Left: The Alaska Packers Association’s Star Fleet at its port in Alameda, California, 1937. Heinbockel-Payne family collection. The Alaska Packers assembled a fleet of about 30 wooden sailing ships for transportation between San Franscico and Alaska. As APA acquired discarded sailing ships, the company renamed the vessels — Star of Alaska, Star of Finland, Star of Bengal, Star of France, etc.—collectively called “Star Fleet.” The tall ships departed San Franscico Bay in early spring, carrying supplies, fishermen, and cannery hands to Alaska. In autumn, ships returned with the season’s salmon pack. By the 1930s, APA began replacing these square-riggers with steam or diesel-powered ships. Right: Gallery view – photograph by Brian Wallace.
SUPERINTENDENT’S OFFICE: The Kings of Bristol Bay
"A cannery manager was probably a graduate from the files or fishermen or workers, he was chosen for his ability to handle men and machines. In the early days, the manager might be dumped on the beach with a pile of lumber and a few men. It would be his job to build the cannery, order supplies, negotiate through the Chinese and Indian bosses for labor, engage a fleet of fishermen, and see that every aspect of the complex operation fitted together so that by the end of the season, there was a pile of canned salmon to ship out and a set of books that balanced."
— Huge McKervill, The Salmon People
Each cannery was a sprawling, self-sufficient community of wooden buildings set on pilings and stitched together by boardwalks and staircases radiating from the docks. A cannery included a fish house, cannery, warehouses, powerhouse, boiler room, machine shop, bunkhouses, carpentry shop, egg house, mess halls, office, superintendent’s house, guest house, general store, hospital, radio shack, laundry—everything needed to see a small army of workers through the short, intense season.
Overseeing the industrial community was the superintendent. The successful superintendents were good planners and time managers. They imported from the Lower 48 every machine, tin, plank, and skilled employee needed for the season of canning fish.
“I had to plan for everything. How many gloves to buy, how much food to purchase,” explained Gary Johnson, Diamond NN Cannery superintendent from 1979-1996. “But I had people in key positions that made my job a piece of cake.”
Alaska Packers Association (APA)
Known from San Francisco Bay to Bristol Bay, the Alaska Packers Association was a corporate juggernaut that owned or controlled 70 percent of Alaska’s salmon canneries by the turn of the 20th century.
APA was part of the broader pattern of commercialized Pacific salmon packing that, before 1937, was the third-largest extractive industry in the American West, with greater value than gold and copper mining in Alaska. As a subsidiary of the Del Monte Corporation, APA helped pioneer a technological, commercial, and global system that revolutionized how the world ate.
The Diamond Canneries: APA’s diamond canneries glistened along Alaska shores
APA identified its widespread canneries in corporate ledgers and reports using initials surrounded by diamond-shaped brackets—an accounting symbol called a chevron.
The Nushagak cannery was listed as the <NC>, pronounced as “Diamond N-C.” The Arctic Packing Company became the <APC>. As the company grew, similar names applied to other canneries: <E> at Egegik, <U> at Ugashik, <C> at Chignik, <A> at Alitak, and <J> and <X> located on the Kvichak River.
Japanese figurines, ca. 1960s
Found in the Superintendent’s “White House,” these small gifts from Japanese buyers and businessmen, represent the increasingly powerful role of Japan in Alaska’s commercial salmon fishery, in the decades after World War II.
In response to disastrous fish runs that bottomed out in the early 1970s, the State of Alaska instituted the limited-entry system, starting in 1972, which restricted the number of setnet sites and drift boats that could fish in Bristol Bay, while requiring fishermen to purchase fish licenses and permits. These discarded fishing licenses, found in the bookkeeper’s oak desk at the Diamond NN Cannery, speak to the fleet of experienced local fishermen. However, since the limited entry program was implemented, Bristol Bay has lost over 50% of its rural permits to outside fishermen.
Code Books, ca. early 20th century
Don and Pamela Mack
Because radio channels were open to any listener using that frequency, superintendents covered their intent with a series of codes to keep communications with corporate headquarters or the cannery’s marine fleet secret from competitors.
Signal tracer and radio, ca. 1970s
Using callsign “WHB-65 South Naknek,” the superintendent used these CB radios to communicate with tender captains every two hours. The superintendent collected catch reports to orchestrate fish delivery, or if needed, administer emergency assistance. These decisions—made hourly—were dictated by facility capacity and high tides.
Norm Rockness suitcase, ca, 1960s
Courtesy of Pete Rockness
Early superintendents, often trained as machinists, sea captains, or sailboat fishermen, used local knowledge of landscape features such as creeks and tidal characteristics for site selection and the design and layout of the cannery complex. By the midcentury, business acumen had replaced local wisdom and know-how. This briefcase represents the shift to business principles of the corporate-minded “company men,” who rose in ranks to cannery superintendents after World War II.
Film - The Rock: Superintendent Norm Rockness
Renowned Alaska filmmaker Anna Hoover produced this story about her grandfather, Norm Rockness, a longtime APA superintendent of the NN Cannery. The film includes original footage of Bristol Bay shot by former superintendent J.F. Heinbockel and California historian and captain of the boat f/v The Rock, Scott Carter.