenai Peninsula in 1882 with the establishment of the Kasilof River cannery. Built by the Alaska Packing Company of San Francisco, this was the first of many canneries to process Cook Inlet salmon. [52] Over the next decade, seventeen out-of-state companies built canneries in central Alaska; during the 1890s, many of these became part of the Alaska Packers Association.

Canneries relied on a seasonal workforce with a highly segregated and hierarchical division of labor. Cannery management, recognizing the limited local population base, brought a white and Oriental labor force north each spring; Native hiring also occurred, though on a relatively small scale. These early canneries may have had an indirect effect on the economies of Seldovia and English Bay by siphoning local labor away. For Native residents, the canneries' impact on the Kenai Peninsula's resources and environment proved overwhelming on an individual and personal level.

Father John Bortnovsky, who presided over the Kenai Mission from 1898 to 1908, observed and recorded how the demise of the hunting-trading system undermined the Kenaitze's environment and the lifeways. As neighbors to the Chugach, the Kenaitze depended upon similar resources; as the people of the coast migrated northward, the two groups invariably faced many of the same economic hardships and influences. Written in 1899, Bortnovsky's account of the onset of change on the Kenai conveyed a sense of loss and isolation for the Natives as outside interests invaded the peninsula.

The hunting grows poorer. Frequent forest fires caused by American prospectors either exterminate the animals or drive them to safer places. The latter would not have caused too much hardship: the Kenai Indian is accustomed to roaming in the mountains and on the tundras; he can reach the animals anywhere and catch them. But, unfortunately, another scourge fell on them and completely depressed them: the fur prices fell terribly.... The quantity of fish grows smaller each year. And no wonder: each cannery annually ships out 30,000 to 40,000 cases of fish. During the summer all the fishing grounds are jammed with American fishermen and, of course, the poor Indian is forced to keep away in order to avoid unpleasant meetings. [53]

By the early 1900s, salmon canneries ruled the local economy on the Kenai. Cannery operations provided local stores for fishermen and workers that eventually took trade away from the fur company stations. For the residents of English Bay looking to find work in the fishing industry, two canneries opened on the southern end of the peninsula in the early 1900s. Between 1911 and 1915 the Seldovia Salmon Company operated a cannery at Seldovia. Unable to turn a profit, the company defaulted in 1915, and remained closed for a year until the Columbia Salmon Company invested in the buildings in 1916. Within a year, the Northwestern Fisheries Company bought a cannery and kept up the operation for two more years until it closed indefinitely in 1919. At Port Graham, the Fidalgo Island Packing Company built a cannery in 1912. Already established in the southeast market with a cannery in Ketchikan, the Fidalgo Island Packing Company maintained an operation at Port Graham until 1960 if not longer. [54] Other employment could be found at the halibut cold storage plant in Port Chatham that opened in 1915, and at Portlock where a chrome ore mine opened in 1917 on Claim Point. [55]

Port Graham, a settlement with a population of 100 residents by 1910, provided a variety of job opportunities in shipping, fishing, and coal mining. In 1909 the site became a transfer point for local shipping traffic into Cook Inlet. Port Graham had an excellent harbor as compared to neighboring English Bay less than five miles away. The USC&GS reported on the port in 1910, describing it as a secure two-mile-wide harbor with easy access in daylight; the agency further described the port as being located inside Passage Island between Russian Point and Dangerous Cape. [56] As Port Graham (along with nearby Seldovia) prospered and attracted new industry, English Bay remained unchanged. The traditional Native community relied on its strong church and former hunting and trading affiliations to maintain its seasonal population. It is unknown if the shipping industry sought and hired local Native employees; the larger ships anchored in the waters off English Bay did hire Native rowers to shuttle ship passengers to shore. [57]

With the renewed interest in the Port Graham area, investors and miners once again attempted to exploit coal resources along the shores of the bay. W. G. Whorf, who worked with both the cannery and coal mine, in Port Graham procured the government railroad contract to ship coal to Seward. [58] Coal mining continued at least through 1918 in Port Graham under the management of the Port Graham Coal Company. [59] Native crews from the region worked the mines and lived nearby. In 1910 the ruins of the earlier mine were still standing and some activity had already resumed.

Here Russia had a coal mine ... and sent its criminals there to work it. The mine is abandoned, but there is one nearer the bay. There is an Indian village here and they work in the mine, which is not deep. Here and in other places it is put in sacks. Several thousand sacks of coal were near the mine. The ruins of the Russian buildings were seen, one of them being a large prison, another a church.... [60]

Transient work and seasonal occupations shaped a pattern of migration between villages and larger economic centers at the turn of the century. In 1898, Dall reported in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society that residents moved freely between Seldovia and the Port Graham area to find work.

In the lower bay outside of the harbor is a snug anchorage, Chesloknu of the natives, Seldovia or Herring Bay of the Russians. Here are two trading stations, and most of the inhabitants from Port Graham, where the harbor is less convenient, have migrated to Seldovia village. [61]

By 1898, the church had opened a school in Alexandrovsk and employed Ivan Munin as the first teacher and administrator.

During the last few years of the nineteenth century, American shipping routes from Seattle and San Francisco began to link many villages and towns throughout Alaska. Three of the principal means of transport–ships carrying mail, the Revenue Cutters, and commercial company supply and stock ships–for the most part skirted the outer Kenai coast. Ship traffic later served Port Graham and Seldovia, but the tides within Cook Inlet proved too treacherous for steamer ships, requiring smaller ships to lighter mail and supplies to towns and villages. Larger ships had little incentive to linger along the outer coast, at least not until the initial stages of reconnaissance and construction of the town of Seward in 1902-03 as the terminus of the Alaska Central Railroad. By 1911, the Alaska Steamship and Alaska Commercial companies were serving Seward with mail six times a month. [62]

This period of transition along the coast, as people moved between villages and new industries evolved, changed local economies and village life. In 1902, Mary Lowell sold the rights to her family's homestead at the head of Resurrection Bay to John Ballaine as part of the development of the Alaska Central Railroad and the establishment of Seward. As more industry and transportation centered in Seldovia, Port Graham, and Seward, the coast continued to serve as a seasonal hunting grounds until fur farming and gold mining developed in the 1920s.

Caines Head
Caines Head was the site of a major World War II camp; a major gun battery was placed on the hill's crest. The site, which overlooked "Almouth Sound" (Resurrection Bay), was named for Capt. E. E. Caine, skipper of the Santa Ana, which brought the founders of Seward northward in August 1903. Courtesy of Resurrection Bay Historical Society.

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002