Sitnews - Stories In the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


and colorful Mgr. Jim Pinkerton

By June Allen


December 09, 2003
Tuesday - 12:50 am

For half a century Ketchikan Cold Storage's concrete building, drab and unadorned, stood like a gray, man-made accompaniment to the rocky face of Knob Hill just behind it. A big structure shoehorned into the Front and Water Street corner of the busy downtown docks, the historic cold storage was a major factor in Ketchikan's flourishing fishing history. For fifty years the facility bought, froze and shipped halibut, salmon, and sablefish (black cod) to markets around the world. By mid-century, weakened North Pacific fishery stocks and a shrinking industry, fires in adjacent wooden storage facilities, and finally a wrecking ball reduced KCS to memory only. Today, bottoms-up Eagle Park stands as a memorial to its passing - for those who remember it.

Ketchikan Cold Storage photo

Halibut schooner fleet at Ketchikan Cold storage dock. The boats include the Wireless, Sunset, Kodiak, Columbia, and Western, circa 1930 - Photographer: Elliot L. Fisher
Donor: Ed Elliott, Courtesy Tongass Historical Society

The origin of Ketchikan Cold Storage (KCS) was an outgrowth of a 1904 experiment in shipping iced halibut south to market, the brainchild of Ketchikan pioneer and futurist Forest J. Hunt. He, his wife, photographer Harriet Hunt, and family lived above their general mercantile on that that same Front and Water Street corner. Hunt, the city's first school board president and then mayor 1906-08, struck the initial spark of energy that grew to create the big building and equally big KCS business.

In 1904, curious to know if there might be a commercial future for iced fish, Hunt made a test run, shipping halibut packed in ice to Seattle. Probably that shipment was encased in

Forest J. Hunt photograph

Forest J. Hunt
Photographer: Winter and Pond
Donor: Martine Oaksmith, Courtesy Tongass Historical Society
dense, long-lasting glacier ice from Le Conte Glacier near Wrangell. Before ice-making machines in cold storage facilities were introduced in Ketchikan, that's what fishermen used to ice their fish.

The iced-fish shipping experiment was a tantalizing success. A small scale operation then was set in motion and conducted as well as it could with limited facilities. In time it caught the interest of a number of interested local investors, including such well known names as J.C. Barber of Citizens Light and Power (precursor of KPU);Willis A. Bryant of J.R. Heckman and Co.; bakeryman and future mayor Mike J. Heneghan, haberdasher and future hotelman and mayor P.J. Gilmore, and three doctors: Ben, John, and Alex Myers. Their enterprise would be a locally owned cold storage facility.

and then came the fabled halibut

Salmon was the king of fishes in those early years. But it was the possibility of including in their plans the marketing of the long neglected North Pacific halibut, the hot new entrant on the fishery industry scene, that made the investors more comfortable with the considerable gamble of building a costly refrigeration facility that was considered high-tech in its day. The Old World's Atlantic halibut - the word derived from "holy" and "butte" or flounder - had been all but fished out on the other side of the globe. For some reason, no one had thought of the commercial potential of the giant Pacific breed of the fish until 1888!

The halibut is a curious fish that bottom feeds with its white side toward the ocean floor and its black side up. Young halibut have eyes on either side of the head like any other fish but as the young fish grows, both eyes move up to the black topside of the adult fish. Halibut can grow to eight feet in length and weigh up to 500 pounds! The record age for one of these fish is 55 years.

These halibut of the Pacific - which range from as far south as central California and as far north as Nome - had long been a favorite in the diet of the Indians of the Pacific Coast, especially the Haidas. Those seafarers of the Queen Charlotte Islands lived close to the deep banks where the bottom feeders were easily found. Halibut even figured prominently in Haida legends; one of which claims the First Man emerged after the Flood from a halibut that had violently shaken off its head and tail. Another legend says that the Queen Charlottes were once just a single island that became broken apart from the thrashing tail of a giant halibut deep under the earth.

