Wales Island Cannery
Early on a fine spring morning in April 1947, the Union steamship Cardena departed Port Simpson, bound for Wales Island Cannery. The weather was overcast with good visibility and a fresh wind from the north. The barometer reading was 30.5. The ship was making eleven knots in a moderate swell.
Steering a northwesterly course, the Cardena passed Birnie Island light and the Parkin Islands before swinging eastwards to a course that would bring her, over the next 50 minutes, abeam of York Island at the south end of Wales Passage.
There were two routes that a ship could take from Port Simpson to Wales Island Cannery: the short way and the long way around. The more direct route led past Haystack Island and into Tongass Pass, then a 90 degree turn and on through a narrow gap at the mouth of Pearse Canal. Here the topography forced a northbound vessel into American waters, at the very bottom of the Alaskan Panhandle.
But on this April morning, the Cardena took the long way around the east side of Wales Island by sailing north through Wales Passage, then back down Pearse Canal before docking at the cannery at twenty minutes past six, some two hours after leaving Port Simpson.
The passengers who were disembarking that morning had been woken early by the steward’s gong, and were served breakfast in the main dining salon while the ship continued her leisurely way up the length of Wales Passage.
Two and a half days earlier, the Cardena had left Vancouver bound for Prince Rupert, before proceeding north to Stewart at the head of Portland Canal. It being almost May and the start of the working season on the north coast, the Cardena and other Union vessels were carrying mostly cannery crews, loggers and sundry cargo and supplies to the many small outports that dotted the coast in those days. Wales Island Cannery was one of these out-of-the-way places, and would not see a Union vessel again until the fall, when the crew would be ready to return south.
Wales Island is bounded by Pearse Canal and Wales Passage to the north, and by Tongass Passage and Portland Inlet to the South. The international boundary between Alaska and British Columbia bisects Pearse Canal over a distance of 25 miles, such that the view from the north-west shore of Wales Island looks out over Alaskan Territory, specifically, Fillmore Island in the Misty Fjords National Monument.
In August of 1793, during his exploration of the west coast of North America in HMS Discovery, Captain George Vancouver named Wales Point, at the entrance to Portland Inlet, after William Wales, master of the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital, London. Both Wales and Vancouver had accompanied Captain James Cook on his second circumnavigation of the globe in HMS Resolution, 1772-75.At the time, George Vancouver was a young midshipman, and William Wales was the ship’s astronomer. Vancouver later credited Wales with teaching him the necessary navigational skills which enabled his own explorations of the Pacific region in the early 1790’s. In 1871, an official at the British Hydrographic Office named Wales Island in conjunction with the point of land named 78 years earlier by Captain Vancouver.
For an obscure island in a remote corner of the B.C. coast, Wales Island was to play a pivotal role in the often contentious Alaska Boundary Dispute between Canada and the United States. This dispute had its roots in the 1825 treaty signed by Russia and Great Britain, which attempted to define, in principle more than fact, the boundary that lay between Alaska and what was then the west coast of British North America. Included in the terms of this treaty was the stipulation that the southernmost boundary of Alaskan territory would advance northwards through Portland Canal to the 56th parallel. This demarcation placed Wales Island firmly in Alaskan territory.
There the matter lay until Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, and British Columbia became a province of Canada four years later, in 1871. Between this period and the final settlement of the boundary question in 1903, survey crews from both Canada and the United States actively explored, mapped and charted the high mountains, deep fjords, glaciers and swamps of this rugged terrain, often in collaboration. In 1896, the military intervened in the form of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which constructed four stone houses in the Portland Canal area. This was done to strengthen America’s claim to the Canal as the southernmost boundary of Alaska. One of these sturdy structures was on the south shore of Wales Island, while another, on the border between Stewart, BC and Hyder, Alaska, can still be seen today.
Two years later, the potential mineral wealth of the far north, as revealed by the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, convinced both Canada and the United States that a new Alaska boundary treaty was urgently required.
