When news of the murders first surfaced, amidst rumors that a crewman had run amok, Roy Tussing had little trouble imagining the circumstances. He knew what it was like to work in close quarters with nowhere to go for a moment’s privacy. When they were fishing, the boat was their world. Their only escape was a cramped bunk in the darkened bow of the boat, and that could turn the heartiest among them claustrophobic.
Even hitting port offered little relief. In villages like Craig, the movie theater ran one show a week. After they’d seen the movie, there was nothing to do but drink or go crazy or both. That was one of the reasons Roy Tussing hated Craig. But Tussing had hated it since before he’d been there. He’d heard the horror stories from other fishermen. Stories about guys getting beat up. Guys getting stabbed. Guys getting killed.
His first trip into Craig, he pleaded with Mark, “Let’s not go there.” When they finally landed, he got an instant ill feeling about the place. The days were okay, he eventually decided. But the nights were too wild. Too scary.
The last time up, they fished Cape Bartolome on opening day. Located in outside waters, with the islands of the Alexander Archipelago behind it, it was practically a straight shot to Prince of Wales Island. ”Well, we’re probably going to end up in Craig,” Mark announced when they finished the last set of the first opener.
“God, let’s go somewhere else,” Tussing suggested. “Let’s not go to Craig.” But Mark had to go there. That was it. And when they got there, nothing had changed in Craig to alter the opinion of Roy Tussing.
Yet the story of Craig was more than drunken fishermen and various forms of assault. Craig had more churches (five) than bars (two and a half). When the fishermen were gone, it was even bucolic. Local kids took fishing boats to basketball games, there being no other form of transportation between some of the villages. And no form of transport was more appropriate. Because the story of Craig was also the story of fish. Fish gave it sustenance. Fish gave it meaning.
The first cannery in southeast Alaska was established in 1878 in Klawock, seven miles north of Craig. By the turn of the century, Craig too had a cannery and the fish business was starting to boom. To honor the local cannery owner, the name of the village was changed from “Fish Egg,” after the local island, to “Craig Millar.” The present name was adopted in 1912, when the place got a post office.
The highlight of Craig’s cultural calendar was an annual play called the “Fish Pirate’s Daughters.” The play, popular throughout Southeast Alaska, was a call to Craig’s founding myths. Set in the 1930s, when the fish catch and cannery capacity peaked, the piece told the story of a time when salmon were caught in huge wooden traps. When full, the traps were loaded onto a boat and shipped to the canneries. Empty traps were left in their place, with a watchman staked out to guard the next haul of fish.
In the play, the fish pirates sneak up on the watchman and knock him unconscious. They rob him. Raid the salmon traps. Set fire to everything that will burn. And so it goes. When it comes to a showdown between the fish pirates and the watchman, the hapless watchman always loses. In Craig, this was a form of comedy.
Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale. That manuscript, started in 1992 and based on court records from the Alaska State Archive, served as the basis for “What Happened in Craig.”
Copyright Leland E. Hale (2019). All rights reserved.