Historical photo of men working a canning line

Canning line workers posing at the APA Diamond NN Cannery in ca. 1918-1923. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Axel Widerstorm collection.

THE CANNERY WORKSCAPE: The Industrial Revolution of the North

 "Of all the agents of change, none had a greater or more lasting effect [on Alaska] than the commercial fishing industry."

— James Vanstone, Ethnographer

Gilded Age salmon canneries—with their billowing smokestacks, pulsating machines, efficient fishing, processing, canning, and marketing methods, and multi-ethnic labor force—represented the Industrial Revolution of the North.

Essentially fish factories and canneries exploited Alaska’s massive fish resource and commodified its natural abundance, converting Alaska salmon into millions of mass-produced and mass consumed product.

Laissez-faire minded canners imported all the coal, oil, tin, machines, lumber, food, and the sizeable, ethnically diverse workforce to run the operation. They even provided local services such as healthcare, fuel and commercial goods.

Automating the Canning Line

Canneries introduced mechanized assembly lines, replaced skilled workers with steam-powered machines, built electrical, water, and communications systems, and applied western science to manage fish runs.

Salmon packers sold the canned product to markets worldwide through a large-scale transportation network while leaving little profit to local Alaskans.

By the 1920s, the canning line was fully automated and skillful cannery testers and tinsmiths were reduced to machine tenders. The filling machine, pictured here, automatically filled cans with salmon and a set amount of salt at a rate of 200 cans per minute.