Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Original Salmon Kings

Some of the prettiest commercial artwork ever created in this province were the labels designed for canned salmon, British Columbia’s biggest export product at the end of the 19th century. Recently at an antique fair I was flipping through a collection of these labels, adorned with cliché Mounties and stoic natives, birchbark canoes and pristine mountains, when a particular one caught my eye.

Many labels were for canneries from the Fraser River, or rich waterways further north, but one proudly declared it was from Victoria. This was my introduction to the dynasty of J.H. Todd and Sons, once the most durable salmon business in British Columbia's history.

Canning was invented in France in the early 19th century so Napoleon’s armies could pack food on their conquests of Europe. By 1871 industrial canning had been perfected, and that year a Scotsman established the first salmon cannery on the Fraser River, capitalizing on its huge runs of sockeye – the best salmon for canning, thanks to its high oil content and generally uniform size of the fish. Over the following decade, salmon canneries sprouted along the B.C. coast like mushrooms.

Jacob Hunter Todd (left) witnessed this growth. An Ontario-born farmer, Todd had made a fortune in Barkerville during the Cariboo gold rush, selling provisions to miners. (His grocery store remains a heritage site in Barkerville today.) He moved to Victoria to establish a dry-goods store on Wharf Street, but in 1882, when he saw the rush to the fishing business, he sank his wealth into a cannery of his own on the Fraser River, near Richmond.

Todd didn’t know much about fish, but he did know how to run a profitable business. Canneries were exempt from the labour laws of the time, so he hired Chinese and Indian workers exclusively, and built up a fleet of his own boats, each flying his horseshoe logo (a tribute to miners’ superstition), to supply the cannery with fish. Todd, who always paid by the piece and never by the hour, was a notorious skinflint: once he asked two Indians to paddle him from the cannery to New Westminster – a considerable task, against the Fraser's current – and rewarded them at the far end with pieces of hardtack biscuits.

Todd then established lucrative markets for canned salmon in England. The Horseshoe brand won prizes at London exhibitions, and was advertised across the city as the “working man’s feast”, half the cost of fresh meat. (A London window display of the time is pictured at right.) In 1898, B.C. exported 826,330 cases of salmon, most of them to the UK. Canned salmon became standard rations in the British army, and Todd became one of Victoria’s wealthiest citizens.

He also dabbled in politics. Todd won the nomination to be the city’s Conservative candidate in the 1878 federal byelection, but gave it to John A. Macdonald, who’d lost his seat in Ontario, so Macdonald could return to parliament; in exchange, Todd reportedly got the PM’s assurances to build the long-promised Esquimalt graving dock. When Todd died in 1899, Victoria's flags flew at half-mast. But as Valerie Green’s 1990 book Excelsior! The Story of The Todd Family describes, his sons continued his legacy. Bert Todd served several terms as city alderman and mayor between 1914 and 1925. Charles Fox Todd, the eldest, grew the family salmon business bigger still.

In 1902, to stop Americans from nabbing Fraser River-destined salmon in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Canadian government permitted canneries to construct fish traps along southern Vancouver Island. Charles Fox Todd’s five traps near Sooke were the most successful of them all. Built of wire netting and hundreds of fir pilings, the traps ran nearly a kilometre out to sea, creating a maze from which migrating salmon couldn’t escape. (A diagram at left, courtesy of the wonderful Sooke Region Museum, shows how the traps worked.)

In 1905, Todd built a cannery on Esquimalt Harbour to process the fish he trapped in Sooke, as many as 300,000 in a single season. Not everyone was pleased with his success, though: Todd also built guardhouses to protect his traps from poachers and vandalizing fishermen he’d put out of work. One of these “trap shacks” remains on the waterfront hiking trail in East Sooke Regional Park.

Todd also made enemies by refusing to join price-fixing schemes when the salmon runs were poor. Henry Doyle, the businessman who amalgamated many canneries into the huge B.C. Packers conglomerate in the 1920s, wrote that Todd and Sons were “dangerous”: “Their wealth, and the trade they command, make them formidable, while their methods have always been selfish and competitors have never considered them reliable.” Although Todd donated large sums to Victoria charities, Doyle said “he has few friends, and is simply a money-making machine – albeit a very successful one.”

