ANCHORAGE, Alaska — They were known as double-enders: wooden fishing boats with identically shaped bows and sterns that once sailed the waters of Bristol Bay from the late 1800s through the 1950s.
The sailboat is an icon of an era featured in an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, just in time for summer tourists. The museum hopes it will be a big draw for visitors coming to Alaska to fish -- and give them a chance to learn something about the history of a pastime they’ve come to the state to enjoy.
Tim Troll, who helped to collect photographs for the “Sailing for Salmon” exhibit, says Alaskans should spend some time with the exhibit too. Troll, director of the Nature Conservancy of Alaska, hopes it will give the younger generation an appreciation for the Bristol Bay fishery, which began in 1884.
Troll says most Alaskans don’t know its history, even those from Bristol Bay -- nor do they realize that salmon was the foundation of state’s economy, long before oil. Troll calls salmon “Alaska’s longest and most consistent export.”
The exhibit is an outgrowth of Troll’s book, also called “Sailing for Salmon,” which contains photographs and essays from people who sailed for salmon -- including one from Lena Andree, the grandmother of Todd Palin, former Gov. Sarah Palin’s husband.
For Mel Monson, the exhibit takes him back to his youth. Monson, 81, sailed only one season: 1952, the year after the federal government finally allowed motorized fishing boats in Bristol Bay.
The canneries fought to keep them out.
“They ruled the roost,” said Monson. “I mean, they owned everything.”
The canneries owned the boats, the nets and the gear. They picked who could fish and when. They would tow the sailboats out to the fishing grounds, strung together in a long line -- a beautiful sight, but also a symbol of how the canneries kept fishermen on a tight leash.
The canneries opposed motor boats, because it would give fishermen more independence. With more mobility to move around the bay, fishermen would be able to sell their fish to other canneries to fetch a better price.
The sailboats were also dangerous, and put fishermen at the mercy at the tides and winds. Monson dreaded onshore winds.
“You had to be careful where you set your net, or the wind would blow you right on the beach in the storm. That’s where a lot of fishermen got drowned,” said Monson.
“Some of the old-timers, if they were in trouble, they would stretch the mast across the boat, tie it fast, so the boat couldn’t roll over them,” Monson recalls. “The mast or boom would hit first.”
Monson says it was difficult taking the mast up and down, especially when the boat was slimy with fish scales.
“From what I understand, it wasn’t unusual for guys to lose their fishing partners -- and during the season partner up with someone else, because their shipmate got hit by a mast in the head,” said Dewey Halverson, a fisherman from Homer, who says he finds the exhibit inspiring given how difficult and dangerous the work was.
The death toll eventually forced the federal government to allow the use of motorized boats, and it wasn’t long before the iconic sailboats became a memory, preserved mostly in black-and-white photographs which don’t fully capture their beauty.
“Just imagine the whole bay filled up with those brightly colored boats and sails” says Dave Nicholls, the museum’s exhibit director. “Pretty amazing sight, I would think.”
The sails were in shades of white, tan and brown -- due to the different types of cooking stoves. Coal burners, which were used by Italians, would darken the sails.
The fishermen themselves were pretty colorful. Monson pointed to a photograph of one of the fishermen he knew, Ralph Angelesco, who came to Bristol Bay from San Francisco.
“He was a go-getter,” Monson remembers. “He bought some old cannery buildings, tore them down and built another home out of them.”
Angelesco was an Italian, part of the huge melting pot that included Norwegians and Finns. The canneries encouraged competition between the different nationalities and posted how much fish they caught.
The photographs on display show that they caught a lot, sometimes as much as 2,000 pounds. Some of the boats are so full they’re visibly sinking down into the water. Fishermen would carve the counts of their record harvests in their boats.
“The most I’ve ever seen was 3,437 fish,” Monson said.
The nets were made from cotton, and the floats were carved out of wood -- which added even more weight to the boat.
Monson says there were about 1,000 boats in the bay the year he was on the crew of a sailboat. As a child, he enjoyed watching them sail by on Sunday nights on their way to the fishing grounds.
“There’d be a couple hundred sailboats,” Monson remembers. “Two to three hundred boats going down the river, right past your house; it was a beautiful sight.”
And while Monson is alive to share his memories, most of those pictured are gone. Alongside the photographs, however, there are stories from fishermen in their own words, including one from Al Andree.
“I always stopped as skilled oarsmen passed; it was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen,” Andree wrote. “Usually the captain or the tillerman steered the boat with the rudder and rowed with one oar, while his helper would push two oars.”
As a modern fisherman, Halverson enjoys the contemplative quality of the exhibit. He says in his mind’s ear, he hears the fishermen in the photographs talking to each other.
“I imagine a lot of competition, the camaraderie they all had,” Halverson said. “Fishermen were like gold miners, many of them pioneers: everybody wanted to make a fortune.”
As it turned out, the canneries made the fortune and the fishermen were left largely with the wealth of their experiences. Monson says he made about $2,000 during the season he went sailing for salmon.
The exhibit will remain at the museum through Sept. 2.The collection was originally on display at the Pratt Museum in Homer. John Branson, historian for the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, worked with Troll to track down photographs. Many of them come from family albums.
There’s also a double-ender sailboat, which was owned by Libby Foods Cannery, in the permanent collection of the museum. It’s on the floor above the exhibit.
Contact Rhonda McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org