Two men move trays of cans along a rolling assembly line

Tail-Off workers Roy Hamilton from Shageluk, and Herman Gregory from Holy Cross—both Yup’ik villages on the Yukon River—pull hot cans from the retort, ca. 1980s. Peggy Tucker Jessup private collection.

THE RETORTS: The "Bath Room" Men

"[The cooked cans] go into a big warehouse, and you could hear the cans cooling off, going 'pop, pop, pop, pop.'"

— Wayne Matta, Machinist, American Can Company

In the early days, the cooking of canned salmon took place in a part of the cannery called the “Bath Room.” The men who cooked the salmon were called the “Bath Room” men.

The Bath Room men conducted the cooking of salmon in secrecy to keep the method from the competition.

The first and second cooking was done in kettles of boiling water. After cooking, the Bath Room men washed the grease and dirt from the cans in a lye bath. Then, they removed the lye in a freshwater bath. Afterward, the Bath Room men sent the cans to the cooling room, where crews lacquered them to prevent rusting.

The lacquering process began by placing the cooked cans on a tray, which was lowered into lacquer contained in a rectangular wooden tank. The cans were lifted, drained, and removed. When the lacquer dried, the cans were ready to be labeled and cased.

Pressure Cooker

The industry’s first wave of technological innovation was the retort, which replaced the old cooking methods of the 1870s. Essentially large pressure cookers, retorts cooked cans at higher temperatures than the old method, reducing cooking time and speeding production.

Temperature and pressure gauges on the retorts gave canners their first opportunity to precisely monitor the cooking process.

Retorts were horizontally laid so that handcarts stacked with cans could be wheeled in and out. This innovation reduced handling time. The introduction of tapered cans in the 1980s ended the “bath” process, prompting the name of the retort area to change from the Bath Room to “Tail Off.”

Tail Off

Associated with an extraordinary period of mechanization, “Tail Off” is a term used by production professionals to mean reduction or to make smaller. Cannery machinists referred to the end of the canning line as “tail-off.”

Coolers, Cart, and Retort

In Tail Off, cannery workers collected recently filled cans into iron trays or “coolers,” holding 96 cans, the equivalent of two cases. Cannery hands stacked the coolers six or seven high on small carts set on movable rails and then pushed the cans into the retorts. Large retorts could hold twelve carloads, or over 8,000 cans, at a time. Steam cooking was typically conducted at 246°F for ninety minutes under ten pounds pressure.

Workers in the Tail Off area required tremendous strength to unload the boiling hot trays of canned salmon and haul them to the cooling warehouse.

The Transient Native Crew

The number of Alaska Natives workers from outlying villages increased in the 1950s. To oversee the recruitment of Native workers, APA hired longtime “Native boss” Jimmy Walker.

Walker, from the Yupik village of Shageluk, found Native recruits in western and northern Alaska villages, including Bethel, Fortuna Ledge, Alakanuk, Kotzebue, Unalakleet, Mountain Village, Nunivak Island, Nunapitchuk, Russian Mission, Saint Michael, Shageluk, Tununuk, and Unalakleet.

Walker’s efforts resulted in nearly 1,200 Alaska Natives on APA’s payroll in 1961. Only a handful of the recruits were from Bristol Bay.