Captain J.A. Rasmussen wrote an account of his life in "My Life's Experiences" . As a young sailor in 1902, Mr. Rasmussen set sail from San Francisco on a full rigged ship, the "Start of Russia" owned by the Alaska Packers Association. He stated that he was "overcome" by the huge pay of $2.50 per day, paid in gold pieces. Fishing off Kodiak Island in late August, Capt. Rasmussen writes that "fishing was conducted by seine, run in a semi-circle out from the cannery dock then hauled in by a steam winch until the salmon could be brailed right up to the dock." He also noted that many of the cannery workers were Orientals, mostly Chinese.
The San Francisco Fire and earthquakes in 1906 was a boom period of re-building in this seaport town, but there was also a seaman's strike which idled almost every boat. Years later in 1913, after many supply trips along the Alaskan coast, Capt. Rasmussen quit the mate's union. At the same time, Fred Svensson, an agent for the Alaska Fishermen's Union, was appointed Superintendent of Libby, McNeill, Libby's salmon Cannery at Kenai , Alaska . Capt. Rasmussen, now a real captain, signed on as Captain of their new tender the "Willard B". Capt. Rasmussen, towing a pile driver, met the supply ship "Abner Coburn" in April, 1913. A salmon pack of 31,000 cases was put up that year, according to his journal. On the way out to sea, an accident caused the fore yard to come crashing down on a carpenter and killing him, a Mr. Chris Jensen, who he states was the first man to be buried in the tundra behind the Kenai cannery.
Fred Svensson was the superintendent of Libby's Kenai plant in 1917, and Capt. Rasmussen was asked to take a job a his assistant for that year, then the next year relieve him as superintendent.
In 1917, Libby expanded their holdings in Alaska by buying out Alaska Salmon Co. of San Fransisco. Mr. Svensson was the General Superintendent of these holdings under a Mr. Branch, the GM. At that time, Libby owned four sailing ships, the 3-masted full rigged "St. Francis; the bark "W.B. Flint; the full rigged ship Abner Coburn; and the schooner "Salvatore". All canning companies at the time carried their own canning supplies to the canneries. The large ships lay at anchor off shore, waiting until the pack was put up at the end of the season. He crews of the ships were the fishermen for the canneries for the summer, and in the fall they loaded up their catch and sailed south.
1918 marked the year when much of the sail fleet was transitioning to motorized ships. That year Libby built the "W.F. Burrows", a four masted schooner with twin diesels, in 1917 in Portland . Then a full powered motor ship the "Libby Main" was built in 1918, and that year Libby sent the crew to Kenai on the S.S. "Admiral Farragut" accompanied by the "Salvatore" with a load of piling. This was war time, and Capt. Rasmussen lamented that "crews were hard to keep in line, as wages in other places paid better than the canneries". That year, they put up 49,000 cases of salmon were stored, a good pack by Kenai Standards. The weather off the coast of Kenai that fall was so bad that they had to haul the store via the "Salvatore" to Anchorage , re-load to a steamer there, tow the schooner back to Kenai, where they loaded more before heading south.
Capt. Rasmussen sailed to Kenai aboard the "Admiral Watson" on April, 1919, but a bad year yielded only 19,000 cases that year. In 1920, a huge recession hit the states, and the government returned un-used salmon from the war to the original canneries. Several companies almost went bankrupt, including Libby. They slashed wages and encouraged employees to buy stock, which had dropped to a fraction of its original value. Nonetheless, Libby outfitted for the season and put up 46,000 cases that year.
In July 21, 1921 the original cannery burned to the ground. Capt. Rasmussen writes: "All the scows, fish house, and canning lines were full of salmon, and it was a sorry mess". Libby immediately built a new plant, just off the site of the original cannery. Supplies were brought in by the "Libby-Maine" in September. They framed up the building until late October when winter set in. That winter, Rasmussen assembled materials to re-build the plant, and in the spring of 1922, he re-built the plant. Unfortunately, it was a bad year and they packed 34,000 cases. That winter, under the title "Port captain", Rasmussen repaired the ships and cannery tenders. 1923 was the worst canning year since 1919, with only 33,000 cases.
In 1924, Libby failed to reach an agreement with the Alaska fishermen's Union, but they improvised by giving pile drivers and fishing gear to local fishermen who placed them and fished them, and Libby bought all the fish. 1924 was the first year Libby was regulated by the Fish and Wildlife Service as to time of fishing and closure periods. Rasmussen reported: "Some of these fishermen do not take these new regulations seriously enough, with the result that two traps were caught fishing illegally. One Sunday morning, F & W closed the traps and took charge of the gear, and the fishermen were jailed in Seldovia".
1925 marked the first year of replacing the old sailing ships with steamers. It was also was the year Libby installed te first fast fillers in the canneries, which resulted in changes all down the canning line: increase in cooling capacity, etc. That year, Libby produced 47,000 cases.
Libby acquired the "Otsego" and the "Gorgas" in 1926, a good fishing year when Libby produced 58,000 cases. 1927 was a better year than 1923, and Rasmussen speculated that salmon "runs in 4 year cycles", with 1927 following four years after 1923. That year they packed 31,000 cases. 1927 was also the first year Libby fished for Herring.
During the Depression Libby did not close plants, but they did once again slash wages and lay off workers. They revised their contracts with the Union , The Salmon Industry, Inc. which was organized for the purpose of negotiating and making blanket contracts for all the packers, and to streamline the agreements between the packers and the unions. In 1932, Libby bought several hand traps from Gorman and Co. in Anchorage , giving them a total of 32 traps stretching from East foreland to Point Possession. Although the years 1933, 34, and 35 were average and uneventful, Rasmussen reports that their salaries were restored to full.
Rasmussen's last year as superintendent of Kenai Plant was 1936, a year when the refitted steamer "David W. Branch" (named after the manager of the Salmon division) supplied the cannery. Rasmussen became District Superintendent for Cook Inlet and Southeastern that year, in charge of repairs, outfitting of the steamers and cannery tenders.
World War II ushered in the era of flying cannery crews to and from Seattle . Until 1924, sailing ships carried the canning crews and supplies, but by the 1920's these ships were old and obsolete. Steamers took over in the early 20's and by 1940 steamers were obsolete.
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