The Ghosts of Cannery Row

Despite its picturesque beauty, Canada’s cannery row was straight out of the Industrial Revolution, with an added measure of racial segregation.

Published April 22, 2015

About Salvaged: In this column we republish seminal articles that helped us look at the world in a new way. While not necessarily the first time an idea or point of view found print, these articles helped shed new light on coastal science or societies. The text has not been altered from its original form.

Heather Pringle’s article, “The Ghosts of Cannery Row,” was originally published in Issue 21 (May/June 1985) of Equinox magazine. To research the story, Pringle spent weeks wandering along the waterfront in Steveston, British Columbia, poking her head into weathered wooden net lofts, boatyards, and cannery buildings, and chatting with those who still lived and worked among their shadows. Of the 15 salmon canneries that once thrived along the Fraser River in Steveston, only one survived as a working operation in 1985. The rest had disappeared, one by one, as the great salmon runs of the Fraser declined. Twelve years after Pringle published the article, the last working cannery closed, too.

Pringle sensed that she was witnessing the end of an era: Steveston, the fishing town, was transforming into a modern suburb of condominiums and commuters. And indeed, the once famous Fraser sockeye salmon run all but collapsed in 2009, as just 1.4 million of the expected 10 million fish returned to spawn. But a year later, the river was mysteriously alive with 30 million returning sockeye—too late, however, to revive Steveston’s cannery row.

The Ghost of Cannery Row - introduction

Writer Heather Pringle on the now defunct canneries of Steveston, British Columbia, and their place in coastal history.

In his studio in an abandoned office of the Phoenix Cannery, John Horton gingerly slides a half-finished painting off an easel near a paintbrush-littered table and holds it up to the light. With a critical eye, he studies the work, a scene of the waterfront at a deserted shipyard. Shadow strives with early-morning light; reflections of weather-worn and canted pilings shimmer across the river’s calm surface. In the distance, a gill-netter heads out to sea.

For nearly 20 years, Horton, a successful and highly respected marine artist, has been painting the Steveston, British Columbia, waterfront. In the century-old canneries, the small boatyards and the thriving fishing harbour that stretch along the southwest shore of Lulu Island where the Fraser River meets the Strait of Georgia, he has found his subject, his life’s work. And though he continues to spend part of each summer gathering new material elsewhere along the coast, it is to Steveston, just 15 miles south of Vancouver, that he unfailingly returns.

For Horton, as for many who live or work there, much of Steveston’s character lies in its richly coloured past. The cannery row that winds along the Steveston shore, for instance, has been weathering in the sun for nearly 100 years and is one of the last of its kind in Canada. “These buildings are standing on a lot of history,” says Horton. “They have been adapted and changed over the years, and they hold a lot of memories.”

Given the depth of Horton’s feelings, it was with considerable dismay that he learned recently of plans to demolish much of Steveston’s cannery row. On a waterfront where 15 canneries once flourished, there is only one survivor today—the B.C. Packers Imperial Plant. Nearly the entire waterfront is owned by either B.C. Packers or the federal government, and neither has much interest, it seems, in maintaining either the buildings or their history. The old canneries remain by sufferance, on borrowed time, and Horton is one of many Steveston residents greatly saddened by its prospects for the future. Leaning his painting against a wall, he wipes his hands and turns to me. “It’s a pity to see the way it’s going, all the quaintness going out of the place,” he says, shaking his head, and by way of further illustration, he leads me down to the water. The morning is fine and clear, the river calm, and the two of us head out on his converted fishing boat, the Artist’s Life, for a leisurely tour along Cannery Channel.

According to a recent estimate, as many as 10 million salmon return to spawn in the Fraser’s gravels each year, an impressive homecoming that is more than partially responsible for Steveston’s distinction of being the largest commercial fishing harbour in Canada. For nearly two miles along the riverfront, wooden net lofts, fishing camps, wharves, boatyards and canneries crowd the sedge- and blackberry-lined shore.

Horton and I set off for Garry Point, a finger of beige grassland and man-made sand hills that marks the western end of Cannery Channel. All along the point, great gnarled logs line the lower reaches of shore, testimony to stormier times. Above the roll of land, the masts and poles of boats moored in a hidden inlet rise up like fence posts. In the far distance, the Coast Mountains tower over the lower mainland, shaded in pastel blue and white.

