Meziadin Lake Provincial Park was our last stop on the Cassier Highway. We headed south about 100 miles to the highway’s end, where it intersects the Yellowhead Highway. (We had been on the Yellowhead Highway from Jasper to Prince George at the beginning of our trip, but that was well east of where we were now.) Our choice was to head east toward home, or head west about 150 miles to the end of the road in Prince Rupert. And the Prince Rupert area was pretty much the only reason to head west. It would be a 300 mile side-trip, since the only land route toward home would be back the way we came.
Prince Rupert is a relatively new city, created by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in the early 1900s. From Prince Rupert’s creation until World War II, when the Yellowhead Highway was extended to the Pacific for military reasons, the only access was by rail or sea. Prince Rupert’s economy has focused on natural resources throughout its history. Downturns in those areas (especially fishing) have hurt, and the city has tried to pull in more tourism with a cruise ship terminal. Still, in 2013, a Canadian publication ranked Prince Rupert 193rd of 200 Canadian cities. But hey, at least it isn’t at the bottom of the list.
We waffled, but since we were not sure if we’d ever be this close to Prince Rupert again, we decided to head west and check it out. Driving into Prince Rupert was a nice scenic drive but, after driving through Alaska, northern BC, the Yukon and the Rockies, definitely not the best we’ve seen. And with our luck, it was another cloudy day.
But we made it there and looked for our campground. I have to tell the truth, we had read reviews that warned us that it was not going to be a great campground. But it was far more disappointing than I had suspected. I actually couldn’t wait to leave from the moment we got in and set up. Thank goodness that nobody was camped next to us, because the site was very, very narrow. It was outright uncomfortable. It almost felt like we were camped in a demolition zone. But it was the only campground in town, and we needed to dump and get water.
The next morning, we did our morning routine, then left as early as we could. We stopped at the grocery store in town and then visited the Museum of Northern B.C. The museum was small but wonderful, full of old cultural displays and modern culture too, mostly of the First Nations that lived in that area. It was very educational and enjoyable.
After the museum, we headed towards the downtown area. We drove a circle through the slightly more touristy downtown. I might have enjoyed browsing through the shops and catching some views of the bay, but the weather wasn’t great and the town seemed like its best days were long past. I’m sure we could have entertained ourselves if we’d been committed to staying the entire day, but the town wasn’t appealing enough to keep us longer.
North Pacific Cannery Museum
Our next destination was the North Pacific Cannery Museum, located south of the small town of Port Edward and about twenty-five minutes from Prince George. This was an amazing tour and I highly recommend it. It is BC’s oldest surviving salmon cannery built in 1889, and it operated as a cannery until the late 1960s. After the operation was shut down completely in the early 1980s, a local group was able to save it from destruction, and it is now a designated national historic site and museum.
The cannery was one of many that operated along this coastline at the turn of the twentieth century. The canneries had to be near the fishing grounds since the area was remote and, without refrigerated boats, the catch had to be transported quickly to a processing plant. In addition, there was a relatively large First Nations population with salmon fishing expertise.
In 1914, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (now CN) was completed, which provided rail transportation for the canneries. (The CN still runs trains past the cannery, although it’s been decades since the trains stopped here.) This significantly reduced transportation costs for the canneries located next to the rail line, but doomed the canneries on the opposite side of the water who had to haul their shipments to the rail line.
The cannery workforce was multicultural but segregated, and due to the isolation, housing had to be provided during the canning season for all but some of the First Nations workers. Japanese workers fished and mended nets. Chinese worked on the cannery line. First Nations workers fished and worked on the cannery line. Europeans were management and did some fishing. The North Pacific Cannery still has most of the European housing buildings and some Japanese housing intact, although the Chinese and First Nations housing is gone.
Technology changed the workforce as well. The Iron Chink (now known as the Iron Butcher) was invented in 1906 and replaced Chinese men who took 10-15 seconds to butcher a fish with a machine that could butcher one per second. Slimers (fish washers) had perhaps the worst job, washing each fish after it was butchered. Women almost universally held these jobs.
After washing, the fish were cut into equal sized pieces for canning. Originally done by hand by Chinese men, a machine called the “gang knives” reduced the workforce by automating the cutting. Women then placed each piece of cut fish into a can by hand until canning machines took over. By the 1960s, the canning machines incorporated the gang knives so that only a single woman was required to feed whole cleaned fish into the canner.
After canning, the cans were weighed and underweight cans were “patched” by women who could tell by feel how much extra salmon was required. Once the cans were full, lids were added. Chinese tinsmiths originally soldered the lids on, but the can soldering machine made their jobs obsolete. The cans of salmon were then cooked to preserve the fish. After cooking, the cans were labeled and packed for shipment.
We took the guided tour and found our guide to be very knowledgable. Although much of the site can be toured without a guide, we also got access to several buildings with the guide that are not open to people touring on their own. Our tour lasted over an hour, and we spent time exploring the site on our own afterward.
This was the highlight of our Prince Rupert side-trip and is definitely worth a few hours of your time. Unless you are really into salmon canning it’s not likely worth the 300 mile side-trip from the Cassier Highway, but if you are in Prince Rupert, it was Opa’s favorite museum of the entire trip.
It was after 3:00 by the time we finished touring the cannery and giving the dog a short walk. Having no desire to spend another night in Prince Rupert, we started our long trip east toward home, still 2500 miles away. After a couple of hours driving, we stopped for the night at Kleanza Creek Provincial Park.
Diving time: 5:00
Overnight: Prince Rupert RV Campground, Prince Rupert, BC
Weather: Mostly Cloudy (55/68)
Total miles since crossing Canadian border: 6,592
Total miles: 8,160
Diving time: 3:00
Overnight: Kleanza Creek Provincial Park, Terrace, BC
Weather: Partly sunny (57/73)
Total miles since crossing Canadian border: 6,712
Total miles: 8,280