Left: The Coast Guard Cutter U.S.S. Unalga Crew in Masks during the 1919 Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1919. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Right: Gallery view – photograph by Brian Wallace.
The Alaska Packers Association built hospitals at its remote cannery stations. Trained doctors and nurses arrived with the seasonal crews to dispense healthcare, ensuring the wellness of fishermen and cannery workers through the short canning season. In addition to employees, doctors treated Native residents of nearby villages.
Throughout the years, cannery doctors saw their share of emergencies: machinery accidents, drownings, heart attacks, and even bear attacks. But no cannery doctor had before experienced a medical event like what happened in 1919.
The Naknek Station: “Report On 1919 Influenza Epidemic”
Reports requested by APA President Henry Fortmann after crews returned to San Francisco in 1919, preserve the tragic history of the Spanish influenza outbreak in Bristol Bay. Authored by Superintendent Heinbockel and Dr. Frederick B. Spencer, the “Naknek Station” reports are daily documentation of the epidemic as it hit the eastside river systems of Bristol Bay.*
Describing the sickness as it spread in real-time, the internal reports are of the most comprehensive firsthand accounts of the Spanish influenza epidemic in rural Alaska.
The reports not only record the impact of the outbreak as it overcame a relatively isolated part of Alaska, but narratives collectively convey the human side of a tragedy so immense that its significance worldwide is often articulated only through the statistical number of dead.
*Additional reports document similar events at APA’s Nushagak and Kvichak canneries.
During the epidemic, APA canneries communicated through state-of-the-art wireless telegraphy. Installed at the Naknek Station was the most extensive and efficient wireless apparatus, which handled all wireless communication between the three Bristol Bay stations and the outside world.
The NN Cannery and the Spanish Flu (film)
Narrating the film are J.F. Heinbockel’s great-grandsons John Payne and Warren Payne, who live in California with their families. On recently discovering the box of artifacts, the Payne-Heinbockel family returned the items to the people of South Naknek.
Survivors Become Cannery Caretakers
APA employee J.F. Heinbockel, served as Superintendent from 1911 to 1940. The year of the pandemic was his first year at the NN Cannery. After the Great Flu ended, Heinbockel created a workforce consisting of local survivors to conduct jobs in the winter months. Their task: to protect the company’s million-dollar assets in the off-season.
“The surviving Native adults at the different villages were well taken care of during convalescence, furnished with ample food and medical care. After recovery, they were given employment making themselves self-supporting. During the coming winter, occupation has been provided for them, such as painting boats and lighters and doing general winter work about the canneries. Good supplies of food and medicines are available at all five canneries connected with the Alaska Packers Association’s Naknek station, and instructions have been given for the liberal distribution of same.”
— J.F. Heinbockel, Superiendent 1919 Influenza Report, Naknek Station. San Francisco, October 20, 1919.
The South Naknek cannery’s century-long operational life is a remarkable testament to the village residents, who cared for a cannery that once grew to care for them, over time. Despite losses due to displacement, capitalism, natural disasters, and disease, the residents of South Naknek village adapted, endured, and carried on. They became integral contributors to and caretakers of the cannery operation. This legacy continues to this day.
“Health is Wealth”
Stories of epidemics have now moved from the realm of history into everyday life. In March 2020, a handful of Bristol Bay villages were facing the arrival of over twenty thousand people gearing up to work the summer salmon fishery.
*“Spanish flu” is a misnomer for the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919. Due to Spain’s neutrality during WWI, it was not subject to press restrictions. Reports of the spread of influenza within Spain’s borders was more widely reported on than other countries that were subject to media blackouts during the war, giving the false impression that the influenza began in Spain.
Health is Wealth campaign poster and gator
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