The Ketchikan waterfront, circa 1915
San Juan Fish Company, Ketchikan Cold Storage,
Northland Dock Company and Halibut schooners Progress and Venus
Photographer: David Nicoll
Donor: Irene McGillvray, Courtesy Tongass Historical Society

Investors saw the first part of Ketchikan Cold Storage constructed in 1913. It would grow and expand rather quickly over the years, adding another big refrigeration unit as well as a variety of warehousing structures. Shortly after its construction the facility consisted of a main, concrete plant with a 20-ton ice machine. It was backed by a conveyor rig that carried for-sale ice to the dock's edge. That main concrete building spanned a three-lots- width on Front and was designed for street level retail businesses on that side. Next to the concrete structure came a wooden building with a two-ton ice machine. Directly behind the plant on the dock side was the big "box shooks and nailing" structure. The remains of that container segment of the operation were visible in the water for decades after the cold storage was gone - discarded metal tierce straps that could be seen at low tides.

KCS was a thriving business through the Roaring '20s, the Alaska fisheries heyday. In 1921 an addition was built to the first concrete section of the KCS building. The expansion program included a 30-ton ice tank, a huge ice storage room and two additional flash storage rooms. A new engine room was added with a new 100-ton refrigeration machine. The shipment of iced fish to the East by way of Prince Rupert's railhead began experimentally in 1923 and later grew to large volume. Ketchikan was not only a port of call for the halibut skippers but home port for many of them. By 1926 Ketchikan's halibut landings reached more than eight million pounds, doubling the landings of the previous year. Times were good!

Sorting Salmon, July 1947
U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service Photos
Donor: Phil Dorhrerty, Courtesy Ketchikan Museums

Down south, the devastation spawned by the stock market crash of October 1929 was slow to reach Ketchikan, but when it did, the economy collapsed along with everything else in the Great Depression of the 1930s! Ketchikan's utilities company, Citizens Light & Power, faced bankruptcy and was bought by the optimistic midwest W.B. Foshay Co. interests. In 1935 the City of Ketchikan bought the failing utility interests and changed the name to Ketchikan Public Utilities, KPU - a move not necessarily popular with some of the conservative folks in Ketchikan, even today!

In 1936 Citizens Utilities of Minneapolis took over the economically staggering Ketchikan Cold Storage Co. And during the slow Depression years Ketchikan Cold Storage limped along. Then came the economic flurry of the World War II years and, shortly after, the arrival in Ketchikan of KCS's new manager-to-be.

and then came Jim Pinkerton

Not everyone in Ketchikan would come to think of Jim Pinkerton as a great guy, but someone did! One was Jane Church's father, Jack Talbot. It was 1946 and Pinkerton had booked passage from Vancouver to Ketchikan on the SS Prince Rupert, traveling in his

Waterfront scene, circa 1935
Photographer: Otto C. Schallerer
Donor: Nancy A. Tew Heacock, KM
wartime U.S. Maritime Service uniform to take advantage of reduced furlough fares. Ashore in Ketchikan, he booked a room in the Ingersoll Hotel and then took a walk around town - and noticed the Alaska Employment Service office. He walked in. The job service manager checked Pinkerton's credentials and immediately took him to the home of Jack Talbot, president of the Alaska Transportation Service. In a matter of minutes Pinkerton had a job with Talbot and instructions to report for work at 8 a.m. the next day. "He saved my dad's life," said Jane Church in a recent interview. He showed up at just the right time to help out Talbot in a trying time in his life and in the transportation company's history.

When Talbot's crisis was past, Pinkerton was introduced to Ketchikan Cold Storage Manager Jack Mendenhall, who hired him as his assistant. Two years later Pinkerton was named manager and was in charge. Within a decade the new manager had the cold storage on its feet and restored to its former position as a leader in the industry.

He established a buying and processing service for the benefit of dealers throughout the United Sates. The service enabled dealers to buy their halibut, salmon and sablefish requirements direct from the fishing fleet and to eliminate all middlemen. Through Pinkerton, dealers from Fairbanks to Miami, and from Boston to San Diego as well as points in between bought their requirements from the fishing fleet at Ketchikan, according to a 1959 newspaper clipping. In addition, Pinkerton's policy enabled Ketchikan Cold Storage to process more than five million pounds of halibut, salmon and sablefish during the 1959 season alone. But the fading of the fishery told him that the end could be in sight.

