By Jenny Neyman
Up until about a year ago, you wouldn’t think there was anything special about the seemingly vacant lot along the last bend of Kasilof Beach Road before reaching the north beach of the river mouth.
But there’s more than just untamed grass sprinkled with trees and wildflowers, and littered with trash, toilet paper flags and other evidence of the illicit camping and vandalism that’s plagued the area during fishing season. There are indications of habitation that have stood for a century, but without intervention, won’t be standing for much longer.
That’s where Tracy Miller and the Totem Tracers genealogical society come in. The group has taken it upon itself to preserve the old Kasilof Boat Harbor Cemetery before the little-known burial site is lost to all but history.
“It’s an abandoned cemetery, it needed some help. These people, their headstones were made well enough that somebody cared enough for it to last over time. So I think that our generation at least should pick up and make sure that maybe they’ll last another 50 years, or 100 years,” Miller said.
In the late 1970s, the Totem Tracers set out to catalog all graves on the Kenai Peninsula, from Hope to Homer, and produced a book of their findings in 1983, which was updated in 2004.
“The genealogical society, we like dead people,” Miller said. “We like the history of it. We get a lot of local people trying to find relatives, and we’re hoping to be able to at least give them a little bit of help.”
The project unearthed a lot of interesting history, and one of the most intriguing finds was the Kasilof burial site. There are four century-old graves surrounded by wood picket fences, with 5-foot-tall, rounded, cedar plank-grave markers affixed to the fences, bearing raised lettering still legible today.
The oldest says, “In memory of William Freeman, a native of Finland. Aged 65 years. Died Sept. 30, 1906.” Next is Alex Benson, of Sweden, who died at age 38 on May 6, 1907. Harry Mason, of Norway, died June 4, 1915, at age 67.
The fourth marker is no longer at the site. It’s believed to have been stolen around 1980, and was discovered in a ditch around 1990. Soldotna Police found it and it ended up with Dr. Alan Boraas, anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, who has been storing it in the school’s anthropology lab. It reads, “In memory of Fred Sandel, a native of Finland, aged 70, died Oct. 9, 1925.”
Another marker was documented in the book, as well — a long, thin board that is thought to mark a mass grave of Chinese men. And one newer grave, for Peter Bates Walker, born May 10, 1935, died Oct. 31, 1982, who lived next to the cemetery, also is at the site.
Other than Bates being noted as “Good father, husband, friend,” there is no further information about those buried beneath the markers. No epitaphs to hint at who they were, what happened to them, or why four Scandinavians and an undetermined number of Chinese men were living, much less buried, in Kasilof around the turn of the century.
The Totem Tracers don’t know much for sure, but they’d like to find out. First, though, this summer, they’d like to preserve the history, and then in the winter start working on the mystery.
“It’s history and I have a fascination for cemeteries, genealogy. I just want to know who these people were,” Miller said.
The land is owned by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Miller, president of the Totem Tracers, said she tried contacting various people within DNR to find out about the cemetery and get permission to work on it, to no avail. So the group decided to go ahead and try to at least preserve and protect what’s there. To that end, much of the grass has been mowed so the graves would be visible from the road. And volunteers last year installed a bit of fencing along the road and a sign denoting the cemetery in the hope of deterring people from camping, or worse, on the spot.
“A couple years ago even people would come in here and camp, and the locals would come in and say, ‘Hey, you’re camping on a cemetery.’ Eh, pfft, they didn’t care. Defacing it and everything else that goes along with camping, digging all kinds of stuff,” Miller said.
This summer volunteers are working on the fences and grave markers.
“The ones attached to the fencing were never in ground and never rotted. They’re in wonderful shape, and Amy Berga has taken the chore on to refinish them. What she’s done is she’s cleaned them up. And all the letters are still raised. If you get in the sunlight just right you could just read it. We can’t figure out how they did it back in the day at the time,” Miller said.
Mike and Patti Curry live just beyond the cemetery. Mike’s been doing the mowing and keeping an eye on the place, with his curious, though not very intimidating-looking, black Lab in tow.
“Hi, buddy,” Miller greeted the dog, laughing as its initial barks dissolved into butt-wiggling happy braying at being petted. “Mike’s checking to make sure we’re OK, that we’re not doing anything bad.”
“Just wanted to see who was over here,” Curry said.
“Just me,” Miller assured him.
So far, the measures seem to be helping. Curry hasn’t noticed anyone camping near the graves. And though he and Patti picked up nine bags of trash along the road in just April and May, it seems the cemetery hasn’t been bothered — at least, it hadn’t been by the end of June, before the big push of dip-netters usually hit the beach.
“Not so far. The little fence they put up is good, that deterred a bunch. The Fourth of July, I’ll let you know,” Curry said.
“Oh, OK,” Miller said. “That’s the biggie, huh?”
“That’s when all the idiots are here,” Curry said.
Mysteries of history
Once the summer restoration project is compete, Miller said the Totem Tracers would like to spend more time this winter unraveling some of the mysteries of the site.
There are the names with which to start, and the context of the area being used by the salmon cannery back around the turn of the century. The old cannery Watchman’s Cabin, now on display at the Kasilof Regional Historical Museum, was not far from the site, so it stands to reason — and local recollection corroborates — that it was a burial area for cannery workers. Sandel, at least, is listed in census records as working at the cannery.
