'Fixing the boiler. Naknek, Alaska.' Three men pose in front of a large boiler.

Machinists in the “Alley” fix the boiler at the Diamond NN Cannery, ca. 1920s. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Axel Widerstorm collection.

THE SHOPS: The Monkey Wrench Gang

"There was a gang over at Alameda called the ‘snoose gang.’ They were the maintenance men. They were probably Scandinavian because Scandinavians used Copenhagen snuff."

       — Axel Widerstrom, 1919

Whereas the beach gang boss managed the outside crew, a cannery foreman oversaw the so-called “monkey wrench gang,” the slang term for men well-versed in an array of tools and machinery. The cannery’s skilled labor force, often men of German and Scandinavian descent, worked in specialized buildings known as ‘the shops’: the Carpenter Shop, the Machine Shop, the Pipe Shop, the Blacksmith Shop, and the Port Shop.

This adept workforce maintained the cannery throughout the canning season. Carpenters were knowledgeable craftsmen who constructed barn-like buildings on site. Plumbers ensured that water—which powered the belt-driven machines-flowed freely to the cannery. Electricians ran lines from oil-run generators, which lighted cannery spaces. After the transition to powerboats, maritime mechanics called port engineers made certain the fishing fleet was finely tuned and ready to catch salmon.

Highly specialized machinists assembled the complicated canning lines during the preseason and operated and maintained the machines throughout the season. If a piece of machinery broke, machinists could manufacture machine parts at the cannery’s Machine Shop, rather than relying on shipping equipment from the Outside.