Pacific American Fisheries (PAF)
By Gayle Helgoe
Photo by Asahel Curtis 1906
Whatcom Museum Photo Archives 173.24.156
No single industry had a greater impact on the economy of Fairhaven than Pacific American Fisheries.
In 1898, the small town on Bellingham Bay was beginning to emerge from the economic doldrums caused by the depression of 1893. After the boom years of the early 1890s, commercial activity and residential growth had slowed significantly.
Yet there was a vast natural resource that as yet remained untapped. Puget Sound and the Salish Sea contained an abundance of salmon, and Roland Onffroy, a Frenchman, had a vision to capitalize on this resource.
Onffroy, was a glib effusive promoter who established the Franco-American North Pacific Packing Company in 1898 at the base of Harris Avenue in Fairhaven. Financier C.X. Larrabee, anxious for economic revitalization, offered Onffroy a favorable lease deal to encourage development of the cannery.
Unfortunately, Onffroy lacked the management skills necessary to bring his vision into profitable reality. The company went bankrupt in less than a year.
Realizing the need for additional capital and a steady supply of salmon, Onffroy took out options on 25 productive fish traps on Bellingham Bay and then headed for Chicago to secure investment from a major food brokerage firm, Deming & Gould, among other Chicago financiers.
Incorporated in February of 1899, Pacific American Fisheries became the bulwark of Fairhaven’s economy until its demise in 1966.
Recognizing Onffroy’s weak management skills, investors replaced him with the younger brother of the Deming & Gould brokerage firm, Everett B. Deming. Deming moved from Chicago to Fairhaven and directed the company until his death in 1942.
| ||The years following Deming’s ascendancy to president and manager of the Fairhaven cannery were notable for rapid growth in a number of associated industries and influence in a broader geographic arena. Ship building, salmon processing inventions and advances in the production of canning supplies all provided extensive employment for the local population and migrant labor. |
For many years, contract labor was managed by Goon Dip, Chinese entrepreneur and diplomat from Seattle. The association between E.B. Deming and Goon Dip began in 1900 and continued until Goon’s death in 1933. (See "Empress Tree” on this website.)
The Chinese laborers occupied quarters in the China House adjacent to the main cannery. Most came from San Francisco and Portland for the salmon processing season , and they mostly kept to themselves while they were employed. With the invention of the "Iron Chink” in 1905, the canning industry was able to reduce its dependence on such a large labor force, and Goon Dip was able to supply labor for canneries up and down the Northwest coast.
| ||E.B. Deming died in 1942 and can be largely credited with building the company into the largest individual salmon cannery in the world with additional canneries in Alaska, a ship-building industry to support the transportation of workers and product, and additional businesses associated with the production of canned salmon. |
Much of Fairhaven and Bellingham as a whole owed their livelihood to the various activities associated with the salmon cannery operations. The tide began to turn, so to speak, as the years brought changes and challenges. In 1935, fish traps were outlawed in Washington State which focused then on the fishing operations in Alaska. In addition, the advent of World War II, shifted interest on the territory of Alaska beyond its fisheries.
Other forces impacted the industry such as the rise of labor unions and more stringent government regulations. The popularity of canned salmon was eclipsed by other methods of food preservation such as freezing and commercial refrigeration.
On January 3, 1959, Alaska became the 49th U.S. state. Shortly thereafter, fish traps were banned in Alaskan waters, further reducing product availability. The company limped along until 1966 when the directors decided to cease operations, liquidate their stock and sell off their property to the Port of Bellingham for $598,000. Thus ended the economic giant that once provided job opportunities and economic stability to South Bellingham.
"Where once stood the buildings of Pacific American Fisheries on the waterfront in South Bellingham, there is a grand facility for the Alaskan ferry with buildings and parking lots. The one building of PAF that remains is the brick office building from the 1930s, which has been remodeled into a Transportation Center for a bus/train station with shops.” (Radke)
There is one additional reminder of this once-thriving economic giant. An Empress tree still stands next to the train station, gnarled and bent, but a living artifact to the history embodied in these grounds, memorializing the relationship between Goon Dip and E.B. Deming during the height of the industry’s prosperity.
1950s photo of the Fairhaven Empress Tree
Whatcom Museum Photo Archives
Griffin, Brian C. Fairhaven, a history. Bellingham, Wash.: Knox Cellars Publ. Co., 2015.
Koert, Dorothy, and Galen Biery. Looking Back: the collectors’ edition: Memories of Whatcom County/Bellingham. Bellingham, Wash.: Grandpa’s Attic, 2003.
Radke, August C. Pacific American Fisheries, Inc.: history of a Washington state salmon packing company, 1890-1966. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2002.
Shiels, Archie W. Brief chronological history of Pacific American Fisheries. Bellingham, Wash.: [A.W. Shiels], [197-?]