Flinders University archaeologists investigate historic cannery at American River

Archeologists from Flinders University spent last week investigating the historically significant fish cannery at American River on Kangaroo Island.

Their aim is to better understand of one of the earliest fish canneries in South Australia that operated for only two years from 1887 to 1889.

This knowledge can then be used to add to interpretive signage and improve visitor experience.

Leading the team of 14 masters students and Flinders staff was Associate Professor Wendy van Duivenvoorde of the university's Maritime Archaeology program.

"We are investigating how much of an archaeological footprint the cannery business left in the two years it operated here from 1887 to 1889 and attempt to identify the function of the remaining buildings and identify the location of the kiln," she said.

"We hope this will deepen our understanding of the colonial history of American River and regional maritime activity, in particular the fishing industry in the early 19th century, and aid the American River Progress Association and local community with the development of better signage on and information about the site."

The same team last year spent time investigating a mystery log at the Rebuild Independence Group shed linked to American sealers.

They then returned in February to do an underwater investigation of the adjacent wharf area.

Prof. van Duivenvoorde said the archeologists last week investigated the cannery site, located about 2km north of the town of American River.

The site spans a 100-metre-by-100-metre area and has ruins of the buildings that once serviced the cannery.

The ruins of the buildings consist of partial standing stone dry walls between the beach and hillside, covered by sparse, low, coastal vegetation.

In 2006, Flinders University Maritime Archaeology Program staff and students undertook an archaeological survey to assess the fish cannery remains and attempt to study the maritime landscape of the American River area.

Finds included pieces of lead sheathing and a lodging knee, most likely from a wooden ship.

This lead presumably remained from the fish canning works, and no other finds were reported.

Based on historical documentation, it is known that a small group of Chinese fish-curers processed fish in American River and Kingscote from the 1860s.

Their stake and participation into South Australia's early fishing industry has been largely overlooked and historic sources on their activities is patchy, Prof. van Duivenvoorde said.

In 1887, Charles Shand, a Scottish-born brewer and "hereditary fish preserver", commenced the fish cannery in 1887 and his newly revived Kingscote Fish Preserving Company Limited Adelaide office was registered in March 1888.

The fish cannery had at least three main stonework-buildings, a well and a kiln, well, and a stone mooring jetty.

Some 30 to 40 men were every so often employed at one time at the cannery over the two years that it operated, some possibly coming from the salt works at Flour Cask Bay.

Prof. van Duivenvoorde said the cannery would have sourced all locally caught species from salmon to mullet to whiting and snapper.

Part of the problem was there was too much fish to process, when the men could only produce a handful of cans a day, she said.

American River Progress Association president Richard Cotterill paid tribute to the archeologist but also local Jane Renwick, who lives adjacent to the site.

He said Jane Renwick has developed fantastic information sheets about the cannery site that visitors pick up at its entrance.

The archaeologists confirmed these laminated sheets were popular with the visitors that came through during their dig.

Mr Cotterill said the association was looking at better promoting the cannery site as a tourism site.

Both the town's strategic plan and the council's town centre planning process had identified the potential of he cannery site, he said.

Any additional interpretative and way-finding signage could be costly, so the association would likely source grant funding, he said.

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