Salmon on My Mind Chapter Six
During those pre-statehood days Southeast Alaska had many salmon traps. Along
some shores they were spaced one mile apart. They were huge, anchored contraptions, held
out from shore with gigantic cast-iron star anchors weighing as much as eight and 10 tons.
Strong steel cables, attached to iron bolts fastened into solid rock on the inshore end,
formed the lead out to the trap. Some traps extended offshore about one fourth mile.
Galvanized woven chicken wire was hung top to bottom along the lead, creating an underwater
fence that diverted salmon as they migrated along the beach. Short red cedar logs
were stapled crossways to the lead and acted as floats to keep the lead, and its load of suspended
chicken wire, on the surface. The chicken wire was weighted down at the bottom
by 70-pound bundles of rocks wrapped in chicken wire and fastened at intervals. Migrating
salmon encountered the wire fence, changed course away from the beach to escape and
wound up in the “heart” of the trap. Once inside, there was no escape, except to be “brailed”
out by special dip nets powered by a trap tender. No more efficient method of catching
salmon has ever been designed, but the traps had political problems.
The trap’s framework was spruce logs lashed together with cables. The main, or brow
log was about 150 feet long and four feet in diameter at the small end. Once inside the
trap, salmon milled around confused, until a trap tender, usually a flat-bottomed scow,
came, brailed the fish and hauled them to the canneries. Ketchikan had half a dozen canneries.
Others were scattered around Southeast Alaska.
About 80 percent of salmon canned were caught by traps. A small fleet of seine boats
and gill net boats supplied the rest. Traps caught all five species of Pacific salmon. Trollers
caught four species, but only targeted coho and kings because they brought a better price.
Troll-caught fish were never canned. They were used for either the fresh, mild cure or frozen
The cannery tender Little Tom alongside a salmon trap. Two watchmen lived in the shack.
Photo courtesy of ALASKA STATE LIBRARY.
Two watchmen were stationed on each trap. They lived in snug cabins, or shacks fastened
to the logs. They had a skiff to get ashore if the weather threatened. Part of their job
was to keep kelp and seaweed from accumulating on the chicken wire lead. They used long
handled rakes to clean the lead and throw the kelp and seaweed over the cable where the
tide would carry it away. Problem was, the current ran both direction, so a lot of it simply
returned to the other side. Chicken wire captured a lot of debris. In some locations this
required constant hard work since a heavy accumulation of drift logs, seaweed and kelp
built against the wire put a tremendous strain on the entire trap and could cause something
to break, or an anchor to drag. During big tides many driftwood logs, driven ashore by
prevalent winds during the last large tides, floated off the beaches and became a menace to
traps as well as boat traffic.
Most traps also maintained a second shack on shore where the watchmen spent
stormy nights, and sometimes days, during storms. A few traps were so exposed to storms
the men stayed ashore every night. Both shore-side and floating shacks were kept supplied
with food, blankets and fuel for the stove.
Some of the traps were located at very dangerous, exposed locations because it was
known to be a place where salmon passed by in abundance. One of the most exposed of all
traps was the P.E Harris trap, located at the east entrance of Brownson Bay. This trap was
exposed to southeast storms from Dixon Entrance. Watchmen spent many nights ashore
because of threatening storms. This trap produced about a million dollars worth of salmon
Ketchikan was formerly a mining town, and some large mines were on Prince of Wales
Island. With the decline of mines in the area, salmon traps and canneries became the
lifeblood of Ketchikan’s economy. Building and maintaining traps was an important industry.
Those who opposed traps protested that most of the labor came from “Outside,” and
most of the revenue made by traps and canneries went “south” with absentee owners. A sizable
work force, mostly from Puget Sound, was kept busy part of the year building traps
and driving piling. Miles of galvanized chicken wire, much of it manufactured by Edwards
Wire Works in Ketchikan, was used each season. Hundreds of thousands of board feet of
Sitka spruce were used to replace logs destroyed by ship worms or rotted with age.
Traps were partly dissembled when the season ended about Labor Day. The chicken
wire was discarded into the sea where supposedly it soon deteriorated. The mainframe of
spruce logs was towed to the nearest protected cove that had a sloping beach where the trap
frames could be beached at high tide.
Salmon caught by traps were hauled in tenders or scows to the cannery, where they
were dressed in an “iron *****”, a machine which automatically gutted the fish, so named
because it replaced thousands of Filipino and Chinese cannery workers.
