The Friday Harbor Cannery House

The Legacy of Friday Harbor's Cannery

Built in 1894, the Friday Harbor cannery supplied stable seasonal work for citizens of San Juan Island while also providing work for Chinese and later Japanese workers.

The Salsih Sea once teemed with salmon. Long before European settlers established themselves on the San Juan Islands, the Native Americans used the island for salmon fishing.

For thousands of years the Salish Coastal people established temporary camps following the yearly salmon migration. In the 1850s the Hudson’s Bay Company started settling on the San Juan Island. Rather than salmon, the settlers used the lands to farm sheep. However, a boundary dispute over the ownership of the San Juan Islands brought the United States and Great Britain to the brink of war in 1859. The Pig War as it was later named ended in a joint military occupation that lasted 12 years.

Although livestock farming was the predominate vocation during the joint military occupation, the yearly salmon run through the islands brought financial opportunities. It was not long until the region became blanketed with fisheries and canneries. In July 1894 the Island Packing Company (IPC) opened their Cannery at the end of East Street on Friday Harbor. The people of Friday Harbor were overwhelmingly in favor of a cannery as long as the company “would pledge that the mongolians [Chinese] would leave just as soon as the canning season was over” (The Islander, July 05, 1894). Rhetoric like this was typical for the time as Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act a few years earlier in 1882. Both local men and women worked on the cannery floor but Chinese laborers additionally came during salmon season. Machines cut off the heads and tails of fish and gutted them, while the workers packed cans by hand. The IPC made some improvements in 1896 and 1898 including the construction of the China House to accommodate the Chinese seasonal workers.

Following the renovations, the IPC sold the company to the Pacific American Fisheries (PAC) in 1899. The new owners built an additional building to increase the number of fish that could be processed. In 1908 the cannery again changed hands and the newly formed Friday Harbor Packing Company (FHPC) leased the cannery from the PAC. At this point most of the Chinese workers had been replaced by Japanese and new machinery had eliminated many human positions. Yet again in 1912, the cannery underwent more reconstruction and the FHPC reconstituted the building into a 300-by-250-foot structure.

The Cannery continued to run but after a ban on fish trapping passed in 1934 the sporadic flow of salmon to the cannery became scarcer. During the 1950s and early 1960s the cannery shifted from salmon to canning peas from the San Juan Valley. However, in 1964 the cannery finally closed and the city demolished the buildings in 1976. Two years later the Buck family bought the property and constructed the Cannery Landing building. Today Cannery Landing houses Dockside Treasures a gift shop for tourists visiting the island. As well as San Juan Coffee Roasting Company and Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching. Though the old historic cannery building is gone, the legacy is kept alive by the name Cannery Landing.