Cordova Chronicles: Tender fleet awaits next opener

Commentary By Dick Shellhorn For The Cordova Times

Much of the Prince William Sound tender fleet laid on anchor beside major processors Trident, Ocean Beauty, and Copper River Seafoods last week, awaiting the next big Prince William Sound opener.

Many of the same vessels work the winter crab fisheries in the Bering Sea, include Sig Hansen’s Northwestern, of the popular TV series “The Deadliest Cast” fame. Ironically, the pause meant crews, as well many idle cannery workers, would have a chance to join locals and visitors for some lively “Salmon Jammin” during the popular Festival held at the base of the Ski Hill this past weekend.

Thanks to the massive production by hatcheries in Valdez and Prince William Sound, the number of pink salmon available has skyrocketed to astounding proportions, including over 100 million fish last year. Credit the growth of local processing facilities as well as vast improvements in quality and marketing for the ability to handle all these fish.

It wasn’t always so. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, wild stocks used to fluctuate wildly. Harvests of 2 million to 3 million weren’t uncommon. I seined with Olaf Gildnes back in the late ’60s. One year, we put in 100,000 fish, which merited an upside broom in the rigging and ranked us among the top boats for the season.

Now catches of a million pounds or more are routine, with bigger and more efficient boats handling fish quicker and better. The days of pitching fish off by hand are over; and frozen, rather than canned fish, are the product of choice.

This year’s brief delay caused me to think back to “the good old days.” The major Main Street Fire of 1963 wiped out many businesses, including the Cordova Commercial, a going concern handing clothing, hardware and furniture, as well as apartments on the third floor of a large building on today’s location of the PWSACC offices.

At the time, my father Don Shellhorn was partners with Freddie Lantz and Edith Date. The latter two did not want to rebuild after the fire, so Dad and Mom struck out on their own, forming Shellhorn’s Clothing. In the span of 10 years, they relocated three times: immediately after the fire in a small space along side today’s Wells Fargo; then in half of the main level of today’s First National Bank of Anchorage; and finally in the building now occupied by the Legislative Information Offices.

Despite all the moves and challenges involved in starting over, my folks always maintained a cheerful outlook. Shellhorn’s was famous for its fall inventory sales, and when Dad cut prices, he meant it. Most items were marked down at least 50 percent.

Shellhorn’s Slogan was “Quality and Service to Blow About”, and the business was noted for it’s clever Shellhorn’s Sports Cartoon Calendars. Their unique ads in the Cordova Times were also a big hit.

One year, the humpy season was a disaster. No problem. Shellhorn’s Clothing ran this ad: “No Pinks, Business Stinks. All fishing apparel 50 per cent off.” I don’t know how much merchandise they sold, but a lot of potential customers came by for a laugh.

Dad came here after graduating from Seward High in the early ’30s. He worked for Cap Lathrop and eventually partnered to buy out the legendary entrepreneur’s Cordova operations. The railroad was still operating when Dad arrived. He witnessed its closing in 1938 and the shift to a fisheries-based economy. Mom came north in the late ’30s from a dairy farm in Snohomish, Washington to work as a nannie for her brother, high line fisherman Jim Young, and his wife.

The story goes they met when Dad sold her a pair of shoes for waitressing in a popular local cafe. Dad’s courtship included a lot of sourdoughs.

They lived and loved their lives here. They would be astonished at the growth in the processing industry here, and well as the fleet of gill net and seine boats. And likely have run another clever ad in this week’s paper enticing shoppers to drop by Shellhorn’s during this unusual lull in the seine season.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.