Popular opinion—except, of course the trap owners, canneries and their supporters,
was that salmon were a publically-owned resource, as long as they swam free in the sea. The
same school of thought, by trap opponents, was, although the fish were milling around
inside chicken wire enclosures, they were still a publically-owned resource.
Although not all seine boat skippers were trap robbers, pirating salmon traps was a
thriving business for the ones who still believed that salmon inside a trap were “free for the taking.” Pirates kept a seine piled on the stern of their boats as a cover for their activities.
Trap robber’s spent a lot of time inventing ingenious schemes for robbing traps. The
most common was for robbers to be in cahoots with the trap watchmen. During darkness,
or even during the day, if they thought it was safe from prying eyes, the seine boat would
pull alongside a trap and brail salmon into their own holds until their boat could hold no
more. The watchmen would get paid a percentage after the fish were sold to the cannery.
Another, more complicated method, was stealing salmon off the tenders while they
were underway to the cannery. First, the robbers and crew on the scow had to strike a deal.
Then fish were transferred by men wielding pews, one-tined pitchforks, while the loaded
scow was underway to the cannery. Since the running time between trap and cannery was
known, the offloading of fish had to be done while both vessels were underway.
The canneries knew what was happening and took elaborate, expensive steps to halt
pirating. For example, they hired patrol boats to spy on trap watchmen and tenders. The
patrols had orders to systematically and unexpectedly switch trap watchmen from one location
to another every few days, keeping robbers ignorant of what watchmen were on any
Not all the trap watchmen would allow their traps to be robbed. All were armed, and
occasionally shot sea lions that tried to come into the trap. Warning shots were sometimes
fired to discourage bold pirates, but no one was ever intentionally killed, since no one
was willing to commit murder, or to risk being shot, over a few thousand salmon.
After cannery owners discovered their patrolmen were in cahoots with the trap watchmen,
and no doubt getting a percentage, they hired other patrol boats to spy on the patrol
boats. Eventually, after airplanes became available, the situation became so out of hand the
canneries hired float planes to fly around checking on the patrol boats, traps and watchmen.
It wasn’t unusual for traps to tear loose from their anchors and moorings during unusual
bad storms and take off with the wind and tide. Hopefully the watchmen got ashore in
time to escape, but a few watchmen drowned and several traps were wrecked.
A lot of money was made by daring trap robbers. Much of it was spent in the bars and
on Creek Street, which was busier than ever during Sunday closures. It was the law that the
traps close their inlets on Sunday to allow fish to pass by. The seiners were usually prohibited
from fishing two days a week. Ketchikan was bedlam during closures. A run of salmon
went up Ketchikan Creek. Some people claimed the creek was the only stream in the world
where both salmon, and men, ascended to spawn.
Canneries frequently bought fish from pirates that they knew had came from their own
traps. I once stood on the dock at New England Fish Company’s Cannery and watched a
seiner tie up to the unloading conveyer. His hold was full of fresh-caught salmon. The
superintendent and one of the dock bosses came down and stood beside the conveyor and
watched the crew pewing fish into the machine from the boat. They grabbed a pink
salmon off the conveyor and examined it.
“Two phew holes in every fish, and a dry net!” the superintendent growled.
He knew very well the fish had been stolen, probably from one of his own tenders, or
traps, but what could he do about it? If he reused to buy, the fish would go to one of his
Charges had been brought against quite a few pirates, but the courts could never get a
jury together that would convict. Some jurors were frightened to convict because of threats.
At the time I arrived in Ketchikan, salmon pirating was rampant. The majority of
public sentiment was against the traps and their owners. Some canneries, especially independent
ones, were reluctant to clamp down, fearing to lose a source of product. A few
canneries owned no traps, so they couldn’t care less if the fish they bought had been pirated.
Finally, things got so bad the cannery association hired Pinkerton Detective Agency.
At first this was considered a big joke around town. Pinkerton men were strangers to the
Alaskan fisheries, and no one paid much attention until the agency put undercover investigators
on patrol boats and even on a few traps. At first the Pinkerton men were unfamiliar
with the situation. They tried to pose as regular workers, but were soon detected.
One patrol boat skipper bragged that he flew a special flag whenever a detective was
known to be on board, so trap watchmen and pirates could be careful.
