The Curious Case of the La Merced
Updated: Mar 20, 2020
By Stephanie Lile, Curator of Curiosity
What happens when things we discover in seemingly random ways wind up being mysteriously connected? That's what we have here in the case of the La Merced. If you want to know more, you'll have to follow me all the way from Gig Harbor, Washington, to the wilds of Alaska. Buckle up. Our first stop is False Pass, not far from Juneau, Alaska.
Thanks to a bunch of great Alaska history keepers, I found this picture of the PE Harris Cannery online (Umiak.us). Now, get your detective googles on and look closely at the picture below. What do you see?
At first glance, you no doubt see some wooden cabins or sheds with white trimmed windows, a board walk running down the center of the image, and some people gathered near the big building at the back. What else do you see? Among the roof tops, you may have spotted all the cables that suggest the cannery had electricity and telegraph communications. But did you read the caption on the photo and spot the tall masts poking up behind the buildings at the center? Good eye! Those are the masts of the La Merced. But what was the La Merced, and why was it in this picture? I wondered that too.
I went to the website where this picture appeared and found another clue. The caption said, "PE Harris Cannery with Nick Bez's Schooner La Merced in the background."
"So, Nick Bez had a schooner?" I wondered. Nick Bez, I'd learned, was the cannery owner. He owned that cannery and many others in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. He'd come to America from Croatia while still in his teens, and later married a girl from a Gig Harbor fishing family in 1921. His is a longer story for another time, so let's get back to that schooner.
A schooner is a large sailing ship. La Merced, as you can see in the picture above, has four masts. She made me wonder if that was how Bez got back and forth from Seattle to Alaska. A fancy schooner for a wealthy man? Seemed possible. So, I looked up the La Merced, and boy, was I wrong.
Turns out that the La Merced is on the National Register of Historic Places. What? Where? Why? The questions ran through my mind like a school of salmon headed upstream. The National Register documents also said that, "As built in 1917, La Merced (The Mercy) is a wooden-hulled 4-masted schooner 232 feet in length...that lies on the shore of Fidalgo Island...within the city of Anacortes...beached and used as a breakwater."
What? It's here in Washington? I thought.
More digging revealed that the La Merced had been a huge floating cannery boat used for processing salmon. My visions of travel luxury were immediately dashed by the reality of fish guts and scales. But what a technological innovation for the time. Think about it, if you can't get the fish to a cannery on land, why not take the cannery to the fishing grounds? So that's what Nick Bez did in the 1930s through 1960s in addition to owning numerous canneries on land. The boat had been sold to "Seattle parties" in 1926 for retrofitting as a floating salmon cannery.
And now that I knew where to find it...I definitely had to go find it.
At first, I barely knew what I was looking at. With trees growing out of her hull and rocks edging either side, the beached La Merced looks like a mysterious island. But how did it go from cannery boat to breakwater? The story was deeper in the National Register listing.
"Following her sale in 1965 to the Railwater Terminal Company for salvage, the La Merced's propellers, engines, and deck fittings were removed and masts cut off near the level of the deck...her bowsprit was also cut off." The story continues to say that the mighty hulk was moved to Anacortes after 1966. She remains there to this day.
When launched in 1917 after being built in Benicia, California, the La Merced was owned by Standard Oil and used for transporting oil in boxes and barrels. She was converted into a floating cannery in the 1920s.
Yet even today, masked in native trees and peeling paint, the massive La Merced persists. Where once the voices of cannery workers and deck hands echoed from bow to stern, the schooner lays quiet, the gentle lap of Puget Sound defying her stories of long ago wild adventures along the Pacific Coast.
PE Harris & Company Cannery: Umiak.us (also at Anacortes Museum)
La Merced, National Register of Historic Places. https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/014c4092-2d6b-4e19-8878-d0e2d507f4e3
Photos of La Merced in 2020, by Stephanie Lile