Funter Bay History: Mystery Engine

While digging through my photos I came across one showing a mysterious piece of machinery in Funter Bay. That’s me standing on top of it, I’m going to guess it’s around the year 2000.


After visiting the Lake Superior Marine Museum in Duluth (actually for the 3rd or 4th time, it’s great!) I realized that this thing looks a lot like a compound marine steam engine. Some examples are here. Unfortunately I don’t seem to have any other photos of this one.

This thing is only visible at extreme low-water (a minus tide), at other times it is mostly submerged. It lies off the former end of the pier at the Funter Bay cannery, leading me to believe that it’s either from a sunken fish trap tender, or equipment which was mounted on the pier at the cannery.I do not recall seeing obvious boat wreckage around the engine, but things decay so fast underwater that any wood is likely long gone, and any metal is mixed in with general trash and debris from the cannery, making it harder to identify. Large ships are shown docking at the cannery pier in the 1940s, so it’s unlikely that anything sank and was left there prior to that time. The engine and any remaining hull structure would have been a hazard at low tide.

The pier-mounted origin seems a little far fetched, the cannery mostly used mechanical power take-offs from large low-horsepower gas engines, so why would they have a steam engine mounted on their dock? The main dock-end equipment would have been a “Fish Elevator” (basically a conveyor belt) to unload salmon from scows. This image is labeled “Funter Bay… Indians Pitching Fish in Elevator”. This image shows another view of such an elevator, as does this one. This photo shows the upper end of a fish elevator, obviously powered by overhead pulleys and belt drives (as was most of the cannery equipment at Funter). I would not expect a steam engine to be used just for the elevator (and in fact, the elevator seems to have been in a different building from the spot where the steam engine lies).

Cannery site ca 2008, with steam engine circled in red:
From the Alaska Shorezone Mapping project.

The same location in 1948, approximately at the end of the cannery pier:

Cannery pier in 1907 showing tender tied up about where the engine is now, and the fish elevator with scows docked next to it.

The cannery area in 1979, showing how the buildings had begun collapsing (there’s not as much structure overhanging the bay as there was in ’48). Approximate steam engine location is circled: 1979

Another explanation could be that this was salvaged from a wrecked cannery tender elsewhere, left on the pier when the cannery was abandoned, and fell into the water when the structure started collapsing around the late 1950s/early 1960s. If so, it’s surprising that it landed basically upright. A candidate for this possible origin could be the mystery wreck on Highwater Island, which seems to have had a boiler but has no sign of an engine. It could also have been removed from a tender during a refit to gas or diesel, and left lying around on the pier, but this seems like a stretch as well (it would be more likely they would have refitted in a marine yard in Seattle or Astoria, the Anna Barron is sometimes mentioned in publications like Pacific Motorboat as undergoing maintenance in Astoria.

None of the cannery tenders that I’ve previously discussed seem to match. Of the original T.P. Co. boats I know of, only the Anna Barron and the Buster had steam engines, Buster‘s was replaced with a gas engine prior to 1926. The captain of the Anna Barron was reported as saying the vessel could be raised, but I am not sure if they salvaged the engine or anything else from it. (Oddly, this document gives a different story of the Anna Barron‘s sinking than this page, which I previously quoted, although both seem to be using similar source documents. The BOEM page seems to be saying Albert Michaelsen was the captain (vs George Black), that they were coming from Hoonah (vs Funter), that the engine head burst, and that the vessel drifted towards Point Howard before grounding at Pt. Ainsley, and the crew swam 20ft to shore).

Later cannery owner P.E. Harris Co had quite a few boats, in 1956 these included the Amelie, Cape Douglas, Health, Jim B, Kathy B, Marina G, Morzhovoi, Norse Maid, Orcas, Thrasher, Trojan, Glasenap, Izembek, Fairweather, Moha, Pat B, and Seakist.  However, none of these seem to be steam-powered (steam was largely obsolete by the mid 20th century). By 1962 the company had become Peter Pan Seafoods, and vessels included the Carmen B, Denis N, Dream Girl, Mariner, Reliance, Alf, and Western Sea. Again, none of these appear to be steam powered.

At this point I’m still stumped on both those mysteries (what boat sank at Highwater Island, and what boat (if any) was the source of the compound steam engine at the cannery?

If anyone reading this knows steam engines or has any ideas for tracking down these mysteries, please let me know! You can leave a comment below, or email me at gabe<at>saveitforparts<dot>com.

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