A group of cannery workers gathering in a bunkhouse; A photo portrait of poet Oscar Peñaranda

Left: Bunkhouse gathering, ca. 1979. Mike Rann private collection. Right: Oscar Peñaranda, poet in San Francisco, 1975. Photo by Nancy Wong.


Cannery bunkhouses were often large dormitory buildings, set atop pilings, and constructed to accommodate nearly 500 cannery workers and fishermen. In the early days, each group had its bunkhouse: Italians, Scandinavian, Native, Filipino, and the White crew.

"Open conflict between the groups seldom takes place, but instead, an accommodation that varies from toleration to conciliation."

 — Observation from 1949

Breaking Down Social Barriers

Social barrier breakdowns in the 1970s allowed the next generation of cannery workers to engage in ways never experienced by past, segregated crews.

In 1981, cannery worker Kristin Kelly described more positive relationships among crews:

There is a community atmosphere that begins immediately among those of us who return each summer and begins within a few weeks among first-timers.

On an occasional night off, the egg house crew spends time in the Japanese’s bunkhouse exchanging friendly songs and sprits. There are private parties whenever time allows, but the three recognized during the season are the Italian fishermen’s barbecue around the Fourth of July and the Japanese and Filipino parties near the end of the season.

All three groups prepare ethnic foods, and the celebrations provide a means of letting off steam as well as enhancing a feeling of camaraderie among us all.

Ubiquitous Spaces

Whether they were Alaska Native hires, immigrant fishermen, or Filipino processors, each group of cannery laborers had their own bunkhouse. Despite the segregated quarters, cannery people found ways to interact. They played games, partied, shared food and music in the bunkhouse community spaces. Today, cannery bunkhouses hold evidence of cannery people whose unique identities once filled the ubiquitous spaces.

Alaska Native Unionization

World War II profoundly changed cannery life, as employees enlisted or chose war jobs over seasonal work in Alaska. APA looked to local resident labor to fill the void. After the war, Native workers organized into unions. IFAWA Local 46 was led by President Joe Nashaolook. Local 46 allied with the Bering Sea Fisherman’s Union (BSFU) and went on strike before 1951. The strike ended in early July with hourly wage increases for resident cannery workers. Those resident workers who came from South Naknek lived and ate in the nearby village. But a majority of resident union workers came from beyond Bristol Bay, and therefore had their own bunkhouse.

Scandinavian Influence

Immigrants from the fishing nations of Scandinavia formed the dominant group of fishermen in Alaska fisheries as trollers, purse seiners, and gillnetters. Norwegians, particularly, entered the occupation through the earlier cod industry and represented over half of Alaska’s salmon trap fishermen. Norwegians participated in the salmon industry as owners and managers of packing companies. In the canneries, they were employed as machinists, blacksmiths, tallymen, carpenters, and shipwrights. Scandinavians invented signature fishing gear and cannery machinery. Today Scandinavians are known as marine architects, fish brokers, and organizers of political unions that benefited the fishing and canning trades. 

The Italian Fishermen’s Trunk

Sparked by the discovery of gold on the Sacramento River in 1848, Italians emigrated from the fishing region of Sicily in a search for California gold. Without much luck hitting pay dirt in the Sierras, the Sicilians saw the Sacramento River fill with silvery salmon each spring. A commodity turned out to be more valuable than gold.

Reverting to their original trade, the Italian prospectors cast gillnets made with traditional knowledge from the old country. Many settled in cannery towns like Black Diamond (later Pittsburg), California, located on the shores of the Sacramento River.

In 1886, the Sacramento cannery owner, William Bradford, advertised in the local papers around Black Diamond seeking gillnet fishermen to fish for his newly incorporated Bristol Bay Canning Company. Giuseppe Bruno, Cosimo Bruno, Giuseppe Aiello, and Giachino Aiello applied for the job.

Together, they forged Bristol Bay’s famed Italian fleet, and the beginnings of the renowned “Iron Men of Bristol Bay.” Generations journeyed from Pittsburg, California, to the fishing grounds of the Bering Sea, to gillnet salmon for Bristol Bay canneries. Until 1951, they conducted their fishing activities from powerless sailboats. Today, their descendants continue to make the journey to fish the wild waters of Bristol Bay.

The Hyatt

After World War II, Bristol Bay fishermen gradually separated from the canneries. After 1951, powerboats were allowed in Bristol Bay for the first time since 1924. Canneries continued to supply services and boats to “company fishermen,” while independent fishermen owned their own boats and paid rent for bunkrooms and meals. Croatian Fisherman, Nick Mavar, remembered the importance of the fisherman’s bunkhouse:

After we launch the boats and start fishing, whether you go to Egegik, Nushagak, or wherever you are, you mostly live on the boats. When it’s no fishing time, you could tie the boat on the tide, and you go in your “Hyatt.” We keep equipment there; we keep radios and clothes.

Alaska/Filipino Bunkhouse/Lights Out

Curled up like brown puppies
they would cuddle
alone at nights or early mornings
in their spring-soggy beds
(the veterans would have put
a slab of plywood stolen from the white machinists
under rotting mattresses
for their aching and irreplaceable backs)

each retreating under a blanket of
separate dreams
that, during the routine of neverending work,
wrap about them
like stubborn sheets of Alaskan rain and wind

thinking perhaps
of staying and living
the winter there

tired not from the skillful maneuvering
of salmon round the clock
but from arguing all night
which one
the white woman at
the store stole a
glance at
that day

— Oscar Penaranda, Writer, Historian, and former Cannery Worker

Bunkhouse Camaraderie

At age 21, Oscar Penaranda got his first job working as a seasonal cannery worker in 1966. He picked fruit in Delano, California, in the winter, typical for most of South Naknek’s Filipino crew. That first year, Oscar was so overwhelmed by the work that he later recalled, “I just couldn’t believe human beings are supposed to work like that—over 24 hours a day.” He swore he’d never return, but he did every summer for the next fifteen years.

Oscar chose to return each season because of the friendships formed while living in the bunkhouse. “Cannery workers are different,” explained Oscar. “Not that they were great people, it’s…the camaraderie.” He recalled that it wasn’t an ideal working or living experience, characterizing the situation as often tense. “There were fights, the people get drunk, people are owning money in the gambling.” But, as Oscar points out, “there was “chemistry” between the working people.”

The Croatian Influence

The Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Marketing Association, formed in 1966 and dominated by Croatians, organized spirited, albeit ineffective, Bristol Bay strikes in 1980 and 1991 that, according to one labor historian, “ended the last significant vestiges of collective bargaining and unionism in the country’s most important fishery.”

Still, the independent fishermen associations continued to advocate for fishermen’s concerns and interests. The identities of the Croatian fishermen shaped the cannery experience and, whether company fishermen or independents, were significant actors in the cannery community.