Icy Strait Point, Port Frederick

Icy Strait Point, Port Frederick

by | Jan 1, 2022

Icy Strait Point is a restored historical salmon cannery situated on Cannery Point, on the south shore of Icy Strait and on the eastern shore at the mouth of Port Frederick, a deep embayment on the northeast coast of Chichagof Island, about 22 miles (35 km) south-southeast of Gustavus and 1.6 miles (2.6 km) north-northwest of Hoonah, Alaska. Icy Strait is a water passage about 50 miles (80 km) long at the north end of Chichagof Island between Chatham Strait to the east and Cross Sound to the west. Port Frederick is a fjord on the north end of Chichagof Island, extending 19 miles (30 km) south from Icy Strait. The fjord was named in 1794 by Captain George Vancouver after Adolphus Frederick, the son of King George III of England. The Tlingit name for the bay was reported as ‘Komtok Hon’ in 1869 by Commander Richard W. Meade on the USS Saginaw. The Huna Tlingit have lived in Cross Sound, Glacier Bay, and along Icy Strait for thousands of years. The Huna Tlingit regard Glacier Bay as their sacred homeland. During the peak of the Little Ice Age in North America, a period between the early 14th century and the late 18th century, glacial advance forced the Huna to relocate from Glacier Bay to Port Frederick. In 1794, Lieutenant Joseph Whidbey explored Icy Strait during Captain George Vancouver’s expedition and reported that his progress along the north coast was blocked by a wall of ice 2 miles (3.2 km) wide at what is now the mouth of Glacier Bay. Vancouver claimed the land for Britain in conflict with an earlier Russian claim, which was resolved by the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1825. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States. In 1901, a post office was established at the Huna village in Port Frederick and was responsible for giving the village its present name of Hoonah. The Huna Tlingit call themselves Xúna Kaawu meaning People of’ ‘Shelter from the north wind’. The name was transcribed as ‘Hoonah’ by the first postmaster and that name has persisted.

The Tlingit people had well-developed private property rights to salmon streams that allowed them to exploit this important food resource with limited competition. Soon after the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, the arrival of capitalist industrial-scale fishing caused the rapid deterioration of the salmon population. The Alaska commercial salmon fishery grew with the new territory and a rapid expansion of the industry occurred in about 1900, and it soon became the economic backbone of Alaska until World War II. As new canneries were developed, entrepreneurs realized that they could catch huge numbers of fish with company-owned stationary traps rather than using boats. A simple fish trap consists of a series of pilings driven into the bottom and extending for thousands of feet from shore. Netting is strung between the posts so that the fish are stopped by the net and then continue swimming along the net until they pass through a narrow funnel which opens into the trap proper. The trap is completely covered on the bottom and sides with a large net and the fish, crowding through the opening, find themselves in an enclosure from which there is no escape. The fish are scooped out of the trap at periodic intervals and the catch is dumped unceremoniously into waiting barges called scows. Aside from the huge numbers of fish caught, a major advantage to the traps is the economy of labor since fewer men are required to operate a trap compared to a purse seine boat. Another advantage is that fish remain alive in a trap, thus permitting their delivery at the cannery in excellent condition, however, this did lead to fish piracy. Fish traps are also easier to regulate since they are at fixed locations. The main disadvantage is that traps are exceptionally efficient and catch significantly more salmon than purse seine boats, but also other species of fish that are discarded. In 1878, 11 years after the Alaska Purchase and still with minimal federal governance or oversight of the new territory, the first canneries in Alaska were built at Klawock and Sitka. In 1890, the Bartlett Bay Packing Company built the first cannery in the Icy Strait District of Southeast Alaska on the east shore of Glacier Bay. In 1900, the Western Fisheries Company built a cannery in Dundas Bay that operated under several different owners until 1931. In 1902, the Thlinket Packing Company built a cannery at the head of Icy Strait in Funter Bay on Admiralty Island. That same year, Astoria Puget Sound Company built a cannery in Excursion Inlet on the north shore of Icy Strait. In 1911, the Hawk Inlet Fish Company built a cannery in Hawk Inlet on Chatham Strait. In 1912, the Hoonah Packing Company built a state-of-the-art cannery north of town at Cannery Point. All of the Southeast Alaska canneries were using fish traps. In 1914, there were 175 fish traps operating in Southeast Alaska and 37 in Icy Strait. Hoonah Packing Company started out with 4 traps in 1912 which was increased to 6 in 1913 and 12 in 1915. In 1917, the Hoonah Packing Company made the largest seasonal pack of any company operating in Alaska with 152,505 cases, with 48 one-pound cans per case equaling about 65 pounds of salmon or a total of over 15 million fish canned that year. In 1922, the last year of operation they were using 24 fish traps.

