K-6 gillnetter is a reminder of Kenai’s long fishing history
One of the earliest commercial transactions involving Alaska salmon occurred in 1786. In that year two British ships stopped in Cook Inlet, which was then under Russian-American Company control, to trade Hawaiian yams for fresh salmon.
The Russian-American Company never developed a for-profit salmon industry. However, after the United States acquired Alaska in 1867, Americans began operating salteries in Southeast Alaska to preserve the fish for market.
In 1878, the first Alaska cannery was built at Klawock on Prince of Wales Island. Within four years, canneries had reached Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska.
Cook Inlet is a 230-mile-long arm of the Pacific Ocean extending north and east from the northern Gulf of Alaska. The inlet’s first cannery was built in 1882 by the Alaska Packing Company at the Kenai Peninsula’s Kasilof River. Over the next 50 years, about 35 canneries appeared along the east and west sides of the inlet, scattered from the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula northward to Anchorage.
In 1885, the first salmon traps in Alaska were built in Cook Inlet, and by 1945, there were more than 50 traps operating. The efficient traps (many would say too efficient) provided the bulk of the salmon for inlet canneries. Catching thousands of fish and employing few Alaska residents, the fish traps, mostly owned by Lower 48 companies, were a potent symbol of outside control of Alaska’s resources. Soon after Alaska became a state in 1959, the state, now responsible for fisheries management, banned the traps.
According to the Alaska Geographic book, Alaska’s Salmon Fisheries, sockeye (red) salmon have been the most commercially valuable salmon species harvested in Cook inlet, and the Kenai Peninsula’s 82-mile-long Kenai River has historically been the largest producer of sockeye in the inlet. Over the years there have been at least four canneries operating in the Kenai vicinity. The first was built in 1888 by the Northern Packing Company near the mouth of the Kenai River.
One of the most successful Kenai canneries was operated by Libby, McNeil and Libby (LM&L), which began as a Chicago meat-packing business in 1868 and eventually operated about a dozen salmon canneries in Alaska. It also became a major canner of fruits and vegetables. (Libby’s pumpkin anyone?)
In 1912, LM&L built a plant at the mouth of the Kenai River, across the river from Kenai proper. There was no road access to the cannery until 1959, when the Sterling Highway was constructed and a bridge was built across the Kenai River. Like many Alaskan canneries, LM&L’s Kenai plant was a self-contained community, with wharves, processing lines, warehouses, shops, administrative buildings, messhalls and dormitories.
The boat pictured in the drawing is the “K-6,” one of a fleet of gillnet fishing boats owned by LM&L and leased out to fishermen. Built in 1949, it is a “stern picker,” meaning the net (usually about 300 feet long) was played out from the stern of the boat rather than the bow. The wooden K-6 is 29 feet, 7 inches long and was powered by a 90 hp Chrysler Crown gas engine.
The K-6 plied Cook Inlet waters for over 30 years before retiring to the cannery’s “bone yard.” Columbia-Ward Fisheries (later renamed Ward Cove Packing Company) acquired LM&L’s Kenai plant in 1959 and operated the facility until it closed in 1998.
Signage at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center indicates that the K-6 was rescued from the bone yard in 1992 by Kenai residents, Thom Tomrdle and Frank Newton, who restored the boat over a year’s time. Further restoration was done by Dave Seaman in 2005/06. The boat is now on display at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, 11471 Kenai Spur Highway, Kenai.
• Alaska’s Salmon Fisheries. Jim Rearden editor. The Alaska Geographic Society. 1983
• Catching the ebb: drift fishing for a life in Cook Inlet. Bert Bender. Oregon State University Press. 2008
• The Silver Years of the Alaska Canned Salmon Industry. Laurence Freeburn edittor. The Alaska Geographic Society. 1976
• “Lewis MacDonald’s Alaska Salmon Cannery Chronology, 1878-1950.” Jim Mackovjack. Alaska Historical Society. 2013
• Signage at Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center