Haines man opens cannery museum

Posted: Tuesday, June 20, 2000

HAINES (AP) -- A former fisherman is turning back the clock for people who want to find out what drove the economy early in the century.

Jim Szymanski has built what may be Alaska's first cannery museum, Tsirku Canning Co.

The museum includes a restored and operational canning line and 60 tons of functioning equipment inside a hall of maps, graphs and historic photos that capture the glory days of industrial fish packing.

In 1905, in warehouses dotting Chilkoot and Chilkat inlets, 700 workers toiled through the summer, cleaning and canning boatloads of salmon by hand.

''We've never had an industry since that gave us those kinds of numbers of jobs,'' Szymanski told the Chilkat Valley News.

Set up in a 140-foot building, the museum features about a dozen pieces of restored 80-year-old equipment, including what Szymanski claims is the last half-pound can reform line in existence.

He talks about cannery machines the ways other guys talk about cars.

''The crimps in these cans were a marvel of the machinery that did it. We're talking fractions of thousandths of an inch. The tolerances those crimps were held to are amazing,'' he said, pointing out a high-speed vacuum closing machine.

Szymanski's canning line dates to the 1920s, a period that saw the ascendance of canned food as dinner table fare. Although commercial canning dates to the 1850s, sanitary advances at the time were making canned products safer and assembly-line technology was speeding up the process exponentially.

According to Szymanski, the beauty of the canning line was its practicality, durability and precision. Manufactured by American Can Co. for rugged use in remote locations, the machines were deliberately overbuilt and easy to fix, yet remarkably precise and reliable.

''There was no second-day UPS service. It had to work, and if it didn't, it had to be able to be fixed by just about anybody. And it was all done without laser beams or transistors,'' Szymanski said.

Beginning at the reform line, Szymanski's equipment takes flattened steel straps, rounds them into cylinders, and adds a bottom. The reform line eventually connected to an automated process line, equipment that swiftly beheaded salmon, removed tails, fins and guts, and chopped and plunged the fish into cans.

Other equipment in the line weighed cans, culled ones that were underweight, sealed the good ones, and cooked them, at a rate of 6,000 cans each 90 minutes. At Szymanski's museum, a retort cooker swings open and a cloud of ''steam'' billows out its huge door.

In 1984, a single incidence of botulism in Belgium changed the course of salmon canning. The case sent a scare through the canning industry. American Can, which leased its half-pound reform equipment to canneries all over Alaska, conducted a massive recall.

The three-piece cans used for 60 years were replaced by a one-piece can with a lid, eliminating two seams and reducing the industry's liability. Thousands of tons of equipment were reduced to scrap metal.

Szymanski knew he was tracking a dinosaur when he began pursuing his idea for a replica cannery two years ago. The search took him five months and more than 200 calls.

He located the reform line at Larsen Bay on Kodiak Island. The rest of the line he found at Shepherd's Cannery, a plant at Mountain Village, a Yukon River Eskimo village 150 miles northwest of Bethel. The plant had closed in the 1970s and the equipment was packed away.

''Nobody had been in the cannery for years. Nobody even knew where they keys were. We had to use a crowbar to pry our way in,'' Szymanski said.

At Mountain Village, he also uncovered bands and lids to make 50,000 of the old, three-piece cans. They are, he believes, the last new ones of their kind.

The $50,000 it cost him to ship the equipment from western Alaska to Haines far exceeded what he was charged for them, Szymanski said. Its former owners were incredulous at his interest in them.

''They laughed. I know they thought I was foolish. They got a chuckle out of it.''

Szymanski hopes his museum will give visitors an appreciation of the fishing industry.

''The local history has been lost,'' Szymanski said. ''So many people don't realize what salmon meant to us. There's not much to show for what really built Southeast Alaska, and that was salmon canning.''

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