As we turn east into Cannery Channel, edged on one side by the Fraser shore and on the other by the sculpted sand dunes of Steveston Island, the river stretches before us, a highway of leaden grey. A strong west wind is at our backs, urging us forward, past the cluttered government wharves, where gill-netters, trollers, seiners, crab boats, packers and collectors moor; past the small false-fronted shops and stores silhouetted in the distance, where many of Steveston’s 15,000 residents conduct their business. Horton, a tall, thin man with a wavy shock of reddish brown hair and the careful formality of a British naval officer, pulls his dark blue captain’s hat down firmly over his forehead and guides the boat close to shore.

All along the waterfront, fishermen are preparing for summer. In net lofts and sheds, men stand and sit in the shadows of open doorways, lacing long, black seine nets. Country and western music echoes over the water. Outside, gill nets are racked to dry in the brisk wind. Engines are lovingly tuned; boats are given a new primer coat of Rupert Red. Such rites of spring are as much a part of Steveston as the Gulf of Georgia and the Fraser, as old as the community itself.

Steveston, as Horton is quick to point out, takes its traditions and history seriously. For the most part, the fisherman we see repainting their boats or mending their nets are the sons and grandsons of Steveston fishermen. Their families have lived in the village since the turn of the century, packing salmon in the canneries, fishing the waters of the Fraser, the gulf and, more recently, the northern coast. “So many people in the community became dependent on fishing—often entire families,” he says. “The whole town relies on the industry.”

As we cruise slowly down the channel’s length, past the Imperial cannery docks, Horton gazes at the line of seine boats waiting to unload the season’s first catch of roe herring. Gulls arc greedily in the air as the cannery pumps begin vacuuming silvery herring from one hold. Another vessel, waiting its turn, is so weighted down with its catch that it has barely managed to waddle home.

But for all its prosperous activity, there is something of the ghost town about Steveston. As Horton and I reach the eastern end of the channel, an air of abandonment hangs over the shore. Old canneries lean out over the water uncertainly, tottering on their green-stained pilings; long-deserted bunkhouses slump into the ground. Britannia Shipyard, the subject of Horton’s work in progress and a former cannery, gazes out at the river in empty solitude.

That stretch of waterfront, with its tenuous dignity, is Horton’s favourite and, I must confess, mine too. For nearly five years now, since moving to the coast from Alberta, I have frequently made the short trip from Vancouver to wander along the river and wharves and explore the derelict cannery buildings. Steveston has always been a soothing place, and the stretch of waterfront toward the eastern end of Cannery Channel is the most tranquil and evocative of all. It is also the oldest, and it is here that one feels in closest harmony with the past.

For Horton, the old cannery buildings conjure up images of the great sailing ships that once anchored in Steveston to load the finest sockeye salmon. “You can read the books about some of the famous old square-riggers, about how these ships were going to Australia for the wool and China for the tea and Peru ... And every now and again, you see ‘and Steveston.’” Then, with a note of wonder in his voice, he adds, “They were coming here, right here, for the fish for Europe.” He gazes up at the crumbling buildings and shakes his head in discouragement. “There are an awful lot of people who are just too ready to bulldoze the past, whether it’s our favourite sticks and stones or our memories.”

Sound of History

The tide is slowly ebbing, revealing riverbanks the shiny smooth brown of melted chocolate. Blackberry canes arch gracefully over the rotting remains of a wooden dyke. At the far end of the dock, Harold Steves slides open the door to Britannia Shipyard.

Inside, the afternoon light streams through small windows, falling on narrow corridors, reddened cedar beams and worn, time-polished floor timbers. It is cool and quiet, and the only sound is the plash of the Fraser as it works its way around the pilings below. As we walk outside, past the gutting shed and the L-shaped dock, Steves stops to admire the whipsawn timber and the sturdy architecture. “This is my favourite,” he observes. “It reeks of history; it’s the oldest of the canneries and it’s in excellent shape. Some of the belts and pulleys from the original machinery were found up in the rafters not long ago.”

A big man in his late forties, dressed in a green plaid shirt and an oil-stained Co-op hunter’s vest, Steves is a farmer and schoolteacher by vocation, a politician and historian by avocation. In recent years, as an alderman on the Richmond Municipal Council, he has led the fight to preserve the Steveston waterfront, a job that has fallen to him as naturally as politics does to a Kennedy or acting to a Redgrave.

