The History of Ship Harbor
Ship Harbor was given its name when the warship USS Massachusetts was dispatched to the San Juan Islands in the mid1850s to protect American interests and “exhort” the Indian tribes to meet with Government officials to negotiate treaties. The Vessel was anchored in the protected bay during its tour and locals named site, “Ship Harbor.”
For hundreds of years, the Samish used Ship Harbor as a fishing site. Later, some of the largest salmon canneries in the world operated there.
Salmon canning was important in the history of Anacortes, especially in the period between 1905 and 1917, called “the most prosperous period in the history of the city,” during which time Anacortes was often referred to as “the salmon canning capital of the world.” Ship Harbor was the site of two major canneries.
The first cannery on Fidalgo Island was opened at Ship Harbor in 1894 — the Fidalgo Island Packing Company. It would become one of the largest salmon canneries in the world. It later changed its name to Fidalgo Island Canning Company before closing in 1933 and moving to Canada. Two of its well-known labels were “Holly Leaf” brand salmon — “packed fresh on Puget Sound” — and “Wild Rose” brand. Another of the several local canning companies, Anacortes Canning Company, was also located at Ship Harbor. Alaska Packer Association purchased it in 1904 and it closed in 1934.
Other industries in Anacortes were an outgrowth of the canneries. By 1911, for example, Anacortes had the largest fertilizer and glue factory west of the Mississippi, which used fish waste.
The many cannery buildings at Ship Harbor are all gone now except for some pilings; a few of the buildings stood there, abandoned, until the 1980’s, when they were finally torn down. At one time, the cannery community at Ship Harbor included, in addition to the main cannery buildings and warehouses, bunkhouses and mess halls for workers, an office building, a general store, a blacksmith shop, a carpentry and paint shop, houses, sheds, pig pens, chicken coops, net houses and net racks.
All the canneries were dependent on cheap labor, usually supplied by Chinese and Japanese migrant laborers. Over 400 Chinese worked at the canneries at Ship Harbor. In addition to the labor of fish cleaning and processing, for example, each can was made by hand. Workers lived on the site and were discouraged from roaming. Few had families with them; most were bachelors trying to make enough money to return home and marry.
Despite the attempt to keep the Asian workers isolated, local culture was enriched. There was a Buddhist temple at 6th and “I” streets in Anacortes. Locals enjoyed Chinese firecracker displays at both Fourth of July and Chinese New Year. “Their vegetables gardens were famous and they supplied the tables of the Chinese cookhouse in abundance.” “…contact with these people was pleasant, their word their bond in business dealings….” However, racism was rampant. There was even an “Anti-Mongolian League,” an early organization for the purpose of “controlling” the Chinese in Anacortes.
At Fidalgo Island Packing, there were also local Indians and white women from town who handled some of the fish processing. A 1914 photo shows white women with long skirts, full-length aprons, gloves, and fabric bonnets. “Ten Greeks”stayed at the cannery all year around to mend and tar the fish nets.
In 1902, an inventor, E.A. Smith, made a fish-cleaning machine called the “Iron Chink.” Its purpose, Smith said, was “to do away with Chinamen.” Whatever its initial inspiration, the Iron Chink turned out to make the fish processing business more efficient and profitable, taking the place of 15 men on each fish line. It is considered to have been “the greatest technological advancement in the history of the salmon canning industry.” Another technological advance, the vacuum canning method, was developed by Adolf Malmquist of Bellingham in 1913. (an “Iron Chink” is displayed in the museum in Victoria, B.C.) The banner year for the Anacortes canneries was 1913, when 39 million salmon were caught. Anacortes canneries alone did more than $3 million worth of business that year. There were later brief bursts of abundance, but overall, salmon runs permanently dwindled.
The canneries and the activities associated with them now are gone from Ship Harbor, and the Ship Harbor wetland has regained much of its natural character and function.