“The Fire Started March 3rd 1960”

As told by Lydia Robart to Diane Malchoff


In 1912, Whitney Fidalgo was called Fidalgo Island Packing Company. It was pretty big cannery had six boilers. It had a casing machine worth a half million dollars. There was a one pound line, a quarter pound line and a half-pound line. You can imagine how big the cannery was.

            The fire started on March 3, 1960. I was about 12 years old. We were all sitting in English class writing a letter to Mary Fomin. We had no news to write about, nothing was happening in Port Graham. After school I went home. My dad was home making a bania. Ralph went down to the store to get some oil with Steve van Kuern, and I decided to go down first. Then I saw Christy Kennier, (Her family used to be the watchman here; Blake, Linda, Blackey, Cristey and the baby.) I asked my dad if Christey could play with me. He said yes. I said “I’ll take groceries up first.” We had to do our chores right away after school. That was one of my chores.

            Drawing of the Old Cannery by Lydia Robart


We went down to the beach and I wanted to go under the dock and jump the pilings that we called “getgeq.” That’s where we played tag. We jump those pilings, and if we fell down we might break our skulls. We never cared. We got up and did the same thing over again. That’s what I wanted to do, play underneath the dock. But the tide was coming in. So I said, “Christy let’s go to the warehouse and ride our bikes.”


We were going towards the warehouse and I looked up at the sky. I said, “What’s that black smoke up in the sky?” She said, “I don’t know” I guess my father’s working up there. Maybe his burning trash.” We came up to the beach, and we saw Blake, looking panicky, coming out. I said, “Oh, oh, somethings wrong.” As we came at the top of the beach, I looked there where we came into the cannery. Smoke was just pouring out. He said, “holler up at the school, there’s a fire!” I turned around and hollered my lungs out. I said, “Fire!” as loud as I could.

Ralph and Steve V. heard me. They were rolling a drum of oil and came running down. It was too late. All that smoke was coming out. Blake Kennier was ringing the dinner bell. It was about 4:30 or 5:00. The way it started was, Blake left the welder on and went for coffee. When he came back it was on fire. I heard another possible explanation. There were some guys from Seldovia who brought their crab pots. They put them on the dock to work on them. (They may have been welding.)


Old Jimmy Greek, I think you heard of him, was on the dock when saw the smoke. He went under the dock and ran home. Melvin was just a baby, about a year old, and I ran him from grandmas to the school. I told the teacher to ring the bell. While she rang the bell, people ran here and there panicking, kids were crying and smoke was way up in the air.


Pacific Northern Airlines, (who used to fly instead of A.A.I.), came from Kodak, and made a complete circle around the fire. They took off the other way.


They didn’t have any fire extinguishers or water pressure. Nothing. Everything was up in flames. Smoke was all around. So we fought the fire with what we had. Some of the men got together and tried to put it out. But they weren’t successful.


Everybody was afraid the fire was coming towards the second bunkhouse. The fire was coming towards the silver bunkhouse from the dock. If the fire had gone to the silver tanks, that would have been the last of Port Graham. The silver tanks would have exploded and everyone in the store taking everything outs, trying to save most of the grub.


It was so hot right where our house is, the windows cracked from the heat. I went back down there after the caving in if the old bunkhouse. It had a huge mess hall, laundry and bosses quarters combined. I wanted to see how the people were.


Bettey, Phyllis and Helen were just laughing with rosy cheeks. I said, “What you guys laughing about? You’re supposed to be sad because we just lost our cannery.” Well, some incident had just happened. I said, “What’s that?” Well, Tim had a tub of water. That where you could see the black burn marks on the red tanks, by the side of the dock. He was up there in the tanks, and one of those guys from Seldovia was under him. (He was trying to help.) Tim dumped the tub of water and didn’t see the poor guy. Instead he dumped it on him! That was pretty funny.


After the fire, everybody went down to A.C. Point and English Bay. Everyone was afraid. There were high winds and we had to be sure the fire wouldn’t start up again.


The “Expansion” used to come in with the mail. That was the only way we got our mail. The boat brought our groceries, comic books, watermelons and stuff like that. They kept bringing the mail and they barely got on the dock because it was dangerous to walk on.


So they tore the part of the dock down. Marvin and others had to stay up late to watch for sparks so it wouldn’t start up again.


The next day Helen and I were down below where the store was, we were watching the men trying to get the safe, because the office was by the dock then.


They were digging up the safe and Helen and I decided to go for a walk. You know what we found? We found cooked spam. They told us to get out of the way and chased use home. That’s the story of the burning of Fidalgo Island Packing Company.



Copyright 1981,  Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.  All rights reserved

Volume 2