Yellow three wheel vehicle in front of photo of people taking coffee break on docks; historical photo of men on the docks; two men brewing and drinking coffee

Left: NN Mug Up CushmanThe Mug Up cart at South Naknek ca. 1985. Photograph by Brian Wallace. Right top: Diamond J Koggiung Cannery Crew, Henry Herrmann Collection, National Park Service, ca. 1920s. Right bottom: Mug Up Time ca. 1940s, Alaska Packers Association (APA) Museum, Drayton Harbor Maritime. Blaine, Washington.

CANNERY CREW: Alaska’s Oft Forgotten Workforce

Salmon canneries supported thousands of Alaska residents, transient workers, and fishermen, whose unique identity and lifeways intersected through maritime-related work.

Early Commerical Fishermen

Salmon packers mainly employed immigrants from the fishing nations of Italy, Greece, Croatia, Norway, Sweden, and Finland to gillnet salmon in double-ender sailboats in the early days. Northern European immigrants built barnlike buildings and heavy wooden salmon boats and developed mechanical canning lines.


Canners hired crews originating from China, Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Polynesia, and the Philippines to process the salmon. Indigenous Alaskans from outlying villages also worked at the cannery. The ‘Spring-Fall’ crew came from local villages and worked at the cannery before the season’s opening and after the close, so they could fish for themselves in between. Local residents became major contributors to and caretakers of the operation. 

Whether they came from Outside or upriver, cannery people found dignity through their labor and interactions in the cannery workscape. Their diverse traditions left a mark on Alaska’s history and culture. 

Their work mattered.

Mug Up Milieu

‘Mug Up’—a term Alaska canneries use for coffee break—assembled a diverse crew who shared the common language of work.

Mug Up brought together a diverse workforce: men and women, the young and the seasoned, the global and the local.

Mug Up fueled cannery workers with caffeine and pastries and momentarily brought disparate people from distant places together in unique ways.

The lap of tides, the squawk of seagulls, the rumbling of fishing boats, and scores of languages could be heard on the dock at Mug Up.

Historic Cannery Footage of Mug Up

A series of historic footage from film archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Washington. Edited by Naknek filmmaker Sharon Thompson of Steelbird Productions. Support for this film came from the Bristol Bay Borough.

Origins of Mug Up

The origin of the word “Mug Up” is a mystery.

Some say mariners used the term aboard sailing ships, where the sway of ocean waves caused sailors to pick up their mugs ceaselessly.

Others believe that cannery work communities invented the term to depict filling a mug with coffee and lifting it up to drink.

Cannery Time

But when the whistle blew, everyone knew that the bright yellow Mug Up Cushman meant a 15-minute break, which provided a respite from the monotony of the slime line and canning machinery.

The Cushman made its Mug Up rounds three times a day at 10 a.m., 3 p.m., and 9 p.m.

With peak-of-the-season workdays that sometimes lasted until midnight, the Mug Up cart was a welcome sight. Cannery workers knew the arrival of the tiny vehicles meant a chance for the quick consumption of coffee, juice, freshly baked cookies, doughnuts, deli sandwiches, and other tasty treats.

Cannery workers became so conditioned to the sight of the yellow Cushman that it shaped their sense of time. Former cannery workers craved the morning, afternoon, and evening snacks, which left them with an internal clock called “Cannery Time.”