A historic salmon cannery on the shores of South Naknek in Bristol Bay, Alaska that operated almost continuously from 1895 to 2015, is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Diamond NN Cannery, established on the shores of South Naknek by the Alaska Packers Association and now owned by Trident Seafoods, began as a saltery in 1890. In 1895, the facility was converted into a cannery which went on to operate for over 100 years, according to Bob King, former dean of Alaska’s fisheries writers, who now lives in Juneau.
Most of some other 60 canneries spread over the region for decades fell way short of that record of service, King said.
“They fell apart, runs changed, the technology changes, they didn’t need as any canneries, but this is one of the earliest starting, longest running canneries,” he explained.
“This project is taking the perspective of the cannery workers themselves, not the fishermen as much, so this really adds to the historical record,” said King, who was legendary for his daily updates on the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery on KDLG, public radio for Bristol Bay.
He gives most of the credit for the cannery finally being listed in August of 2021 in the National Registry to Katherine “Katy” Ringsmuth, a University of Alaska Anchorage history professor and Alaska state historian.
“This might be the first Bristol Bay cannery on the National Register, but I hope it is not the last,” said Ringsmuth. “I don’t usually start projects thinking I will never finish them. It did get done and there were a lot of people really supporting us.”
Among the many supporters, in addition to King, were Tim Troll, executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, the National Park Service and Trident Seafoods, which acquired the cannery in 1995. “It is a private property, and without their buy-in and support this never would have happened,” Ringsmuth said.
Beyond her passion as a historian, Ringsmuth has a very personal interest in the NN Cannery.
“My father, Gary Johnson, was the long-time superintendent,” she explained. “I worked my way through college on the slime line. When my dad retired it became a focus of my academic interest as well,” she said.
There are 51 buildings still standing and each building tells a story, Ringsmuth said in an interview this past spring with KNBA radio in Anchorage.
Although initially largely segregated in housing, that separation ended with a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision, after which the cannery had an integrated workforce of people of Italian, Scandinavian, Chinese, Filipino, Alaska Native and other heritages.
“These buildings help tell the story of people who oftentimes are omitted or haven’t been included in that history,” she said.