If you’ve been to Richmond’s Gulf of Georgia National Historic Site, you’ve probably snapped more than a few photos. This evocative industrial museum is studded with colourful exhibits that bring the salty story of the West Coast fishing sector to life.
But on your next visit, consider slowing down. It’s easy to walk past the exhibits here as you rush to look at the next one. In consultation with Cannery Collections Manager, Heidi Rampfl, we think the following five artifacts are worth taking a little more time over.
The Gulf of Georgia Cannery is full of great artifacts. | Photo: Tourism Richmond
Every visit to the Cannery starts at the skiff display near the entrance—but it’s not quite what it seems. Two grim-faced mannequins grapple with the swell while attempting to load their slender, rust-coloured little boat with a heaping gillnet haul. But while this dynamic recreation of a common yesteryear scene looks like a well-executed life-sized model, the flat-bottomed river skiff itself is actually real.
This authentic skiff is more than a century old. | Photo: John Lee
Over a century old, it’s one of countless wooden vessels—powered by oars or sails—that once underpinned BC’s bustling fishing industry. Designed for the central coast’s protected inlets, boats like these would have been towed in groups before dispersing, leaving their hardy, two-man crews to search tirelessly for their bounty. Conditions could be bone-chillingly cold (wool pants were often worn, as there was minimal shelter) but the men often stayed out for days on end.
Skiffs being towed out to the fishing grounds in the 1920s. | Photo: Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society Archives, G2002.003.001X.
PURETIC POWER BLOCK
As you pass the skiff, it’s easy to miss an anonymous-looking wheel hanging from the ceiling above. Larger boats that also worked the open ocean eventually superseded skiffs, but the Puretic power block—invented by Californian Mario Puretic in 1954—transformed the industry. A hydraulically powered pulley that could haul traditional table nets from the water into the boats far more efficiently (and less back-breakingly), this smart solution triggered a huge leap in productivity.
The Puretic Power Block was invented in 1954. | Photo: John Lee
The power block is still used today as a way to move nets to and from boats: peek out the back of the Cannery building, and you’ll see one being used by the net loft operator next door. But it wasn’t the only mechanical innovation that changed the industry. A few steps away, you’ll also spot a 1921 Easthope Engine exhibit, one of many that transformed oar and sail-driven fishing boats into gasoline-fueled vessels with far greater range and speed.
The Puretic Power Block in action onboard the Eva D. II in the 1950s. | Photo: Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society Archives, G2005.050.01.
Near the Easthope Engine, you’ll also find what resembles a tall, lid-free wooden barrel that looks like it would make a great rustic soaker tub—which is true, if you happen to be an olden-days fishing net. Before synthetic nets were introduced to the industry, more fragile natural fibre nets (typically cotton or linen) were the norm—and they needed to be carefully cleaned and disinfected to prevent them from rotting and quickly becoming useless.
The bluestone tank is a bit weather-beaten; it saw a lot of action over the years. | Photo: John Lee
Nets were regularly soaked in these oversized tubs, which were filled with a copper sulphate solution also known as bluestone. This algae-dissolving solution dyed the nets blue, which was said to help camouflage them when they were deployed back out in the water. There are theories that this net-cleaning method was imported from Japan and that tubs such as this one were built by Japanese men working in the Steveston-area fishing industry.
Bluestone tanks lined up on the dock at Namu Cannery in Namu, BC during the 1940s. | Photo: Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society, G2005.063.001o.
In the 1940s, the Gulf of Georgia Cannery began to diversify. One of its salmon canning lines was ultimately removed and replaced by a herring reduction operation that became increasingly important in the years before the plant’s 1979 closure. Much of the heavy machinery for this part of the business remains in place, making this a fascinating area to walk through—especially if you spot a metal panel denoting a piece of equipment that was made in San Francisco.
Built by the California Press Manufacturing Company, this contraption was designed for use in the wine industry. But rather than processing grapes for a tasty glass of wine or two, here it took ground-up, cooked herring and pressed it into a fishy ‘press liquor’ that was later refined into herring oil or other items. Aside from the liquid, the press also produced a useful solid: herring ‘press cake,’ a stiff mash that could be refined into fishmeal animal feed. The herring reduction operation was very successful at the Cannery and more presses were added over the years.
The press machine was a vital part of the herring reduction plant. | Photo: John Lee
CANNING LINE MODEL
While the Cannery opened as an attraction in 1994, there had been a Visitor Centre onsite here since 1987—and it had several museum-like displays for those curious about the Cannery’s rich history. One of the most popular exhibits was a large model of a canning line, a miniature industrial diorama that depicted tasks including salmon gutting, can-filling, and packaging operations. This meticulous model, built for a fisheries conference in 1958, is still on display at the Cannery.
Created by BC Packers, the model is a detailed representation of how fish-canning plants once worked. But it’s also a cool time capsule of a bygone era—complete with a couple of features that typically raise a chuckle. The women working the gutting tables in the model are all wearing spotless white tunics (their job was actually one of the messiest you could have, with plenty of blood flying around). They are also smiling beatifically, as if their jobs were the most pleasant way to pass the time!
No mess! Working the canning line back in the day, according to a vintage miniature model. | Photo: John Lee
If You Go:
The Gulf of Georgia National Historic Site is open daily from 10:00am to 5:00pm; but closes on statutory holidays from October - January. Admissions are valid for the full day.
Since the site is located right on the water, it's usually cooler inside the Cannery than it is outdoors—so it's best to dress in layers to stay warm.