Consequently, when Todd died in 1941, his firm remained one of the few independent canners left in British Columbia. His sons and grandsons took over the business, and in 1946 built a huge cold-storage facility on the Inner Harbour, directly below today’s Bastion Square. By the 1950s, it was said that seven out of 10 cans of salmon on B.C. household shelves were Todd’s.

But the good times were ending. Derek Todd, 87, a grandson who managed the business after returning home from World War II, says that in the 1950s Britain was too poor to afford canned salmon, and B.C. Packers dominated markets in eastern Canada. New seiners could catch more fish than the traps did, and industrialization had polluted the Fraser. “Then the fish disappeared, and that was the end of that.” In 1969, J.H. Todd and Sons closed for good. B.C. Packers divided the assets, and tore down the cold-storage plant and the Esquimalt cannery.

The family tradition did continue, in a sense. David Anderson, the former Victoria MP, is a great-nephew of Charles Fox Todd; as a teenager he toiled in the cold-storage facility, which informed his tenure in the 1990s as federal fisheries minister. Basing one’s livelihood on the size of salmon runs has always been an unpredictable business, Anderson says, “but if you time it right, it’s extremely lucrative.” That’s why the fights for fishing rights have always been so vicious, and why, in 1999 he negotiated renewal of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with the United States, despite the protests of B.C. fishermen. Limiting the commercial catch was the only way to preserve the resource, and the coastal ecosystem.

“In the end, you don’t manage the fish, you manage the people,” Anderson says. Clearly, a lesson learned from generations of experience.

PS A great B.C. Archives film explaining the process of salmon canning is online here. Also, check out this hilarious mock-documentary about the perils of working at a cannery– and scenes of Alaska fish traps – by Victoria filmmaker Andrew Struthers:

UPDATE (March 24, 2009): Although wild salmon runs are far smaller than they once were, it would be a grave mistake to give up on the fish. Alexandra Morton, a courageous biologist, recently won a court decision taking B.C.'s (mainly Norwegian-owned) salmon farms out of the control of the industry-cozy provincial government. Sign her petition to protect wild salmon here. Also, the great D.C. Reid, the Times Colonist's fishing columnist, points out in today's paper that destruction of local salmon habitat is accelerating. A telling excerpt:

Q: I am a retired fisheries scientist from Ontario. Your thoughts on logging damage being the number one problem salmon face makes sense. We drove the circle route from Sooke through Port Renfrew, to Cowichan and Duncan. The logging devastation absolutely sickened us. This trip is touted as a tourist attraction. What a great way to turn the tourists off BC. Where does the DFO fit into all of this? They have some top notch people. We were led to believe that B.C. folks are environmentally oriented. If that's the case then why do you allow this total disregard for the environment and destruction of the natural beauty?

A: I could go on for days, but I'll restrain myself. My eyes tell me that all over the island, the logging rate tripled for the past five years, and the allowable slash that remains has also tripled, meaning they are cutting down all the trees but only taking a few. Both the DFO and the provincial government are to blame. The new, run-of-river electricity production stands to have as great a negative impact as logging.


At 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great article Ross!

At 2:11 PM, Blogger Alicia said...

Hi Ross,

Do you remember where you found the Todd's Salmon label? If you have any information I would appreciate it.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger ross said...

Hi Alicia, I think I got it at the West Coast Collectors' Show, a big antiques fair held in Nanaimo every September. The one for this year has passed, but many of the same dealers hang out at the Victoria Flea Market (http://www.victoriafleamarket.com/). If you contact them, they might be able to put you in touch with people who sell old canned salmon labels!

At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually have the exact same label shown at the top of this page!

At 6:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

VERY GOOD ARTICLE !!! Thanks. As a direct descendant and with some knowledge of the history i found this to be accurate info with some new stuff thrown in that i did not know about

I also have 3 of these labels + tins etc etc


At 4:21 PM, Anonymous Fred Hawkshaw - linfred@telus.net said...

Does anyone know when the canneries stopped buying salmon by the piece and switched to buying it by the pound?


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