Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Working Day in a Cannery

Approaching Point Roberts from the water, one can see the low lying Lighthouse Point with it's sea marshes and fields of gently swaying grasses.

We follow a line of piles or thin poles that support netting made of strong twine. The meshes are about two inches square and covered with a tar-like substance. This is called a “lead,” the returning salmon think that they are near the Fraser and they begin to navigate around the obstruction in order to return to the river to spawn. They swim along the “lead,” which can be a half a mile long, until they come to the “heart” into which there is only one opening. The “heart” is encircled by a web and the fish pass on to an exit which leads them into the “pot.” The pot is constructed of web and the fish begin fighting with each other until most of their fins and scales are gone.

On this “pot” is constructed a small shelter and this is known as the night watchman’s station. The night watchman will sit here through the night with a lantern to protect the “pot” from gill-netters who sometimes robbed the pot rather than setting the nets for themselves.

The “pot” is heavy with fish and lies deep in the water, straining the lines and pilings that hold it in place. On this day, the fish are removed from the "pot" by a steam winch and placed in the scow of the boat. There are thousands of dead fish in the trap and the boat has to make multiple trips to empty the "pot."

At shore, in what is called the slaughterhouse, tugs, steamboats and scows unload their fish with picaroons, an instrument that consists of a curved hook on a long, wooden handle. The crew quickly throw the fish, one by one, on to a revolving wheel which is attached to a threshing machine for carrying the straw up the stack and away from the machine. This wheel automatically records the number of fish that are sent in to the cannery.

The silvery fish are tossed into glimmering heaps, among which several workers stand waist deep and pass them on again with picaroons to the cutters and cleaners. In some canneries, the cutters are Native American women, but in this cannery the workers are predominately Chinese. They use long, very sharp knives and cut the fish quickly and neatly. A good cutter can make $4 dollars during a ten hour work day.

The fish are then washed in several vats of salt water, placed in carts with open, slatted bottoms and taken over to the cannery by workers. Each time the cart is emptied it’s sprayed with water and sprinkled with course salt to clean it. The waste is thrown in the water, but on the Fraser River this is not allowed and a boat collects the waste and a company extracts fish oil from it before it uses the dried remains to make fertilizer.

In the main building, there are additional machines upon which the fish are laid and cut into lengths that are the right size for cans. Before the fish is added, a thimble full of salt is placed in the bottom of each can. The cans are filled by hand with small, pieces of clean, cut fish to fill in all of the spaces. This is done with great speed and dexterity.

Next, the cans are weighed and those that fell short were removed from the line and sent back to the fillers in trays.

Workers place a piece of “waste tin” on the top of the can to catch the solder from dropping on the fish when the test holes are filled. The cans are then sent to the topping machine where they turn head down in the hot solder. Once sealed, the cans are stacked on wooden trays and carried to the steam retort where they are placed in iron racks and pressure cooked in 220 lbs of steam for thirty minutes.

The cans are tested by being pierced by a hammer with a sharp point. If the can has been perfected, a jet of steam or water rises from it, if not perfected, the cans are removed and sent to a worker who re-solders the can so that it is “done over.” The good cans are soldered shut and placed in a huge drum where they are pressure cooked for an additional 65 minutes under 245 lbs of pressure. This is the most critical part of the pack and only very experienced workers are allowed to operate the steam gauges.

At the end of the cooking process, each tray of cans is pulled through a bath of lye water to remove debris and grease from the cans. The clean cans are moved to the cooling room for stacking. The heat from the cooling cans heats the cooling room for hours, so it is not a pleasant place to be on a hot summer's day. When the packing is over the cans were dipped in a bath of varnish to preclude any possibility of rust eating through them. Labels were applied by hand.

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