It was Steves’ great-grandfather, Manoah, who first settled the south shore of Lulu Island in 1877. For four generations now, Steves’ family has lived in a farmhouse at the western end of the Steveston Highway, where tidal marsh fringes into prairie.

While Manoah Steves dyked his land and founded a prizewinning Holstein dairy, those who followed in his wake recognized the opportunities to be had in fishing. The Fraser sockeye were ideal for canning, for their flesh was rich in oils and highly valued on the European market. And they were nothing if not plentiful. “My dad used to say you could walk across the backs of the salmon in the mouth of the Fraser, there were so many at the turn of the century,” says Steves. During one record-breaking week in 1895, 14 of the great sailing ships Horton loves to recall lay anchored off the Steveston wharves, waiting to be loaded with sockeye. By the early 1900s, canneries crowded the shores of the Fraser, clustering close to the river’s mouth, and Steveston boasted a summertime population of 10,000.

The community was surprisingly cosmopolitan, and curious sightseers from Vancouver took the train out to Steveston for the day. It was a popular journey, for it seemed to take those who made it far from all that was known and familiar. Strolling through the winding village, past the great unpainted canneries, along rows of wooden bunkhouses and tidy matchbox cottages where small children played, visitors felt themselves strangers in a romantic land.

After the day’s catch had been packed into cans, the sheds and canning lines were silent, but the boardwalk along the river’s edge bustled with life. Japanese women in brightly painted kimonos picked their way past barrels of bluestone and men mending their linen nets; native women dried reeds for baskets in the sun. Small groups of Chinese men leaned against wooden mess halls, eating rice from lustrously varnished black bowls.

Despite its romantic veneer, however, life on cannery row was anything but idyllic. “It was really right out of the Industrial Revolution,” says Steves. “The cannery owners treated the fishermen just the way the mine owners treated the miners. People looked at the Japanese and the Chinese and the Indians and even the white workers as being somewhat low-class people.”

Whistles pierced the waterfront silence whenever the fish came in, giving cannery workers 15 minutes to get to work, day or night. In the steamy heat of the long wooden buildings, immigrant labourers worked nonstop until the entire catch was processed, packing salmon for 10 hours a day or more if need be. Chinese labourers gutted as many as 2,000 fish in a 10-hour shift, and native and Japanese women, sometimes carrying their babies on their backs, took their places in the long canning lines, cleaning fish in sliming tanks and carefully fitting the salmon pieces into cans for sealing. The work was performed in silence; according to one eyewitness account of 1901, “You scarcely hear a word spoken from the time you go in till you come out.”

Cannery workers and fishermen took up residence in cannery-owned housing along the waterfront. Each cannery had its own segregated and specialized camps: China House for the single Chinese men, Japan House for the single Japanese men, a separate Indian village for native workers, and small cannery cottages for married workers. Rent was based on the number of fish a fisherman brought home; the more fish, the greater the rent.

“You also needed boats, so each cannery would have a boat works,” explains Steves. “That’s why we had about 15 or 20 boat-building shops here at one time. The Japanese tradesmen who built boats in Japan came over here. They were responsible for many of the technological advances—like the drums used to pull in the fishing nets—of the turn-of-the-century fleet.”

If work on cannery row was long and arduous, fishing along the Fraser was highly perilous. At the mouth of the Fraser, the river flows almost directly from east to west; waves battle with a strong and almost constant west wind. The dangers of venturing out in these waters were not lost on those who visited early Steveston. “Over the doorway of the small cannery cottages,” reported one magazine writer in 1911, “is a board with ‘L 1356,’ or whatever happens to be the number of the boat in which the man goes out to meet the salmon coming in from the sea. If a boat is found bottom up, its number is taken, and the inhabitants of the shack with a similar number are notified that the man will never come home.”

In bad years, the fishermen of Steveston must have wondered whether their financial returns justified their hazardous labouring. In 1913, railroad construction through Hell’s Gate in the Fraser Canyon nearly blocked the river with debris, seriously endangering the sockeye runs. Salmon returning upriver to spawn could not overcome the obstacles, and in 1917, the runs dwindled to one-fifth of their 1913 strength. For cannery row, it was catastrophic. With no fish to process, the great canneries, one by one, closed their doors, and when they did reopen later, it was as net lofts or boatyards, salteries or warehouses.

