The NN Cannery History Project is focused on the historic salmon cannery at Naknek in Bristol Bay Alaska. It features a tragic chapter in 1919 when a second round of the Spanish Flu outbreak devastated residents of villages in Bristol Bay. Crews from the Alaska Packers Association (APA) arriving in Bristol Bay to can salmon late that spring ended up caring for the afflicted villagers.
The history project, in collaboration with executive director Tim Troll of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, and the Alaska Humanities Forum, will host a conversation and commemoration of the pandemic at the Alaska Humanities Forum on Dec. 3.
As Troll noted in articles on the history of the pandemic, the cannery workers were the first responders to the sickened population in the infection plagued villages. The packing company, by its own account, spared no expense in providing medical help to the sick, to comfort the dying, build coffins, bury the dead, and to feed, clothe and house many, many orphans. The flu, an H1H1 variant, “has curiously spared the young while reserving its wrath for their parents,” Troll wrote. When the territorial governor later asked the packing company for a bill for reimbursement, APA President Henry Fortmann declined the offer. Fortmann told the governor that it would be almost impossible to segregate the quantities and costs of food, fuel, drugs, clothing, bedding and other commodities furnished to the Natives during the plague, to say nothing of similar articles given to them for the winter by the company. “We feel ourselves well paid by the knowledge that we were able to relieve the suffering and that our employees carried out the spirit and the wishes of the Alaska Packers Association,” Fortmann said.
By the end of June, Troll noted, the flu had run its course, but the disaster was far from over. The anticipated salmon run never came in July, as overfishing to provide ore food for Allied troops in World War One apparently decimated the 1919 brood stocks, leading to the first major collapse of the commercial fishery in Bristol Bay.
The orphans who survived the deadly flu have all passed on now, though the known ancestry of many Bristol Bay families today begins with them.
The photo exhibit, titled Bristol Bay Remembers: The Great Flu of 1919, is on display at Humanities Forum through Dec. 4.