by Paul R. Spitzzeri
He was an unlikely candidate to become the “Father of the Tuna Packing Industry,” but Albert Powers Halfhill (1847-1924) is credited with establishing canned tuna as a popular food staple through the Southern California Fish Company, which he established with some partners, and then owned his own namesake firm until his death.
Tonight’s featured photographs from the Homestead’s collection are an unusual trio of panoramic photographs showing the business, which was located on what was often called East San Pedro, better known to us as Terminal Island, prior to a fire that destroyed the plant in 1914, leading Halfhill and his sons to sell their interest in the business and form their own namesake business in nearby Long Beach.
Halfhill was born in 1847 in Morrow County, Ohio, north of Columbus, where his father was a carpenter. HIs start in business was as a clerk in a dry goods store at St. Mary’s, near the Indiana border and where he married Sarah Phillips in 1872, the couple having three sons, with two, Harry and Charles, living to adulthood. For several years, the family lived in Mankato, Minnesota, southwest of the Twin Cities, where Halfhill was a partner in a wholesale grocery business.
Due to Sarah’s poor health, as was the case for so many “health seekers,” the Halfhills relocated to Los Angeles in 1892 and they long lived in a fashionable neighborhood just north of Westlake (now MacArthur) Park. While the area’s massive growth during the Boom of the Eighties waned and a national depression was just around the corner, Halfhill and a partner, merchant Robert Wade, neither of whom had any experience with the fishing or canning industries, decided to purchase the machinery of a San Francisco sardine canning company and open a new firm at San Pedro.
Joseph H. Lapham, an Ohio capitalist, likely known to Halfhill, was enticed to invest in the enterprise when he visited Los Angeles and his funding became essential to the establishment of the California Fish Company, which was incorporated in February 1893. Lapham assumed the role of president, while Halfhill was primarily responsible for drumming up business for the enterprise, which focused solely on canning sardines.
Meanwhile, Lapham and Halfhill were involved in another “monumental” project, the formation, in late 1892, of the Declez Granite Company, whose namesake was William Declez, a tombstone maker one of whose products is a partial grave marker in the Homestead’s El Campo Santo Cemetery. The firm operated a quarry at Declezville, on the north slope of the Jurupa Hills east of Ontario and south of what became Fontana in San Bernardino County.
In June 1893, an early brief mention of the California Fish Company appeared in the Los Angeles Herald, which reported that “it has established a cannery and fish curing establishment on the Terminal wharf on the island, and will handle and preserve a large amount of fish that has heretofore been practically lost for the lack of just such an institution.” There was, indeed, a huge untapped supply of seafood off the coast of greater Los Angeles for firms like the company to exploit.
The company had a single motor sloop, the Alpha to play the waters and catch the sardines for the business. In January 1894, the Los Angeles Times ran a lengthier feature, in which it was stated that, while the company was new, “sufficient advantages have now been demonstrated to exist to show that the Southern Pacific Coast has the elements for creating a profitable industry in the line of fisheries and fish packing.”
Notably, the Times pointed out that there was a predecessor to the firm, as Halfhill and New York native, W.S. Spencer, launched a smaller enterprise based on Spencer’s investigation of the possibilities in the area and began by salting mackerel. There was an original 1500 square-foot building on the site for this purpose and about 2,000 barrels of salted fish were produced in that first year.
The paper noted that the California Fish Company was then brought into being “for the purpose of extending the packing business to include other fish and embrace a much greater variety of output.” With the the work needed to achieve this goal, “active operations” were brought into fruition “only a couple of months ago.” The new two-story addition was 7,500 square feet and its machinery was operated through steam power, the plant comprising a tenth of the $250,000 capitalization of the company. It also made its own cans, in addition to having its own boats and gear.
Further, it was averred that east coast sardines could not compare with the local variety, which were more like the Mediterranean type “and being packed in pure imported olive oil, equal the very best foreign sardines with which they are put in competition.” In addition to salted mackerel, CFC had canned mackerel in tomato sauce and also with spices, as well as offering canned lobster, with a total of ten tons of canning capacity daily and up to sixty men employed at peak season. The firm also bought fish, when needed.
Some details as to process were provided, including the removing of the head and entrails at cleaning tables; drying on screened trays in the open air during good weather and steam drying otherwise; frying in oil; then canning with airtight soldering; and cooking to test the packing quality. The manufacturing of cans was done with the latest machinery and division of labor so that an individual item was completed in seconds.
With this all said, the Times concluded by observing, “the opportunity for extending the business, too, is without boundaries, for the permanent keeping qualities of the output remove the ordinary limitations surrounding food products.” The advances in canning, as well as refrigeration for other types of products, such as oranges, was revolutionizing the preparation and distribution of food. It was noted, as well, that the CFC was not only a local concern with domestic products, but it was “employing resident white labor.” Terminal Island, however, would later have a large Japanese population and this would involve both a remarkable ethnic and cultural transformation to that location.