The Hoonah Packing Company cannery was shuttered in 1923 and remained closed until 1934 when the facility was purchased by the Icy Straits Salmon Company. In the interim period, a thriving purse seine fleet developed at Hoonah and supplied fish to the surviving cannery at Excursion Inlet and a new cannery at Pelican. The seine fishermen from Hoonah specialized and became very skilled at fishing in the passes of the Inian Islands that connect Icy Strait and Cross Sound about 20 miles (32 km) west of Hoonah. The seine fishery targeted mostly pink and chum salmon. Most of the salmon that spawn in the northern half of Southeast Alaska pass through these channels, but intercepting them was difficult. Tides in the region range in excess of 20 feet (6 m) and the current at some locations in the passes can exceed 8 knots (15 kph), which is faster than some of the old seine boats were able to travel. In 1934, the new owners of the cannery at Hoonah installed high-speed canning machinery and stood out among other Southeast Alaska canneries because they did not operate fish traps, but secured the supply of salmon from independent fishermen. This was the result of new fishery regulations that required the interval between fish traps in Icy Strait and Cross Sound to be a minimu1n of 1.5 miles (2.4 km) apart which crowded out any new traps. But the Hoonah seine fleet of about 20 boats was able to meet the cannery demand. However, in 1953, the Icy Straits Salmon Company was closed because the salmon run collapse,d and President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed the Southeast Alaska fishery a disaster area. During the 1950s, the Hoonah seine fleet stabilized at 12 to 14 boats that supplied fish to the cannery at Pelican that had opened in 1941. In 1959, Alaska became a state and immediately outlawed fish traps which caused the cannery at Pelican to close in 1960, leaving only the Excursion Bay cannery still operating in Icy Strait. During the 1960s, salmon throughout Alaska were poorly handled and cared for by fishermen and canneries alike. Salmon were mostly trans­ported in the holds of boats or open scows with no ice or mechanical refrigeration. Well into the 1970s, salmon were routinely moved using a pew, a wooden pole about 5 feet (1.5 m) long with a sharp steel spike at the end. Salmon were supposed to be pewed only in the head, which was discarded in the canning and freezing process, but salmon were commonly pewed in the body, which damaged the flesh that was to be canned or frozen. With fish traps gone, the number of seine boats increased dramatically and many chose the Cross Sound and Icy Strait area. In 1963, about 200 seine boats fished in the lnian Islands, and in 1964 there were 60 to 90 additional boats. The numbers continued to grow and eventually, about 400 seine boats were competing against each other. The large Hoonah purse seine fleet was intercepting salmon migrating to the major rivers of Southeast Alaska such as the Taku and Stikine, and the shortage of salmon in inside waters was acutely felt by fishers from Petersburg and Wrangell. The Icy Strait purse seine fishery was closed in 1974, and in 2009 only 2 seine boats remained in Hoonah. In 1996, the Huna Totem Corporation purchased the cannery site and restored the facility as a museum. See a short video of the fishery here. Read more here and here. Explore more of Icy Strait Point and Port Frederick here:

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