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Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage

Kake Cannery
Kake, Alaska
 
Large wooden warehouse buildings on pilings above water Kake Cannery buildings resting on pilings above the water
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In a region teeming with salmon, the tall trees of southeastern Alaska shelter numerous salmon streams that fill every year with hundreds of fish as they return from the ocean to spawn in their freshwater birthplaces. Before the arrival of commercial fisheries, the Kake Tlingits and other Alaska Natives fished in the area for their own subsistence. Arriving in the 19th century, Russian entrepreneurs set up salteries along the coastline, hoping to package salted salmon for export. In the mid-1860s, fishermen from the United States began delivering Alaskan fish to West Coast markets. Recognizing the vast abundance and great commercial value of Alaskan salmon, U.S. businesses eventually constructed 134 salmon canneries along the region's southeast coast between 1878 and 1949. Kake Cannery, located on Kupreanof Island in Kake Alaska, is considered the best preserved of these Alaskan compounds.

Kake Cannery's historic significance is recognized by its designation as a National Historic Landmark. Constructed between 1912 and 1940, the Kake Cannery played a key role in the development of the Alaskan salmon-canning industry during the first half of the 20th century. It was notable not only for its reputation as the largest cannery in the region, but for its multi-ethnic workforce. Canneries across the region used foreign contract labor and the Kake Cannery attracted a large number of immigrant workers primarily of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino descent, with a smaller proportion of Korean, Mexican, and African American laborers. The cannery also employed Alaska Natives from the local Tlingit population, whose fishing skills and knowledge of the region made them one of the cannery's primary salmon providers. Until unions became a dominant force in the U.S., these immigrant and Alaska Native workers provided inexpensive labor and performed tasks that Caucasian employees at the canneries would not tolerate.

The division of labor in the cannery was based largely on race rather than ability and the vast majority of Asian employees worked in less-skilled positions, such as sorting fish, manufacturing and packing cans, and sealing, lacquering, labeling, and placing cans into crates for shipment. By contrast, Caucasian workers were typically placed in positions of responsibility such as foremen and mechanics. Through at least the mid-1930s, immigrant cannery labor was usually hired through a contractor system. This system was open to abuse, and numerous accounts exist of contractors taking advantage of non-English speaking, Asian workers – from skimping on food to charging exorbitant prices for low-quality gear to running off with pay at the end of the season.

Large can conveyor painted bright redSalmon canning machine and conveyor belt
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In Kake Cannery's early years, Chinese workers were the industry's primary source of labor because of their experience fishing salmon off the California coast in the 1850s and their reputation as skilled butchers in the removal of fish heads, tails, and fins. The enactment of various Chinese Exclusion laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries stopped Chinese immigration to the U.S. and cannery contractors began hiring Japanese and Filipino workers to meet labor demands. Anti-immigration laws passed in the early 1920s limited Japanese and other Asian immigration and the cannery industry saw an influx of Filipino workers due to their status as U.S. nationals.

Although no evidence of the exact racial makeup of Kake Cannery's workers exists, the presence of individual Alaska Native, Caucasian, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino bunkhouses in the area indicates that the labor force was not only diverse, but also segregated. Located north of the cannery, Native bunkhouses were isolated from the cannery's main buildings by a wooded area and the Lower Gunnuk Creek. Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino bunkhouses were at the opposite end of the cannery, with what workers referred to as the "White Man's Bunkhouse" centrally located next to the cannery's main building and warehouses. This segregation was supposedly meant to reduce ethnic tensions and conflicts between workers, however, it mainly prevented them from organizing and largely contributed to the slow pace at which unionism spread within the cannery.

The contractor system and on-site segregation meant that cannery workers were subjected to abuses for decades. It was not until the mid-1930s that Filipino cannery workers started an organized movement. Believing that Chinese and Japanese contractors did not represent their interests and also locked them out of the labor contracting business, Filipino workers organized the Filipino Laborers Association in 1930. The National Industry Recovery Act, enacted in 1933, further stimulated unionism by guaranteeing workers the right to organize and collectively bargain. That same year saw the establishment of the first cannery workers' union, the Seattle-based Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union, which heavily recruited Filipino laborers.

looking from the water down a large dock towards large wooden storage buildingsCannery office and storage buildings along the dock
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Due to smaller fish populations and rising production costs in the 1930s, a large number of salmon canneries in Alaska began to close and production at the Kake Cannery ended in 1946. In 1949, the cannery was sold to the Organized Village of Kake (OVK), today a federally recognized tribal government, and was reopened. The cannery shut down operations for good in 1977.

At the time of Kake Cannery's designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1997, many of the facility's original structures and machinery remained intact including the Main Cannery Building, three Warehouses, and the segregated bunkhouses and mess halls. Various pieces of original machinery, some still functional, also remained and reflected the technological changes in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century.

Today, the Kake Cannery is held in trust by the OVK. It was placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2013. Two of the historic cannery's main buildings have collapsed – one from a heavy snow load in 2007, the other from high winds in 2011. Together with the Alaska State Historic Preservation Office and the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the OVK has launched the Historic Cannery Restoration and Dock Project which will fully restore the cannery and construct a multi-purpose dock to provide moorings for larger boats and ships. 

Plan your visit

Kake Cannery, a National Historic Landmark, is located on the Keku Road approximately three miles southeast of Kake, AK. The village of Kake, on Kupreanof Island, is 93 miles south of Juneau, AK and is accessible by boat or plane. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. The village of Kake lies within the limits of the Tongass National Forest and there are multiple fishing spots and Forest Service hiking trails near the village. The Kake Cannery is currently not open for public visitation. For more information, visit the Kake, Alaska website or call 907-785-6471.

The Kake Cannery has been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record.

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