Problems could definitely arise, as noted in a Times article of October 1903, which reported that “the scarcity of the little sardine bears an especial importance in local circles, owing to the development of the sardine industry in these waters.” The CFC’s Alpha was out twice a week “in search of the elusive game” but production dropped dramatically from 15,000 cases to not even a carload, of 2,000 cases.
Halfhill was quoted as saying, “we are now in our ninth year and we have never known as poor a year for sardines. It is an off year all over the world,” but he added “there should be no danger to the permanency” of the industry and he noted “we have had better luck with mackerel, but they are also scarce.” In addition, there were lobsters and he mentioned that “we are packing what we call the tenderloin of deep-sea fish,” continuing that, “we expect to create a big business with this pack alone. Barracuda is used principally. The bones are extracted and the meat is put up wth vegetables in a one-pound can.”
In September 1905, the Herald published a concise, but information-packed (!), description of the CFC, saying “from its celebrated canneries . . . the company operates a large packing house at East San Pedro for its special process canning of sardines and mackerel.” The former were then being packed in California, not imported, olive oil (perhaps from the growing olive orchards of Sylmar), while the latter, under the “Sunset Brand,” were broiled and packed “in pure spices, tomato and mustard.
The mackerel were hailed for their “delicious flavor” while the sardines “are delicious in flavor and quality, honestly put up after the latest improved French methods” and the company “offers one of the best possible opportunities for all American epicures to patronize home industry and be sure of getting a superior and genuine article.”
While there was a sardine shortage in 1903, eight year later there was a banner haul, as observed by the 4 January 1911 edition of the San Pedro Pilot, which reported “the fishing sloop Alpha made a record catch of sardines for the California Fish Company yesterday bringing in over fifty tons taken off Redondo Beach.” Just two weeks prior, there was a limited stock,” but the windfall came as the season was winding down.
The article added that the firm had warehouses in Boston, Chicago, New York and St. Louis and Halfhill told the paper that low supplies from France, Norway and Portugal meant more demand on the east coast for the CFC’s product and it was averred that even in the famed fishing area of Gloucester, Massachusetts, the company did well. The Pilot then noted,
The cannery a few weeks ago closed a very successful season packing tuna for the eastern trade. Tuna packed in oil has become very popular for salads and many restaurants in the east serve it as chicken salad. The species packed is the white tuna known in the local markets as albacore and not the red tuna caught for sport.
Now we know why albacore tuna became known widely as “Chicken of the Sea”!
In June 1912, the Pilot described the firm, rechristened as the Southern California Fish Company, as running “the largest fish canning plant in California and its products are celebrated.” Its access to both water and rail and having “the most sanitary apparatus and labor-saving machinery of the most modern design” were also highlighted.
The SCFC, managed by Halfhill since Wade’s recent death, was also lauded as the “packers of the celebrated Blue Sea Brand of Tuna, one of the finest fish ever tasted,” as well as the Sunset brand of sardines, which were “packed in tomato sauce, mustard mayonnaise, vinegar and spices known as ‘soused.'” From its sole sloop, the Alpha, the firm had seven ships in its fleet and its expansive operations were such that the company “bears a most important relation to the industrial activities of this locality and contributes largely to our general business thrift and well-being.”
By summer 1914, the preeminence of tuna was such that the Times of 26 July blared that “New Sea Food Given World” as “Once Eschewed Game Fish is Coveted Delicacy.” The paper began its lauding of Halfhill and his company by observing
Six years ago the idea of eating albicore [sic] or tuna, which were caught merely for the sport of catching them, would have been ridiculed by the majority of persons right here in Southern California, where the industry of canning the fish has grown to immense proportions and where it has been bringing added fame for the introduction of an exclusive new food product.
The paper referred to tuna as “the chicken fish, as it might well be called on account of the whiteness and delicious flavor of its meat” and noted that the albacore was only found in this area of the Pacific coast. Demand was not just increasingly exponentially locally and in the rest of the country, but “even Europe is beginning to demand it” as “it is a new sensation for the jaded palate” while “it comes as a distinct revelation as to the daintiness of fish food.”
It was added that Halfhill and Wade focused on sardines for the first fourteen years of their enterprise, but “in 1906 they came to the conclusion that it would be absolutely essential to add other lines of the fish-packing industry to their small business if they ever expected to progress in their endeavors.” Halfhill told the Times “we tried yellowtail, rock cod, barracuda, halibut and a few other varieties, but it was impossible to do anything worth while with any of these fish.”
The next year, he went on, that “we tried albicore [sic] and, to our surprise, discovered that this fish had wonderful food qualities.” The company tried cutting the meat into large pieces and then salting and smoking it, to no avail, but “then we cut the bellies into sizes that would fit the cans exactly as they do with salmon, but that also proved a failure.” In 1908, “we hit upon our present system of handling the fish” and 200 cases were shipped out.
Yet, while the firm tripled that output the following year, “none of the grocers in Los Angeles were willing to take the risk of handling them, so they were shipped to New York,” where the product was a sensation. In 1910, the firm packed 6,000 cases “and [we] started on an extensive advertising campaign.”
