I have previously mentioned some of the techniques and methods involved in early 20th-century cannery operations, but this post follows the entire salmon canning process from the ocean to the grocery store!
At Southeast Alaska canneries like the one at Funter Bay, the first step was the fish trap, either the floating or pile variety (I discussed fish trap types and issues here, and have a location map here).
After the trap was filled with fish, it would be “brailed” or emptied into a scow (barge) by lifting the nets and dumping the fish. I previously posted a set of postcard images showing this process here.
Full scows were then towed by cannery tenders to the wharf. Below are several loads of salmon arriving at the Funter cannery:
The following diagrams from the Historic American Engineering Record show the canning process at a typical Alaska operation (The Kake cannery, which was under the same ownership as the Funter Bay cannery in the 1930s):
Once at the cannery, the fish were unloaded by hand into a “Fish Elevator”, an angled conveyor belt which moved them up to the level of the processing line. A video clip of such a fish elevator in action can be seen here. The salmon were then sorted by species (unwanted bycatch fish were usually discarded at the scow before loading onto the elevator).
The sorted salmon were run through the canning line one species at a time, each species typically had its own brand and label. First the salmon were cleaned and dressed. Originally this was done by hand with a crew of laborers (often Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino, although the Thlinket Packing co initially had many Tlingit Native employees). Later the cleaning process was automated, with an unfortunately-named device replacing many of the labor-intensive steps in preparing the salmon.
During the fish cleaning process, offal (heads, gills, and guts) was conveyed to a waste bin. It was later loaded back into empty scows for disposal, as seen in this post. A small amount was sometimes sold to fur farms to feed fox and mink, but most was simply discarded. This is still commonly done in many canneries.
The hills in the photo below seem to match the head of Funter Bay, this could have been taken while dumping fish waste near the mouth of the bay.
The following five photos are from a standard cannery of very similar design to the Thlinket Packing Co’s Funter Bay plant. These are from the Pacific Fisherman Volume 4 Annual Yearbook, of 1906, and are used as public domain per the Freshwater and Marine Image Bank’s policy. The article describes this as a cannery in Puget Sound, although one of the photos used in the article is also labeled on a postcard as “Robert Barron’s Cannery” of “Fonters Bay”.
After cleaning, the next step for salmon bodies was cutting, originally by hand and later done by a mechanical gang knife. This sized the fish appropriately to fit in cans.
Cans were filled, crimped, washed, topped, and soldered shut. Again, more and more of this process became automated over time.
The soldered-shut cans were cooked in a retort, essentially a large steam pressure cooker (a small vent hole was left in the can during cooking, and soldered shut afterward). At the Washington cannery this was done for 1 hour and 15 minutes at 240 degrees F and 15psi.
After being removed from the retort and given time to cool, the cans were run through a labeling machine to receive the appropriate label for the species and brand. Quality control workers checked the weight and seal at various points during the process.
Some can labels from the Thlinket Packing Co are seen in this post.
Finished cans were packed into boxes built from prefab sections and assembled at the cannery.
The next two images were in a batch of photographs from Funter Bay, taken around 1919. The first photo appears to show cans moving through some machinery (perhaps the soldering machine) and stacking up on a cooling rack prior to being loaded into a retort for cooking. The exposure is long enough that the top row of cans appeared on the pile while the shutter was open (they look transparent). People moving in the background are also blurry. Assembled wooden boxes are seen in the background.
The next photo is a little harder to make out, but includes an angled ramp on the right hand side, similar to the can filler machine. Empty cans were stored in the loft above the canning floor, and dropped down to the working stations through these ramps. Overhead belts fed power to the equipment from a central engine. A spare belt is seen wrapped around the top of the machine.
The filler machine at Funter Bay can be seen below. empty cans are being fed in from overhead ramps:
The interior of the T.P. Co Cannery at Funter is seen in this 1907 image (below). Metal cooling racks are stacked on the right, while conveyors are in the center. A vent hood near the middle could be a soldering station. A slightly different version of this image labeled “Interior Canning Department” can be seen here.
Another image from about the same time shows 75,000 cases of salmon in the Thlinket Packing Co’s warehouse. The cans have not yet been boxed up. Another warehouse view is here.
Once packaged, the finished product was shipped South on commercial steamers or on freight ships owned by the cannery, to be sold to wholesale grocers for delivery to the consumer. Salmon in a can would appear on the shelf much as it does today, in fact the colors and art used on labels today is very similar to that of historic labels.