The Good Hope Cannery

Life and Death at a Salmon Cannery

W.B. MacDonald

In 1895 Scottish entrepreneur, engineer, and outdoor adventurer Henry Ogle Bell-Irving built the Good Hope Cannery in Rivers Inlet, BC. There was a fortune to be made and Bell-Irving was determined to make one, both for the shareholders of the Anglo-British Columbia Packing Company, and for himself. As sole agent for ABC, he effectively controlled the company, which grew to include cannery operations on the west coast from Washington State to Alaska. For years the operation was astronomically successful, but profits were realized on the backs of skilled Chinese and Native cannery workers, and on the know-how of northern Europeans and Japanese fishermen.

Good Hope canned salmon continuously until 1940 and thereafter served company fishermen as a place where they could refuel, eat, buy supplies and have their boats and nets repaired. By the late 1960s depleted fish stocks and technological advances rendered Good Hope obsolete as a camp. But a Henry Bell-Irving descendant, grandson Ian Bell-Irving, envisioned Good Hope as a sport fishing resort catering to affluent North Americans, and so Good Hope entered the third phase of its life, a life that continues to this day. The Good Hope Cannery and the Goose Bay Cannery in Duncanby are all that are left of an important era in BC’s history—all the other canneries in Rivers Inlet have vanished.

The Good Hope Cannery is a story of the people who built it, worked in it, fished for it, maintained it, and welcomed guests to it. MacDonald looks deeply into the personalities and everyday lives, and sometimes tragic deaths, of the colourful characters of the Good Hope Cannery.

In October 2006 a crew was demolishing an old, one-storey building at the Good Hope Cannery in Rivers Inlet, British Columbia. The building was known to Good Hope staff as “the Hilton” because for many years it provided accommodation to guides and male lodge workers. But, built in 1895, it was certainly no Hilton. Decades of exposure to pounding north coast rainstorms, heavy snows, driving winds and salt air had taken its toll. Its foundations—pilings—were rotten, the roof leaked, the floor and walls tilted at weird angles, and it was full of mould.

Tearing down an inside wall, the bemused crew discovered stacked between the studs seven cardboard cases 12 inches long by 10 inches high and 4 inches wide (30x25x10 centimetres). Given the draftiness of these old cannery buildings and the stormy coastal weather, someone had probably stashed these cases to provide a small measure of insulation. But if that were true, why weren’t there lots of other cases stacked between the studs?

One of the boxes contained bookkeeping records—tally sheets and receipts—for the 1943 fishing season. The papers were in mint condition, stacked neatly in chronological order. They were held in place by two metal rings, now corroded but still serving their purpose. The one-page tally sheets recorded each fisherman’s credits and debits down to the penny. That year sockeye were worth 14 cents a pound while red spring fetched 7 cents. The receipts were for cheques made out to fishermen by the Anglo-British Columbia Packing Company. The name meant nothing to the demolition crew, and why should it? The company—ABC as it was known—hadn’t existed for well over thirty years. As they flipped through the pages the fishermen’s names didn’t register with any of them. Long dead, they thought. One guy had a good season, over a thousand sockeye totalling 6,049 pounds (2,750 kilograms), equalling $846.86, not bad at all. The crew would have spent more time poring over the records but they had a job to do in 2006, and 1943 was over and done. They slid the paperwork back into its jacket and took the seven cases to the cannery office for safekeeping. Eventually the cases, along with other cannery artifacts, were shipped by air to Good Hope’s office in Richmond where Morag Wehrle, an archivist under contract to Good Hope, examined and catalogued the material. It then travelled back to Good Hope. Many of the artifacts went on display in the cannery, but what to do with the bookkeeping records? In the meantime a new building had taken the place of the Hilton; the finishing touches were being put on its interior. Candace Meagher, a Simon Fraser University history student on Good Hope’s staff, had the perfect spot in mind for them—in the wall of the new Hilton. The fishermen of the 1940s had gone back into hiding, as a measure of safekeeping, there being no other place to put them.