This renewed interest in the region led eventually to the signing of the Hay-Herbert Treaty in January, 1903. The terms of the treaty provided for a tribunal to settle the boundary question in precise geographical language. And so, over the next several months, the Alaska Boundary Tribunal, comprised of Canadian, American and British representatives, duly measured, mapped and deliberated, before delivering its award in October of that year. Among the many consequences of this final demarcation of the boundaries of the Alaskan Panhandle was the result that Wales Island now belonged to British Columbia.
In 1902, while Wales Island was still in U.S. territory, a salmon cannery was built on the east shore of Pearse Canal, on the north-west side of the island. But as a result of the 1903 Tribunal Award, the American owners of the cannery forfeited possession of their facility, which by then had produced more than 3500 cases of canned salmon.
At the same time, Hidden Inlet Cannery, situated 14 miles further north, on the west shore of Pearse Canal, had suffered a reverse fate, and was now in Alaskan territory. In 1910, Merrill DesBrisay, the former Canadian owner of Hidden Inlet Cannery purchased Wales Island Cannery and rebuilt it. For the next 14 years, DesBrisay and Company operated the plant before selling to the Canadian Fishing Company in 1925. Wales Island Cannery had its peak production of 50,000 cases of salmon in the 1924 season. It produced its final pack of 26,000 cases in 1949, the last of eleven canneries to operate in the Nass River-Porland Canal area. In 1936, the U.S. Congress granted $100,000 to the former American owners of Wales Island Cannery, as compensation for the loss of their property 33 years earlier. Today, a fly-in fishing lodge occupies the site of the former Wales Island Cannery.
Terry Olson was manager of Wales Island cannery from 1945, when he succeeded George Windsor, until Frank Rice took over the position in 1950. Following the closure of the canning operation in 1949, Wales Island served as a summer gillnet station, much like Humpback Bay, offering boat and net maintenance in addition to provisions and gas. The site was abandoned in the late 1950s.
During the five summers that our family spent at Wales Island Cannery, we occasionally traveled up Pearse Canal to visit Hidden Inlet Cannery, a welcome day trip on the Hazel Point, the camp speedboat. At the time, this Alaskan plant employed fish traps to catch salmon at the mouth of their spawning creeks, thereby supplying the cannery with its resource. More to my mother’s liking, however, was the Hidden Inlet company store, which was amply stocked with a variety of goods unavailable in BC in the immediate post-war period. Thus did my parents pioneer an early form of cross-border shopping.
Wales Island always seems, in my memory, a far more distant and remote setting than Porcher Island ever was. Although only a few hours run from Prince Rupert, the vastness of the wilderness that surrounded Wales Island stretched almost unbroken for a thousand miles to the east, and to the Arctic Ocean in the north. This the International Boundary Commission survey crews discovered to their dismay during the ten hard summers it took to stake the 1500-mile border that separates British Columbia and the Yukon from the state of Alaska.
When darkness fell at Wales Island, after the power plant had shut down and coal oil lamps were lit, the baying of wolves in the forest outside my bedroom window was a nightly reminder of who were the interlopers in that primeval landscape, and who were not.
And in what must surely have been one of the loneliest postings on the coast, a tough old Norwegian named Hjelmer Hanna actually wintered at the Wales Island plant, living utterly on his own in a tiny shack behind the main cannery buildings, through six months of bitter cold, ferocious storms and four foot drifts; only to emerge in the spring, hale and hearty and primed for his annual trip to Chicago, where he stayed with relatives until returning to Wales Island in June, in time for the sockeye season.
A number of the men who for years had fished out of Wales Island Cannery relocated to Humpback Bay in 1950, when Canfisco reduced the size of its operation at its more northerly plant. Among them were the Barton and Robinson families of Kincolith, Dan and Helen Gonu from Aiyansh, and the Wesley’s of Port Simpson. As well there was Alec Nyman, Charlie Soini, Tommy Tomassen, Tommy Gorman, Konrad Lien and Rolf Dokka, all of whom moved to Porcher.