The climax came after a grand jury announced they had indeed been presented with
enough evidence to send the case to court. This caused a lot of excitement and speculation.
Some pirates took on supplies and headed their boats out of town for the duration of the
trial. They laid low, went trout fishing and stayed hidden.
Selection of a jury took weeks. Everyone was surprised when a jury was actually selected.
The cannery association was determined to stop the practice. Jurors didn’t have much
choice after the prosecution presented conclusive evidence, naming names and other documented
facts. The town really buzzed with excitement during the trial. Most of the jurors
were “newcomers” and the old-timers moaned and groaned that Alaska was being infiltrated
by greenhorns. Juror’s names were posted in the bars on a large piece of cardboard and
darts were provided. Jurors were threatened on the streets.
The jury handed in a guilty verdict. The judge sentenced the skipper and one of his
deck hands to prison. Piracy ended overnight. It was one thing to be a salmon pirate, considered
a minor crime in the eyes of most Alaskans, but quite another to go to prison. This
case broke the back of what had once been a thriving, although technically illegal, business
in Southeast Alaska. The “pirate wars” made great reading in the local papers.
Actually the case helped sway public opinion, always controversial about the legality of
traps, and the people of the Territory of Alaska voted that salmon traps be abolished. Since
a vote under Territorial status was meaningless, the traps stayed in until Alaska was admitted
as the forty-ninth state in 1959. Ratification of the vote once statehood was granted,
ended salmon traps, except those owned by Indians around Annette Island. Following
the abolishment of traps, the seine boat fleet began to expand rapidly. It didn’t take long
until seiners, many from Puget Sound, developed the capability to harvest what salmon the
Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimate to be surplus after spawning requirements
Leta didn’t like the house on pilings. She didn’t appreciate sitting in our living room
overlooking the Narrows and watching tugs with barges, steamers, halibut schooners, seiners
and trollers passing by. She also didn’t like waking up at night to the sounds of a big
ship’s wake threatening to tear the pilings out from under the house. The boys loved the place. They went beach combing at low tide right under the house. Soon mysterious odors
came from secret places where they hid hermit crabs, starfish and other precious items
picked up at low tide.
One day we were over on Gravina Island visiting the Stensland family. Their son Bill
was married to Jerry’s twin sister Jo, and we’d became acquainted. Pa Stensland and I got to
talking about Southeast Alaska and how a person could spend a lifetime exploring it’s bays
and channels without seeing it all. Pa said there were shrimp and crabs and all kinds of fish
in the bays, trout in the lakes and fur bearing animals, mink, marten and otter on the
I yearned to explore but boats were slow in those days and working six days a week
didn’t provide much time. Pa hauled out some of his charts. I was fascinated.
“Don’t you have any charts?” Pa asked.
“No. Only ones I’ve seen were in the Navy. They showed mostly water. Pa began pointing
out where he had mined , including Helm Bay. I was fascinated.
When I got back to town I went to Tongass Marine and told Pete Bringsly, the manager,
that I wanted a chart that showed the local area. He sold me chart 8102-Hecate Straits
to Etolin Island. Although small scale, this chart covers the Ketchikan area. The chart cost
one dollar. I still have it. Today the same chart sells for nearly $20!
One day my neighbor, Buck Hunter, and I were over on Gravina in the Chinook
digging butter clams. I confided that while plumbing was a good trade, it had it’s drawbacks.
I also realized that I had an allergy to house dust, especially basements and underneath
houses. I suffered terrible itching after being exposed to places where cats were kept.
What I really wanted to do was fish salmon.
Buck laughed. “Plumbers do have to take a lot of ****, don”t they. Well, you want my
advice? Go for it. You only live once. That’s the way I feel about trapping. It’s all I’ve ever
wanted to do.”
Although he had a good job working for McGilvery Brothers Construction and was
well liked by Clyde, after going on his second week-long drunk, they let him go. Soon after
that they moved back to Anchorage. I often thought of his advice, “If there’s something
you like to do, go for it. You only live once.” Buck was only one of many Alaskans I was
to become acquainted with who could have had anything they wanted, but never reached
their potential because of booze.
Leta announced she’d had enough of Ketchikan, was taking the kids and moving
south. This was the second time she’d left me. The first had been in Illinois shortly after I
was discharged from the navy. This time it was different. I had a good, steady job in
Ketchikan and refused to leave. The work situation in Washington wasn’t to my liking. I’d
never been without a job since the day I arrived in Alaska.
