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Wednesday, July 26, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Erling Nilson, 81, made smoked fish popular delicacy

Seattle Times staff reporter

Erling Nilson wasn't particular about a funeral service. So his family is planning a gathering to celebrate his 80-year life at a restaurant in Ballard, where he was well-known.

Mr. Nilson, who helped establish Port Chatham Packing in Ballard and Alaska, died here last Wednesday (July 19) after a battle with cancer. He died nine days before his 81st birthday.

During his career, he and his family made Portlock smoked salmon a popular item in specialty shops and by mail order. And the family's Ballard cannery and smoke house off Leary Way Northwest developed into a local tourist attraction.

Mr. Nilson was born in Wild Horse, Colo., the youngest of five children. In 1925, he traveled with his family to Alaska, where his father invested in a seafood enterprise. The Nilson family made its home in the small village of Portlock on the Kenai Peninsula.

Mr. Nilson's first nine years of schooling were in a one-room schoolhouse in Portlock. He returned to Seattle in 1935 to attend high school. He graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1937, returned to Alaska as a commercial fisherman, then was drafted into the Army during World War II, said his wife, Myrna.

Mr. Nilson spent his career in the seafood industry in Alaska and Seattle, first as a fisherman and then as a principal in the company established by his father and named for Port Chatham Bay outside Portlock. The family business expanded to Seattle's Ballard area in 1950.

"It started out as a small company and grew by word-of-mouth because of the quality of the smoked salmon and the care and the love the family put into the business," Mr. Nilson's wife said. "People used to drive up from Portland just to buy smoked salmon there."

Mr. Nilson skippered Port Chatham Packing's 89-foot cannery tender, Chatham, for many years on Cook Inlet before he and his older brother, Norman, began producing Portlock smoked salmon in Ballard. They sold the business in the 1980s, but Mr. Nilson continued as a consultant until his retirement last year.

"Work was his first love and his hobby, then it was golf," his wife said.

He served for many years as a member of the Ballard Hospital Foundation and worked on its golf-tournament committee. He was an active member of John Rex Thompson Lodge No. 220, Order of Eastern Star, and was a member of Green Lake Lodge No. 149 of the Masons, Scottish Rite Bodies, Nile Temple of the Shrine, Eagles' Ballard Aerie No. 172 and a 57-year member of the Elks' Ballard Lodge No. 827.

Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Chris Winter of Danville, Calif.; a son, Gilbert of Seattle; and five grandchildren. Also surviving are sisters Evelyn Larson and Vivian Miller, both of Seattle, and Vera Seather of Camano Island; stepchildren Laurie McCoy, Brady McCoy, Kevin McCoy and Scott McCoy, all of Seattle; and 10 step-grandchildren.

The celebration of his life will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Yankee Grill, 5300 24th Ave. N.W. The family invites his friends to join them in their remembrance.

Remembrances may be made to Swedish Home Health & Hospice, 5701 Sixth Ave. S., Suite 504, Seattle, WA 98108, or the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, 1100 Fairview Ave. N., Seattle, WA 98109.

Charles E. Brown's phone message number is 206-464-2206. His e-mail address is cbrown@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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