The cannery is the likely explanation for why that mix of nationalities would be eternally bunking together in Kasilof.
The canning method of food preservation was developed in France in the early 1800s, and soon spread to the Grand Banks in Newfoundland, the Columbia River on the West Coast of the U.S. and on up to Alaska, where it quickly replaced saltries as a much more efficient means of preserving fish.
The first two canneries in Alaska were built in Klawock and Old Sitka. In 1882, the Alaska Packing Company, formed in San Francisco, acquired the canning equipment from the Old Sitka facility and built the cannery on the Kasilof River in 1882. They spread throughout Southeast, Southcentral — including Kenai in 1888 — Southwest Alaska and the Aleutians. Boraas describes the canneries as the coming of the Industrial Revolution to the North, eclipsing even the gold rush as a pivotal transformative event in the state.
“By and large miners came and most left. The canneries were the major social, political and economic transforming agent in the North. They were industrial agents that brought new people, new ideas — essentially, ideas and people coming in and fish going out,” he said.
Some of the area’s Native population worked at the cannery, but most of the labor was imported. Management would have consisted of a superintendent, a ship captain, a boiler operator/engineer and probably various people involved in maintenance, Boraas said. The next tier of employees would have been those with fishing experience who ran the fish traps and managed the tenders. They could come from all over — Italy, Great Britain, Russia, the U.S., but many were Scandinavians. Workers from all over found themselves in San Francisco, and from there shipped off to work in Alaska.
Boraas paged through a census report from the time, under a listing for the Alaska Packers Association cannery in Kasilof. The residence for many of the men was listed as California, but nationality told a different tale:
“Finland, Finland, Finland, Finland, Germany, Russia, Norway, California, Kentucky,” Boraas read.
There would be seven or eight managers and 20 fishermen at the cannery. But the real labor — the back-aching, bone-chilling, hand-slicing, dirty, dangerous work, was done by Chinese workers, and, later, Filipinos. That’s not to say manning the tenders, traps and nets was easy, but certainly was far kinder duty than what was expected on the gut line, where a worker processed four to six fish a minute.
“I think it was six cuts they made and on down the line it goes,” Boraas said. “I figured the average age of these guys was like 47, meaning there were a lot of guys in their 50s and 60s. Hard life.”
A paper from the Robert DeArmond collection at the Alaska Archives on the history of the Cook Inlet fishing industry, written in the 1960s, describes what the work of the Chinese cannery laborers was like before mechanization. The tin for the cans was cut with hand shears and soldered together. Fish was cleaned and cut to fit the cans with crude gang knives. Cans were filled by hand, and the tops were soldered on. After boiling, each can was vented by puncturing a hole in the lid with a sharp nail. Once the steam escaped, the hole was soldered over and the can was ready for labeling and shipping.
Many of the Chinese workers had helped build the U.S.’s expanding network of railroads, earning neither fair wages nor treatment, and were stranded in the country without citizenship after that work ended. Canneries contracted with Chinese mafia bosses in California, who shipped up however many Chinese workers were requested. They were housed in separate barracks, ate in a separate mess hall, were often fed different food, and made less money than the other cannery workers.
“They were hugely exploited,” Boraas said. “They lived in tenements owned by the same bosses. Probably most of them, the money they made went back to their families in China. So now you have no money and the next year you get shanghaied — literally — and sent to Alaska. So that was the labor structure.”
The workers were essentially bought and sold, and so was the cannery. In 1885 the Arctic Fishing Company, also based in San Francisco, bought the facility. In 1890, a new cannery was built by George Hume, of San Francisco, a little ways up the Kasilof River. By 1893, the two Kasilof and one Kenai cannery joined the newly formed Alaska Packers Association, though only the original Kasilof Alaska Packers plant continued operating at that point. It burned in 1905 and was rebuilt for the 1906 season.
The 1923 season was the last for the original Kasilof plant, a victim of falling salmon prices after the war. It had only missed three years since being built in 1882, and averaged around 25,000 cases of salmon a season, according to the DeArmond report. That equates to about 975,000 cases at all, at an estimated value of $7.2 million — equal to the purchase price of Alaska.
Most of the cannery workers traveled to Alaska via supply ship at the beginning of the season, and went back with the packed cans at the end of the season. But some came to like the taste of Alaska that they got in the fish processing industry, and stayed on in the state.
“Most of those came to Alaska and went back with the packed fish at the end of the season. A few stayed, gradually, and a few married Native women, gradually,” Boraas said.
That might explain why Sandel was buried in Kasilof in 1925, at age 70, two years after the cannery shut down, if he’d decided to retire and become a year-round resident of the area. As for Freeman, buried in 1906, Benson, in 1907, and Mason, in 1915, it is only speculation to suggest that accident, illness or some other unexpected, irreversible occurrence precluded their return south.
Miller has some leads on Kasilof old-timers in the area who might have, at least, more informed speculation to offer, and the Totem Tracers hope to obtain copies of cannery records out of California that might provide some answers. She asks that anyone with information on the cemetery or its inhabitants contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“That’s what keeps us going — we’ve got to keep filling in the puzzle pieces to figure out why this person was there,” Miller said.