It was a sad day when I put my family on the steamer and watched them sail away. I
drove the shop truck up on Water Street where one has a good view of Tongass Narrows
and watched the ship disappear south. I stood there weeping for an hour or so. This was
one of the most difficult times of my life. I suppose it was for her also. I could hardly blame
her for not liking Ketchikan. Rain fell almost constantly. Without a car it was hard for her
to get the kids to town and even visit her brother. Not many people owned cars in Ketchikan in those days. Cars had to be shipped in on a steamer and were very expensive.
I was seldom home, either working or out fishing.
I let the house go and took a room with Mike and Jerry. They’d bought a place up on
the hill above Water Street.
Ketchikan was really booming. One of the largest runs of silver salmon anyone remembered
had flooded the canneries and cold storage facilities with millions of pounds.
Rumors of how many salmon were being caught, especially in lower Chatham Strait, made
the paper. Thousands of dollars of cash were being flown to buying scows, and quickly paid
out to fishermen.
Buckshot Woolery, his wife Irene and his daughters Marian, Clarie and Lauren lived
during several summers on a buying scow at Gedney Harbor. Marian Woolery Glenz, eight
years old when they first started buying fish on a scow, describes her experiences in her
book, The B.S. Counter: www.Trafford.com. Victoria
‘That Gedney Harbor, on the shore of Chatham Strait, was a notable producer of
salmon is evidenced by the fact that for six consecutive summers we returned to buy fish
there. Some summers it was all we could successfully manage to obtain a mess of canning
fish. Others were so fishy that we ate fish, smelled like fish and were practically swimming
like fish, when the boats came in to sell, forcing the old scow lower and lower in the water
with its slimy burden.
“.......One season the trollers pulled a strike—-for better prices, I believe. The men
would sit in a bunch on the float discussing their immediate problem. The air was either
black or blue or rosy above them, depending upon how the strike was progressing. It was
during the spring of ‘47. Since they didn’t fish, there wasn’t much, and some days, not any,
fish to buy. We returned home that fall in disgust and with all the summer bills to pay.
Daddy though he might be able to keep the wolf from the door by getting a raft of spruce
to the sawmill at Port Alexander.
“......There was one fabulous summer given us. I don’t know how it came about for
sure, nor does anyone else. There were fish caught all over the grounds that year. It was the
big year that everyone had hoped for and dreamed about. It enabled people with old clunks
to buy decent seagoing boats, and people with seagoing vessels already to buy larger, swankier
trollers. It was the reason many greenhorns bought boats and took up trolling the following
spring. It caused many beautiful silver salmon to bite the dust. It caused an extra
influx of extra business because people with money in their wallets bought everything and
anything in sight whether the needed it or not.
“.......We bought over a quarter of a million pounds in one instance without even a
chance to wash the deck down. There wasn’t any hour of the day or night that we weren’t
up buying fish. That meant weighing and icing and paying the price. Some boats sold twice
That was the year Buckshot bought thousands of pounds of salmon after running out
of cash. The company he bought for couldn’t get packers out to the scow and the fish
spoiled. Buckshot got stuck owing the fishermen thousands of dollars! He eventually paid
That fall Del and Mary arrived back in town loaded with money. They bought a new troller, the 44-foot Silver Fin. I was excited after looking it over. The boat had a nice galley
on deck. Mary immediately installed an electric organ, something she had always
missed, living year around on a boat. The Silver Fin was one of the nicest trollers in the
fleet, and was only a year old.
“You must have learned how to choke herring to buy this,” I said.
Del smiled. “Never been a herring on this boat. Never will be as long as I own it. I’m
a spoon fisherman.”
They’d had a good season out around Cape Ommaney and Larch Bay. The price of
king salmon had reached an all-time high of $36 cents a pound. Coho were worth about
15 cents a pound, or $1 each. During July and August a troller willing to work his butt off
could catch over 200 or more coho a day. Several hundred dollars a day was possible, more
than I earned a month! Of course this only lasted a few weeks out of the year, but I never
thought of that!
I’d already made up my mind that I wanted a troller large enough to live on. After
this whopping big season I was more determined than ever. Forgetting, or ignoring that
such bountiful runs only happened occasionally.
