In the Can

            July 22 – Before we started out on our Alaskan adventure we had written the Chamber of Commerce or Visitor’s Bureau of each city we were visiting to get information on what there was to do.  Using the information each city provided we were able to estimate how many days we would spend exploring them.  Haines won the ‘least information provided’ award.  They did send a very nice, professionally produced, 30 page booklet which covered the location, history, arts and culture of Haines.  The booklet made general statements about being a mecca for anyone who loves outdoor activities, but was short on details on things to do (many of the activities they did list involved flying or driving from Haines to an attraction elsewhere).   We allowed four days in Haines, although our itinerary listed the activities for each day as ‘to be determined’.  We visited the Visitor’s Center upon arriving and they had lots of brochures on things to do in Skagway and Juneau, but only five brochures for Haines and those were all for hotels or B&B’s.  When we asked the volunteer about kayaking she suggested we call the local kayak tour company and see if they knew of anywhere to go.  Things were looking bleak when Stacie noticed a dry erase board in the corner that had operating hours for a few museums in town and a mention of Chilkat story tellers.  At the same time Dave found a tiny slip of paper in a pile in another corner that suggested buying a ‘museum pass’ that admitted the holder to all four museums in town for one low price.  We now had a starting point for our exploration of Haines and armed with a walking tour outlined in a free newspaper we set out.

            The walking tour ambled around town, often mentioning historic buildings that had been demolished to put up newer buildings.  The directions were bad and we got lost several times, but since Haines is only 10 blocks in size we were able to figure things out.  The first museum we hit was the Sheldon museum, named after the private collector who decided to turn his collection into a museum.  The museum featured several exhibits on area history and also housed a collection of Indian crafts.  We took a break for lunch by the town dock and then headed over to the next museum on our list – the Tsirku Canning Company.  As the guide there put it, “this is a hobby gone out of control”.  The museum is not in an old cannery, nor were salmon ever canned by the Tsirku Canning Company.  The owner is a salmon fisherman who for all his life sold salmon to canneries.  He was fascinated by the machinery inside the canneries and one day decided it would be nice to start collecting the ‘antique’ canning machines (although most Alaska canneries continue to use machines which are over 50 years old).  The museum is the result of three years of work finding and fixing machines to create an authentic canning line.  The story of getting the machines is as fascinating as watching them work.  Although the number of canneries in Alaska has been steadily declining, there is a demand for working machines and as a cannery is closed the machines are quickly sold off.  The owner spent 18 months making phone calls and following up on leads to assemble the collection.  Several of the fish processing machines were found in a little town in Canada that had no road access and was located on a small river that was no longer navigable.  The cannery had trapped salmon as they came up the river and when that practice was banned the cannery folded.  Since there was no way to transport the machines off the site they sat there rusting until the museum owner found them.  In order to remove the machines he waited for the dead of winter when the river was frozen solid and then drove trucks over the ice.  The story of the three machines that actually make the cans is even more amazing.  When salmon canning started out tin cans were used and although they did get rust spots on them, it was figured that a can would be eaten long before it rusted through.  The use of tin cans continued until 1982 when someone died of botulism and it was traced to a salmon can that rusted through.  Overnight the industry switched to the aluminum cans that we see today.  One would expect that this would have caused there to be hundreds of obsolete tin can making machines, but not so.  While the cans were assembled at each cannery, the company (there was only one) that supplied each cannery with the can parts owned the machines that assembled the parts.  The company made its profit on selling the can parts and supplied the machines as part of the deal.  Fearing law suits if more tin cans were assembled and failed the company sent “engineers” to every cannery to “de-activate” the machines.  Every machine was cut up into pieces and either sold as scrap metal or dumped in the ocean.  They also destroyed all of the equipment in their factory that made can parts.  These actions should have destroyed every set of can making machines in existence, except there was one set they couldn’t destroy.  Canneries didn’t like having to pay the high prices that the can company charged for can parts, but they were stuck – no one else made can making machines.  One cannery, however, was approached by a Canadian tin manufacturer that said they could make the can parts for half the price if the cannery could find a way to own the machines.  Realizing that they could save a lot of money, the cannery approached the big can supplier and asked if they could buy the machines outright.  The can supplier named an exorbitant price and the cannery paid it since they would make the money back in savings.  The Canadian can company provided low cost cans for three years and then suddenly tripled its prices.  The little cannery was forced to go back to the big can company, but many years later when the can company came to destroy the machines, the little cannery proved they owned the machines and got to keep them (it was a small victory since no one was making can parts anymore).  The machines sat in a warehouse for almost 20 years until the museum owner located them.  They say it wasn’t too hard to buy them since they were totally obsolete.