Cecil Barton was a round and jovial man who for many years skippered the Canfisco packer, Arrandale M. In due course, Cecil’s son, Nathan succeeded his father as skipper of the Arrandale M.
Rolf and Edith Dokka, with their daughter Karen, occupied the house on the hill next to ours. In later years, Rolf and Edie ran a successful ski shop in Vancouver. Two other families occupied houses down the path from ours: Brem Zutoff, the shore engineer, with his wife Eileen and their two daughters, Donna and Jo; and Irling Nikolaisen, the net boss, with his wife Ada, who planted radishes in the stony soil and grew nasturtiums on a trellis made from old gillnet webbing.
Shortly after nine o’clock on the evening of August 21, 1949, I was asleep in my room when my metal bed frame suddenly snapped, bounced and twisted like an uncoiling spring. The whole house shook and shuddered as my mother’s few ornaments flew off the shelves and were dashed to the floor. Scooping me up, she ran outside to the heaving ground that was our strawberry patch, where we waited out a magnitude 8.1 earthquake, the strongest ever-recorded in Canada.
The epicentre of this event lay 150 miles to the southwest, off the west coast of Graham Island, where the Queen Charlotte fault had ruptured along a 350-mile length, from Moresby Island in the south to Sitka, Alaska in the north. Because the area affected by the quake was so sparsely populated at the time, structural damage was limited and, I believe, no loss of life occurred as a result. The cannery and other buildings at Wales Island were not noticeably affected and no Tsunami reached our shores.
When my father, who had been down on the floats at the time, came home, he scarcely believed what we told him. The powerful quake had gone entirely unnoticed by those standing on the log floats that fronted the cannery.
I returned to Wales Island Cannery only once, in the summer of 1952, along with my father and a Canfisco employee named Sam Waller. We traveled in the Oceanic Point, the Porcher plant speedboat. This was a stubby and low-slung craft that ploughed the water more than it planed. Even so, with its twin Chrysler Crown marine engines, it cruised along at a respectable 12 knots.
We left Humpback Bay early on a bright morning in July, following a northeasterly course that took us through Chatham Sound, past Finlayson Island and then out across the eastern reach of Dixon Entrance, before navigating the direct route into Wales Island Cannery via Haystack Island and Tongass Passage. The 50-mile journey took about five hours.
While my father and Mr. Waller discussed company business that day with Frank Rice, I roamed through the old abandoned cannery buildings, spoke to a few of the men I knew and visited our former homestead on the hill. We left Wales Island Cannery in late afternoon for Prince Rupert, rather than make the longer trek back to Humpback Bay that night.
There is a western approach to Prince Rupert Harbour that leads around the south end of Tugwell Island, across Metlakatla Bay and through a narrow and reef-strewn channel known as Venn Passage. This difficult route requires careful navigation, knowledge of the local tides and an ability to read the numerous can buoys and beacons that mark the channel.
About halfway through Venn Passage, my father passed on the wrong side of a green and white beacon and ran the Oceanic Point hard aground. There she stuck fast, perched high and dry on the crest of a conspicuous reef in the falling tide. Following the order to abandon ship, Sam Waller, my father and I took to the lifeboat and began the long pull into Prince Rupert Harbour. Luckily, we soon spied a small pleasure craft motoring towards us. As reluctant as I think they were to interrupt their cruise, they graciously stopped, took us shipwrecked mariners on board and returned in the direction from whence they came.
It should be noted that this unfortunate mishap was in no way typical of Terry Olson’s navigational skills. He once transported a pregnant woman from Humpback Bay to Prince Rupert harbour through thick fog in the middle of the night, using only dead reckoning to find his way. Sic transit gloria mundi.
WALES ISLAND FISHERMEN 1939