Although many of the workers, discouraged and broke, left town with the closing of most of cannery row, those who stayed, persisting through the bad years and poor salmon runs, slowly prospered. By the late 1920s and 1930s, they had saved enough money to buy their own houses, boats and land. The canneries that had slipped through the 1917 debacle intact hit their stride with the eventual return of the salmon. For the immigrants, Steveston was at last fulfilling its promise of a new and better life.

No sooner did the community begin to feel itself back on its feet, however, than Pearl Harbor shattered its well-being for a second time. Some 2,000 Japanese and Japanese-Canadians were forcibly removed at the insistence of anti-Asian B.C. politicians and lobbyists. “It was such a shock. At that time, we couldn’t grasp the meaning, what would happen to us,” recalls Frank Nishii, a fisherman and a respected leader of the Japanese community in Steveston.

Nishii’s family lost everything they owned—two farms, a house and three fishing boats—during their internment in the small Alberta town of Picture Butte, hundreds of miles from all that was familiar. But in 1949, when government legislation permitted, Nishii and many others made their way back to Steveston. “Since fishing was my first love and the only thing I knew,” he explains, “I had to get out of Picture Butte.”

The Steveston he returned to was far different from the place he had left. Some of the smaller canneries were disappearing, consolidating with larger companies, and the pattern of life in Steveston was shifting to that of a company town. While many Japanese families had lived on the waterfront in cannery cottages before the war, they came back to find their homes demolished or occupied by others. They built or rebuilt on land farther back from the water, a fact evidenced today by the neatly kept bungalows and the manicured bonsai gardens—fantasies of meticulously trimmed shrubs and trees—that grace the community today.

If the face of the town was changing, so were the attitudes of many living there. A mixture of guilt and shame about the Japanese internment did much to erase the racism that had imbued the town since its earliest days. Fish-packing companies like B.C. Packers welcomed the Japanese back, for their skill as fishermen had been sorely missed. The community knitted more closely together—many of the white fishermen in Steveston today speak Japanese.

Because Steveston is a fishing community, the pace of life owes more to the passing of seasons and the fluctuations of tides than to the turning of clock hands, which means that much of its business can be conducted and its gossip exchanged at irregular hours in irregular places. On a spring afternoon in Christine’s Café on Moncton Street, the gold-coloured booths are filled with men in baseball caps and heavy woollen sweaters hunched over coffee discussing politics and fishing news, killing time, waiting for their turn on the fishing grounds. “You go into Steveston at 10 o’clock any morning when the fishermen are home,” says Horton, “and the restaurants are all full of them having coffee and yarning. Five minutes later, you can go down the road to the next restaurant, and half the ones that were in the other shop are now down there.”

On this early March afternoon, the café-society conversation seems to be divided equally between talk of roe herring prices and rumours about the plans that B.C. Packers and the federal government have for the waterfront. In recent weeks, B.C. Packers has taken the first steps in its plans to construct a new seine-boat basin along the Britannia/Phoenix waterfront. In February, notice was given to all fishermen storing nets and equipment in the old Japan and China Houses to clear our their gear, and a few days later, a demolition crew set to work tearing down the buildings. 

“It was a sad day,” says Steves. “The fishermen were so upset to see all this happening. The buildings were sound, in beautiful shape. Several of the fishermen’s fathers had been there before them.

“We worked all weekend to get the stuff out, and the sawdust was coming through the ceiling while we were still there, from them cutting through the roof with chain saws. They tried three times to knock down one of the buildings. The fishermen cheered silently for the building.”

They were not so silent when they learned that another cannery-row landmark was slated for demolition. Kishi boat works, the last of the old Japanese boat-building and repair shops in Steveston, was scheduled to come down at the same time. Steves rushed to a council meeting and used British Columbia’s Heritage Conservation Act to put a 14-day freeze on the building’s demolition. That gave him time to convince B.C. Packers to forestall its action by several months.

I drove to Steveston a few weeks later to talk to Jim Kishi and found him at work in light blue striped overalls and a green down vest, tidying up his shop. A small, slender man in his early sixties, Kishi is soft-spoken and careful, a highly skilled craftsman whose work is greatly valued in Steveston.

“We do an A-1 job here,” he asserted with modest pride as he showed me through his shop, a long silver-grey wooden shed filled with patterns and pulleys and orderly stacks of fragrant lumber: yellow cedar for bulkheads, red cedar for decks, mahogany for cabins. At the back of the shed, he grinned when I asked him to demonstrate the old single-phase electric motor that powers both the slipway out front and the massive planer and band saw inside. Kishi boat works is a small marvel of turn-of-the-century ingenuity, and over the years, Kishi and his family have designed and crafted fishing boats up to 40 feet in length, relying on nothing more than this simple equipment. 

