A century ago, Bristol Bay was changed forever by two simultaneous calamities: The Spanish flu pandemic and the collapse of the salmon run.
“1919 changed everything.” said Katie Ringsmuth, the director of the NN Cannery History Project. “The Spanish flu arrived to Alaska in 1918 and devastated the population. It killed more people per capita than any place in the United States, perhaps in the world. People thought it had run its course that winter, but when cannery ships arrived in 1919, people were quickly becoming sick, it was evidenced it was influenza, and it devastated not just the Native population, it killed many people who lived here, but it really changed the demographics in this region.”
Within weeks of the start of the 1919 fishing season, hundreds of cannery workers and locals were infected with the Spanish flu.
The virus wiped out most of the adult population in many villages around Bristol Bay, leaving behind dozens of orphaned children. One of the communities most changed by the outbreak was Naknek.
For a time, those children were housed in the abandoned jail on the Diamond NN Cannery property. A doctor named Linus French took in many of the orphans, and eventually moved with them to Dillingham. And some of those orphans eventually returned to the cannery.
“It’s those people who are the people that become the wintermen, the laundry ladies, the store keepers, the set netters, the fishermen, and they become the caretakers of the cannery,” Ringsmuth said.
As the flu devastated Bristol Bay’s population and reshaped its communities, another pillar of the region’s culture and economy was collapsing.
“The salmon run dropped from 25 million in 1918 to just 6 million in 1919,” explained Bob King, who works with the history project. “And it took everybody aback. They didn’t know what to make of it, because they didn’t understand the science back then, and what they knew was completely wrong.”
The utter failure of the run laid the groundwork for the fisheries management system we still use today.
For the first time, legislators, processors and fishermen realized that fishing the bay as hard as possible might have consequences that extend beyond that season. Years later, the memory of the 1919 run informed the foundation for modern legislation to protect salmon and maintain a working fishery.
Beyond 1919, the project is working to document cannery culture and record the region’s history through the lens of the people who lived and worked for the packers.
Ringsmuth hopes that the project will eventually create a culture of storytelling and historical preservation.
“Our common denominator is the history and our relationship to the canneries,” she said.
“This is just one cannery,” said King. “Over the years there have been about 60 or so canneries that have popped up, and many of them are there are just completely lost, but there are really some great stories out there… I’d hope that people from other communities sit down with some of their elders and their friends and ask them: ‘What are your stories? What do you remember from back then? What about the sailboat days?’”
The NN Cannery is nominated to be placed on the national register of historic places.
You can find the NN Cannery History Project and the stories they’ve told already online at nncanneryproject.com.