Chatham Cannery, Sitkoh Bay

Chatham Cannery, Sitkoh Bay

by | May 31, 2022

Chatham is a historical salmon cannery and village on the west shore of Sitkoh Bay on Chichagof Island in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska, about 58 miles (93 km) south-southwest of Juneau and 13 miles (21 km) west of Angoon, Alaska. The cannery village was named after Chatham Strait, which was named in 1794 by Captain George­ Vancouver, for the English statesman William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham. Sitkoh Bay is about 1 mile (1.6 km) wide and extends northwest for about 8 miles (13 km) into Chichagof Island from the western shore of Chatham Strait between Point Hayes to the east and Point Craven to the west. The name ‘sitkoh’ is from the Tlingit language meaning ‘among the glaciers’ and was first published by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1883. Peril Strait separates rocks of the Alexander terrane to the northeast from the Wrangellia and Chugach terranes to the southwest. Sitkoh Bay is separated from Peril Strait by the Moore Mountains which were formed in the Early Cretaceous by a magma intrusion resulting in a diorite pluton. The magma intruded the Alexander terrane which on the southern shore of Sitkoh Bay consists primarily of Early Paleozoic sedimentary rocks including limestone, greywacke, mudstone, and shale. The magma intrusion heated and metamorphosed the limestone resulting in marble, and other metamorphic rocks in the area including hornfels, slate, phyllite, schist, amphibolite, and gneiss. During the late Wisconsin glaciation, about 26,000 to 13,000 years ago, an ice sheet covered large areas of the Canadian and Alaskan Cordillera that consisted of a complex of interconnected val­ley and piedmont glaciers and ice caps. Glaciers flowed from the western margin of the Cordilleran ice sheet to the Pacific Ocean and were joined by local glaciers originating from the higher elevations on Admiralty, Baranof, Chichagof, and Prince of Wales Islands. This extensive volume of ice was channeled into deep troughs that scoured the present-day fjords such as Sitkoh Bay and Chatham Strait. The outlet glacier that occupied Chatham Strait excavated a trough 12 miles (20 km) wide and 1150 feet (350 m) deep that extends to the edge of the continental shelf. The valley glacier that occupied Sitkoh Bay left behind a low pass that allowed for a portage trail connecting with Tenakee Inlet to the north.

Sitkoh Bay was prehistorically an important area for the Tlingit and was once claimed by the Ganaxadi clan of the Raven moiety who had their main village at Angoon. According to oral tradition, the oldest part of Angoon, at the southern end of the present-day village, was originally occupied by the Ganaxadi when the ancestors of the Deisheetaan clan arrived. The newcomers, who must have included representatives of other clans in addition to the Deisheetaan, presumably settled farther north. The Ganaxadi eventually moved away from Angoon and surrendered their territorial rights to the Deisheetaan, including Sitkoh Bay with a productive sockeye salmon stream located about 5 miles (8 km) northwest of Point Craven. This stream flows generally east for about 4 miles (6 km) from Sitkoh Lake which is about 2 miles (3.2 km) long and 0.5 miles (0.8 km) wide and at an elevation of 190 feet (58 m). A Ganaxadi village called ‘sit’qo’ or possibly ‘sit’xoo’ was once located on a terraced knoll just south of the mouth of the river. At the base of the rocks which form the southeastern edge of the knoll are carved a number of petroglyphs, some on the dip slope of the bedrock, some on the joint planes, and a few on fallen slabs. One petroglyph reputedly signifies the transfer of the stream from the Ganaxadi to the Deisheetaan which took place prior to the arrival of Russians in Alaska. When some Sitka Tlingit fled from the Russians to Sitkoh Bay, the Angoon Deisheetan allowed them to establish a settlement and gave them some fishing rights. In 1890, a crew fishing for the Redoubt Cannery at Sikta entered Sitkoh Bay and forcibly took over fishing in the most productive streams, backed by the U.S. military. In 1900, a salmon cannery was built in Sitkoh Bay under an agreement with the Deisheetan which nominally allowed the clan to retain ownership and control over the village and bay. The Deisheetan and others from Angoon and Sitka worked for the cannery and maintained seasonal subsistence activities there until the cannery closed in 1974. Angoon and some Sitka residents still go to Sitkoh Bay to fish for chinook salmon in the spring, and sockeye salmon in July. Between 25–60% of Angoon residents reported using Sitkoh Bay for subsistence fishing each year.

The Sitkoh Bay cannery was built in 1900 by August Buschmann of the Chatham Straits Packing Company. August was the son of Peter Thams Buschmann, a Norwegian immigrant who organized several canning companies and built at least five canneries. Since 1900, Norwegians became well established in the Pacific Northwest fishing industry as entre­preneurs, principally as managers of packing companies, and as owners of salmon salteries and canneries. Several of Busch­mann’s five sons, all of whom were born in Norway, were extremely active in the salmon industry. August was sent to Sitkoh Bay at age 20 to construct a new cannery and that same year the company packed about 60,000 cases, with 48 one-pound cans of salmon per case. The reason for constructing the plant at Sitkoh Bay was that the company cannery at Petersburg, located about 100 miles (161 km) away, received most of its fish from Chatham Strait since there were practically no salmon in the area around Petersburg that particular year. The year 1900 was the anticipated return cycle for a heavy run in the Chatham Strait area but it didn’t materialize. In the fall of 1900 and spring of 1901, Peter Buschmann sold three canneries and two salteries to the Pacific Packing & Navigation Company that accumulated a number of canneries along the coast of Alaska and Puget Sound. The cannery at Sitkoh Bay became known as the Chatham Cannery and had a post office from 1906 to 1963. The cannery employed many of the Angoon Tlingit and cabins to house the workers were scattered along the shoreline. The workers could buy winter supplies from the cannery store when prices were reduced at the end of the fishing season. Pacific Packing & Navigation Company sold the cannery to George T. Myers in 1904, and Myers sold the cannery to New England Fish Company in 1929 which operated the facility until 1974. The area surrounding Sitkoh Lake was heavily logged from 1969 to 1974 and other areas around the bay were logged during the 1970s. The results of clearcutting continue to be visible today and a network of inland logging roads surrounds the bay. Many of the cannery facilities are still intact, including much of the Native workers village, despite a 1978 fire that destroyed the main canning building. Investors purchased the facility and a caretaker lives there year-round. Read more here and here. Explore more of Chatham and Sitkoh Bay here:

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This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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