While Kishi now concentrates mainly on boat repairs, servicing between 60 and 70 wooden craft a year, he clearly enjoys his work and has no wish for an early retirement. The reprieve he has been given extends only to October, and he has already begun sorting and clearing out 40 years’ worth of patterns. “It’s a hard feeling to bring out, but it is a sad one,” he said, casting an eye about the shed, considering his future. 

Steves is indignant about the treatment accorded Kishi, and he has inundated both federal and provincial authorities with appeals to save the boatyard. “In Japan, they not only preserve the buildings and the shops like this,” he points out, “but they also declare the people in them a national treasure. Here, we just kick them out.”

Steves’ latest move, in conjunction with another alderman, Greg Halsey-Brandt, has been the formation of a waterfront task force, whose purpose is simply “to preserve as much as possible of the Steveston waterfront.” The task force, chaired by Halsey-Brandt, has recently been awarded $5,000 by the municipality to hire a consultant to determine which of the old buildings are most threatened, which can be preserved on site and which moved, and to obtain as much research as possible on the buildings. The response to the task force has been “overwhelming,” says Steves. “I’m not sure just how many people are supporting us, but I do know that lots and lots of them are volunteering time and money. It’s been highly gratifying.”

But despite the protests and public concern for Kishi boat works and other historic cannery buildings on B.C. Packers land, the fish-packing firm seems little disposed to preserving cannery row. Costs of insuring the old buildings are high, in no small part because of their fire hazard. Moreover, plans for the new seine-boat facility have taken precedence over concerns for heritage preservation. As Imperial cannery manager William Crawford explains, “What we want to do is take the Phoenix plant out of the way and dredge a basin and bring bigger boats over to Steveston.” There is no question in Crawford’s mind about the aesthetics of Steveston’s waterfront legacy: “To me, that boatyard is a horrible-looking thing. It’s kind of a disgrace. Other people see beauty in it, but I don’t. Mainly, I see it in our way.”

Equally disturbing to Steves and others who are fighting to preserve cannery row are the mixed signals coming from the federal government. For some time, federal officials have been mulling over plans to transform the massive Gulf of Georgia cannery in the centre of town into a national historic park to commemorate the West Coast fishing industry. Until early spring, the proposal seemed a sure bet, with Parks Canada staff members at work in Steveston collecting and cataloguing artifacts for exhibit. But at the end of March, the government abruptly changed its course. The historian assigned to develop the museum was given notice, and work on the project ground to a halt. No one in Steveston is sure what lies in store for the Gulf of Georgia or for the rest of cannery row, but most believe the prospects for preservation are dim.

For a very long time, says Carol Sopel, Steveston didn’t seem to change much at all. Sopel, a chatty and outgoing woman in her mid-forties, is secretary of the Pacific Coast Salmon Seiner’s Association, a lifelong resident of Steveston, the daughter of a cannery worker and the wife of a fisherman. The community, she recalls, seemed steadfast, a place quite separate and apart from the shifting suburbs around it. The small stores on Moncton Street—false-fronted net shops, marine-equipment shops, a hardware store, Japanese grocery stores, and coffee shops—and the neat bungalows and cottages with their immaculately trimmed gardens seemed to be frozen in time. The descendants of the old Steveston families continued to work in the canneries and on the fishing boats and neighboring farms. Everything was known and familiar. 

Over the last 5 or 10 years, however, she says, Steveston has taken on a different character. Antique shops and art galleries, in anticipation of tourists, have opened on Moncton Street, and Richmond’s suburbs have spilled out over most of Lulu Island, surrounding and engulfing the community. Steveston is becoming a suburb in its own right.

But the biggest changes of all, to Sopel’s mind, are those that have taken place on the waterfront. As a child, she remembers wandering down by the river, playing games on the waterfront, fishing on the wharves and exploring the great and always mysterious canneries. For Sopel, as for nearly everyone who grew up in Steveston, the canneries cast a special spell of enchantment. “I agree with progress,” she says, “but I hope that Steveston can keep its old character. You know, we’re really in our own little corner of the world here.”

Down along the river, the old buildings stand mute in the west wind, waiting.