            After 18 months of searching the museum owner had collected more than enough machines to assemble a full canning line.  The only problem was that none of the machines worked.  Many had been left outdoors and were severely rusted.  Others were missing parts.  Worst of all, the museum owner was a fisherman with no idea of how exactly all these machines worked or how to fix them.  He got back on the phone and found an engineer at the can company who was sympathetic to his cause.  The engineer provided technical information and manuals on the machines and even made a trip to Alaska, spending two months providing the support needed to restore the machines and create a working canning line.  In the process they slowed the speed of the machines down to only 10% and also had to convert the machines to run on individual electric motors instead of a central power shaft like canneries used.  The whole process took three years, but there was still one problem – there were no can parts to run through the machines.  Fortune smiled on the museum again.  There was a story of a cannery supply ship that had run aground and was presumed lost.  The owner tracked down the facts and was able to locate the shipwreck on a beach in Canada.  Amazingly enough, the stories were true and the ship was full of can parts.  Unfortunately, the majority of the parts had rusted, but they were able to salvage a good number of useable can parts and the museum could open.

               The actual canning process is simple when you have a line of machines to help you.  The first step is to make the cans.  Cans were made at the cannery because it is not cost effective to ship empty cans.  Originally cans were made completely by hand and it was said that a good worker could make ten in an hour (The machines could produce one per second!)  There are three parts to a can – a top, a bottom (identical to a top) and the round side.  The can part manufacturer made these parts, but to save on shipping space the round side was squashed so that it was flat.  The first machine took the flattened side and made it round again by putting it over round molds and applying pressure.  Next the round side piece went into a machine that squashed it slightly to produce flanges (a rim) at the ends.  Finally, the can seamer would put a bottom on the can and using high pressure rollers fold the bottom over the flange to make it air tight and create the ridge that our can openers can use.  Fish processing was just as easy.  The first machine, the head indexer, took the fish in on a conveyor belt and chopped their heads off.  The next machine cleaned the fish completely in one step and had the politically incorrect name of the iron chink (this machine replaced 20 or 30 chinese fish cleaners).  The machine would take the fish tail first and cut off all the fins, then slit the belly and used two rotary wire wheels to rip the guts out (and make quite a mess).  Next the fish went into the gang knife which cut the whole fish into pieces that were as high as a can.  The pieces fell onto a conveyor belt and were fed into the rotary fish filler.  This machine took the fish pieces and compacted them into can sized lumps and then stuffed them into a can and added a pinch of salt for flavor.  The cans then traveled onto the weighing machine where they were checked for proper weight.  Cans that were too light were sent to the patching table where fish was manually added and the can reweighed.  Full cans were then sent to the clincher.  This machine was like the seamer in the can making process, but this machine did not put the lid on airtight, rather it only clinched it enough to make sure it was on.  The final step was the vacuum clinching machine.  This machine extracted all of the air from the can and sealed it by high pressure clinching.   The cans then came out of the machine and were stacked into baskets.  The baskets were placed into the retort (or giant pressure cooker) where they were cooked with steam for about 2 hours.  Upon removal from the retort the cans were inspected for air tightness (placed underwater) and stacked for shipping to the label company who would put the labels on the cans and distribute them.  When staffed with competent workers the line could produce 120 cans a minute!  The cannery does not have a vacuum pump for the final machine so it does not can salmon (although they will put other items in the cans and sell them).

            We had two more museums to see in town, but the weather was so nice that we decided to suspend touring and take the kayaks up to Chilkoot Lake.  The lake was long and narrow, surrounded by mountains with waterfalls and hanging glaciers.  The Chilkoot River which runs about ¾ mile from the lake to the ocean was a popular fishing spot for people, eagles, seals and bears, although we didn’t see any bears (although we looked hard).  We headed back to camp and had a hearty dinner.