Of course I didn’t have the money. I was hard pressed to keep the bills paid and send
money to my family. I had began to catch a king once in a while, and I sold them, which
paid my boat expenses. I didn’t see how I was ever going to earn enough money working to
buy a commercial boat.
When my job became unbearable, and my allergy drove me crazy, like working under
buildings with cats, rats and spider webs, I consoled myself with thoughts of someday owning
my own boat and being free—out in the clean air all day. I didn’t realize that being a
power troller often involved being out in the clean air, all right, and that some of it would
be passing by your nostrils at high rates of speed.
The following spring , 1951, my wife wrote that, if I could find a place to live in town,
she would come back and try again. The boys missed their father, she said.
Ketchikan was booming, with new construction everywhere. Places to rent were difficult
to find. The ones that became empty were usually spoken for in advance. Working all
over town like I was, I would have been the first to know if a place was vacant. Finally I
found a miserable little three-room apartment on Peterson Avenue, only three blocks from
my job at Fosse’s Plumbing Shop.
Bill Goodale lived across the street. One of our neighbors was Joe Krause, who owned
the seine boat Tyee. After Joe discovered my interest in mining, fishing and the surrounding
country, we soon became good friends. I spent many an evening in his workshop, looking
at charts and listening to Joe tell adventure stories. He’d been in the Signal Corps during
World War I and knew a lot about airplanes.
Sometimes I visited him on his boat. Joe had once owned one of the first fast speedboats
in the area and hauled miners and supplies to the West Coast of Prince of Wales
Island. He was well acquainted with southeastern and talking about the many places I
hoped to visit really made it difficult for me to work a steady job.
Joe became fond of me and little by little, divulged a riveting story, that happened
many years before. He had befriended an old crippled miner, who had been in the Cassiar Mining District during that area’s boom in 1874. On his deathbed, the miner told Joe
about a rich placer mine he and his partner had discovered in the wilds at the head of the
Tuya River, a tributary of the Stikine. Joe asked Hugo Schmolck, who later owned
Schmolck Plumbing and Heating, to become a partner. They chartered a Vickers Viking,
on floats, to take them up the Stikine River to look for the mine. Unfortunately, they landed
on the wrong lake and found no mine. At the end of a month the aircraft failed to return,
so they walked out to Telegraph Creek, a harrowing story of survival. (See Cassiar’s Elusive
Gold, Francis E. Caldwell, Trafford Publishing, Victoria, 2000)
It was a happy day when my family came down the gang plank. I was amazed to see
how much the boys had grown. Dale was talking now. The boys gabbed on an on about
their ride up on the steamer, especially how the waiter kept piling ice cream onto their
plates after dinner.
I’d never been happy with the outboard’s fuel economy and outboards were not very
reliable in those days. That winter I hauled the boat on a truck up to Peterson Avenue and
began the task of converting to an inboard. I bought a 2-cylinder, air-cooled Wisconsin
engine from Tongass Trading Company, built an engine bed inside the back doors of the
cabin, so the engine would be out of the rain and spray but still got enough air. Since
Chinook had only a shallow keel, I had to splice on a deeper one. Figuring out how to drill
the shaft alley had me stumped, so I went to the shipyard and explained my problem to
Norman McDonald, a shipwright. He showed me how to build a large wooden template
that reached from the engine, back over the stern and down to where the shaft should come
out of the stern post. I marked the center where I wanted the stern bearing and another
mark on the center of the engine’s propellor flange, removed the template and stretched a
chalk line between the two points. Once the template was back in the boat the proper
angle to start the drill through the keel was laid out. A special, long shank was welded to
a ship auger, a drill bit without the standard starting worm on the end. Ship augers were not
supposed to run off course when it struck a knot like a regular bit would.
I was apprehensive as I started hand-drilling this hole, which was about six feet long,
wondering what I’d do if the bit ran off and came out on the side of the new keel. I fed it
slowly and it took all of one Saturday to drill through. The bit came out only one-fourth
inch off center of the stern post. I breathed a sigh of relief. Once the shaft, stern and inside
stuffing box were in place, I installed the propeller and rudder. The throttle and rudder
were connected to a steering wheel inside the cabin. Now I could sit inside where it was
dry and warm while running. Wet clothing dried rapidly in the warm air.
Bill Goodale helped me launch her one spring day at Ketchikan Cold Storage. As
expected, Chinook didn’t go any faster than with the outboard, but I could run out to
Mountain Point and troll all day on about one gallon of gas.
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