There is a hidden gem in San Francisco that many people may not know about, tourists and locals alike. There is not a lot of information on their website. It is at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and is part of the National Park System. This park is near Fisherman’s Wharf on the pier. At the Hyde Street Pier, there are historic steam and sailing vessels along with other maritime exhibits. San Francisco has been a major West Coast city since the 1800s, played a major part in maritime exploration, was a major port city at the time, and provided jobs to thousands who worked in the Alaskan salmon canning industry.
On one of the vessels, the Balclutha (aka The Star of Alaska), there is a permanent exhibit that showcases the Alaskan canning industry. The first cannery was established in 1878 in southeastern Alaska but the number of canneries exploded within the next few years leading to the establishment of the Alaska Packers Association in 1893 in San Francisco. They were able to combine forces with small fishing and canning companies and have their own fleet of ships who carried crew and supplies to Alaska for the four month summer canning season. The final canned salmon was for domestic consumption as well as for exportation around the world.
European fisherman along with Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican, and Black cannery workers lived aboard these vessels which were segregated by ethnicity. Living conditions were very harsh and provisions were limited for the Chinese who lived below deck. They were hired by local contact laborers and were paid a set amount for the salmon season. Since they were not employees of the canneries, the Alaska Packers Association did not hold responsibility for their harsh living conditions. Those that directly prepared and canned the salmon by hand were ultimately called the “China Gang” even into the early 1900s when the Chinese workers were replaced by machinery to cut and clean the salmon and other laborers were added to the workforce. This led to less Chinese contract laborers working in the Alaskan canneries as the years went by and the contract labor system ended in the 1930s.
The exhibit on the Balclutha also shows what the deck looked like where the Chinese lived aboard the 2,400 mile trip to Alaska and stayed in cramped sleeping quarters. To help pass the time, the Chinese workers played mahjongg using paper tiles.
Nearby is also a Visitor Center located in the Argonaut Hotel which has free exhibits, a separate Maritime Museum that has displays on West Coast maritime history (located in the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building), and a Maritime Research Center which has archives and other materials from their vast collection of maritime history. There is so much to see and do here that you could easily spend hours on the ships and at the exhibits. I hope you enjoy this hidden gem about the Chinese cannery workers in Alaska!
Please check out the website for more information and hours of operation at https://www.nps.gov/safr/index.htm