Pinkerton's approach to the problems he saw in the cold storage management at the highest levels echo Ketchikan's present overall economic problems, as expressed in a letter. Pinkerton was a man who didn't mince words. In a memo to a high KCS official in New York in 1954 he wrote: "This plant is located on an island in Alaska not at the corner of 42nd and Broadway. Take a good long look at your big empty plant up here in this God-forsaken part of the world and realize that business is not going to come looking for you! We've got to go looking for business You've either got to go whole hog or write this property off."

When Statehood allowed the new state's own on-site management of fisheries, steps were taken to save and hopefully restore the fisheries viability. Fishing seasons were shortened and some areas closed, with whole new management policies in place. It would take time to repair the damages of half a century of long-distance fishery management by the federal government. Resources were thin, prices falling.

A Jan. 12, 1960, a fire of an unknown origin in the old Hunt Building, destroyed the two top floors of the structure but adjacent buildings were saved. Then just two weeks later, a suspected arson fire on Jan. 26, 1960, destroyed a large section of Front Street, burning the businesses but sparing the Ketchikan Cold Storage site. Gone were Colin Poole's shoe store and Bertha Wells's book store. KCS's main structures were saved but its smaller warehouses and outbuildings were destroyed. In July of 1968 one of the last of the KCS artifacts burned, its large frame building on Water Street.

Then all that was left was the hulking concrete structure. The wrecking ball made short work of that just a month later to make way for the state's widening of Front Street. Both Front Street and Water Street were widened although it seems hard to believe today that either street was ever narrower than it is now. Jim Pinkerton moved back to his company's

Fighting the Ketchikan Cold Storage fire on the waterfront side, August 13, 1945
Photographer: Sixten Johanson
Donor: Inez Shewbert,
Courtesy Tongass Historical Society
regional headquarters in Redding, Calif., and served his employers for a total of 39 years.

Hard work equaled success to Jim Pinkerton. He was a good-sized man with an Alabama drawl that he never lost and didn't want to lose. He liked good food, nice homes, glamorous women and small dogs. As mayor he set a good example: Every day he walked his dog and carried tissues and little bags for properly disposing of the dog's droppings. But although a friendly and talkative man, it wasn't until shortly before his death in 1996 at age 80 that he was willing to tell the story of his early life ­ a hard life.

He was born March 30, 1916, in Georgiana, Alabama, son of sharecroppers who had a large family of children including adult siblings. At age 5, Jim lost his mother, who was committed to the Insane Asylum at Tuscaloosa where she later died. Soon after, his father, characterized by Jim as "the convict," began to serve "every day of a ten-year sentence for arson."

Then when he was about 12, he found himself chopping out the roots of Johnson grass with a hoe on a hot afternoon in a puny Alabama cornfield. Jim wrote, "I thought, this ain't for me! God, do help me get away from here!" He had prayed, his very first prayer. His older sister Bessie took him to Florida with her and put him in school. But then a hurricane ravaged that state and his sister's home was destroyed. In despair, Bessie committed suicide and Jim was alone. By then Jim was a teenager and like many boys in the depths of the Depression, he struck out on his own, working but still going to school. At age 19 he graduated from high school in Palm Beach. He managed to get two years of junior college completed when World War II broke out in 1941, when he joined the Maritime Service.

In Ketchikan all these years later, no one who knew KCS Manager and Mayor Jim Pinkerton ever forgot him. He was, somehow, bigger than life. You know how many elderly folks worry about suffering a heart attack in the privacy and of their homes? And pray that someone will come to help them? well, an elderly Jim Pinkerton had a serious heart attack on the Great Wall of China, accompanied by a flurry of assistance from fellow tourists and a number of news reports! That was just Jim. He died several years later in Redding, Calif., in August 1996. He is missed, as is Ketchikan Cold Storage.



This June Allen Story Is Made Possible In-Part By These Sponsors:

Madison Lumber & Hardware

Alaska Glass & Supply
Downtown Drugstore

 Sourdough Bar & Liquor Store
 Davies-Barry Insurance  Sitnews



Copyright © 2003 June Allen
All rights reserved.
Not to be reprinted in any form without the written permission of June Allen.


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