Two years later, there was not only the revamped Southern California Fish Company, but three other companies packing tuna and, at the time of the publication of the article, that number nearly quadrupled. He reported there were 115,000 cases packed the previous year and the output for 1914 was expected to exceed 200,000. Halfhill predicted that what existed was “the foundation of what promises to be an industry nearly as vast as that of salmon packing” in northern California and the Pacific Northwest.
He continued that “our supply is apparently unlimited. No one knows where the fish come from or where they go. The arrive about the middle of April and leave in September. Their habitat during the remainder of the year is a mystery . . . hotels and restaurants have added greatly to the demand for tuna. They have popularized it in salads, chowder, entrees and various other ways.” Touting government studies about the fish’s nutritional value, Halfhill claimed
the day is coming when Los Angeles tuna will be known in every civilized country of the world. It has not as yet arrived at the place where it can rank with the orange production in the creation of millions, but it is on its way.
Just three months later, a late-night fire, aided by strong winds, started in a nearby warehouse and, in addition sending East San Pedro residents fleeing on boats and looters into action, consumed the SCFC plant, which like others was made of wood, in short order and the loss was in the tens of thousands of dollars.
By the end of the year, Halfhill and his sons sold their majority interest in the company and, with his sons Charles, who was a successful realtor, and Harry, formed, mid-January 1915, the Halfhill Tuna Packing Company, which was capitalized at $100,000 and which acquired a 22,500-square foot parcel at the third channel of nearby Long Beach Harbor for $8,750. A contract was quickly let for construction of the plant, built of wood frame and corrugated iron and which was to be the third to build at the port with a fourth said to be in negotiations.
The Long Beach Telegram reported that “the company will confine itself exclusively to handling tuna, a new brand —the name as yet kept secret—to be put on the market.” The firm was to hire, on a contract basis, a fleet of twenty boats and was to remain independent of the newly launched Tuna Canners’ Exchange (such organizations were widely popular in fruit, nut and other food-production industries.)
Halfhill was given a notable title by the paper, being called “the Nestor of the fish-canning industry,” Nestor being a sage monarch from the Illiad. Not only was he accounted the first to pack fish in the harbor area, but “he has been packing tuna for nearly nine years,” though only in a major way for the prior six.
His son Charles, the new firm’s secretary, repeated his father’s prior assertions that “the supply of tuna is inexhaustible” even though “the amount of fish taken from the ocean in the last six years has been enormous,” because the past season was more than ever and there was no problem in taking whatver could be had. He added that the federal government was studying the fish to regulate the industry and prevent depleting the stock, if that issue should arise, and that the company “is making an exhaustive study of the tuna and its habits of life.”
By late 1915, the Halfhill company acquired its own fleet of eight fishing craft and a tender, with fisherman given a percentage of the haul as payment, it being reported by the Telegram that the previous contract plan, by which packers did not own or control boats, was being dispensed with. Albert Halfhill told the paper that the supply of fish was plentiful and that the company, which packed 30,000 cases during that first year and expected to have double that capacity for the next year, was going to send its boats out some 200-250 miles from shore to procure its haul. The plan was for the larger boats to stay out at sea, while the tender took fish back to the plant every two or three days.
In 1920, the Halfhills faced another tragedy when their Long Beach plant was burned down, though this time they rebuilt with concrete and tile. In an ad two years later, the company stated that Albert experimented with tuna during that 1903 sardine shortage, though, as noted above, he previously went into detail about how that transformation took place later than that.
In any case, the company launched a new tuna product, “Halfhill’s Spring Chicken,” which was “made with a secret French recipe” with rights in the United States exclusively under the firm’s control. It was claimed that “the new delicacy has sprung into popular favor with amazing rapidity.”
In February 1922, Albert, who stepped away from active management, while retaining the presidency of the firm, was the subject of a Long Beach Press article, “Searching Seas for New Foods” and the subheading of “How Long Beach Man Discovered ‘Chicken of the Sea.'” The piece reiterated the experiment with packing tuna began in 1903 and led, almost two decades later, to a $20 million industry with some 1 million cases packed.
It was added that his use of steam cooking was key to the success of his endeavor and he took the first cases directly to a wholesale grocer he knew in New York and it was well received. Elsewhere, it has been stated that, when Halfhill broke into the local market with tuna, among his best customers were Harris Newmark, the Jewish merchant who first set up shop in the pueblo of Los Angeles in 1853 and whose memoir Sixty Years in Southern California went through several editions, and Norwegian grocer Hans Jevne.
In May 1924, Albert Halfhill died at his Los Angeles home at age 76 and was interred in a mausoleum at Inglewood Park Cemetery. He is still remembered as the father of the tuna canning industry and the photos here include one from a jetty looking back toward the plant and the adjacent dock, while the others are of the the extensive plant, with the image curved so that the railroad tracks in front are distended. Moreover, one of these images has a fake sign superimposed on top of the structure!