Left: Cannery worker with guitar at Nushagak Cannery, photographed by Dr. Hiram French, ca. 1917. Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust. By the 1920s, African Americans constituted 20 percent of the Diamond NN Cannery workforce. Right: Beach gang loading cases of canned salmon onto a cannery flat scow for shipment to the lower 48, ca. 1940s. Note the use of cardboard rather than wood cases. Heinbockel-Payne family collection.


The labeling process started with workers seating themselves in front of a pile of cans and several hundred labels in the cooling shed. In the early days, workers applied paste with quick brush strokes and rolled the can by hand, securing the cannery’s select label. Cans with the “fancy brands” mainly were shipped overseas. Like the canning line, the labeling process was mechanized in the early 20th century. By the 1960s, canners sent the season’s pack to distribution centers in the lower 48, where cans were labeled and shipped worldwide.

Boxing or Casing Salmon

A case of salmon generally contains 48 one-pound cans or 96 half-pound cans. Initially, salmon cases were made of wood. Stencils were used to mark wooden salmon cases. To save money and labor, canners converted to cardboard in the 1930s.

African American Cannery Laborers

There’s a change in the ocean,

change in the deep blue sea;

There’s a change in the ocean

and in the deep blue sea;

If I don’t leave Alaska

there will come a change in me.

— excerpt from African American cannery song, “Big Boy”

With the steady decline of Chinese workers since the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, labor contractors recruited African Americans to fill the void of the “China Gang.”

The first African American cannery workers at the Diamond NN Cannery were hired under the so-called “Oriental Contract” system in 1920. Categorized by APA as “U.S. Colored,” only 13 African Americans out of a crew of 530 labored at the cannery that year.

Six years later, African Americans constituted 20% of the Diamond NN Cannery workforce. By the late 1920s, entrenched hiring practices began to show signs of change. Filipino-led labor unions began to challenge and ultimately ended the corrupt contract system. APA even ceased using the hiring classification “Oriental Contactor,” replacing it with the ubiquitous label “Cannery Crew.”

Change, however, did not come for African American cannery workers. Pushed out of hiring pools by more organized laborers, 1926 marked the last year the Diamond NN Cannery employed African American cannery workers in large numbers.