Guagua was one of the more prosperous towns of Pampanga, noted for being a market hub, with businesses livened by the arrival of Chinese traders and merchants during pre-Hispanic times. The Chinese stayed, and further helped build Guagua’s reputation as an eminent commercial center of the province, until the rise of Angeles in the 1940s.
Guagua, after all, was strategically located, with major waterways running through the interior of the town. Serving as a gateway to progress was the Pasak-Guagua River, which was connected to the great Pampanga River. This river was traversed by cargo ships, bringing important goods to be sold, transported, swapped or traded for other commodities. A significant tributary of Pasak-Guagua River is Dalan Bapor (Ships’ Way) which would play a significant role in the industrialization of Guagua and the province of Pampanga.
At the time of the Philippine Commonwealth, a primary institution for the industrialization of the country was established. This was the National Development Company, which gained much legal powers and financial muscle from the government as it sought to advance the economy of the Philippines. Already, it had started to develop the local textile industry, and, in 1938, helped set up a tin canning factory in Manila, which manufactured packaging tin from imported materials.
Through its subsidiary—the National Food Products Corporation—NDC established a canning plant in Guagua, Pampanga in 1939. The plant was located on a tract of land (now LM Subdivision) beside the Guagua National College in Barangay Sta. Filomena and was accessible via Dalan Bapor. The cannery had a capacity of 5.4 million cans and for the next years, it did good business, canning everything from bangus (milkfish) to vegetables and fruits. (Canning seemed to have been a lucrative business as NDC opened another cannery in Capiz in 1941).
Guagua thus became the scene of brisk economic activity as ships docked to transport tons of canned goods from the town to all points of the country. Old residents remember those boom years with fondness as “huge ships” made their appearance in the town, ferrying out canned fish and other ‘conservas’ for national and international distribution. The Guagua Cannery became an attraction site of the town, frequently visited by excursionistas and home economic students from schools near and far.
The coming of World War II signalled the beginning of the end for the Guagua Cannery. The plant was bombed by Japanese planes and by the time it reopened after the war, many things have changed. For one, the Manila-Dagupan Railroad became an even more efficient mode of transporting people and goods. As more roads were constructed, waterways became obsolete, and soon, the ships stopped sailing along Dalan Bapor, to be replaced by barges carrying fertilizer, honey, mining produce and sugar. Some recall the plant was sold to the Pampanga Sugar Development Company (PASUDECO) which turned it into a warehouse. Troubled by management and labor disputes, it closed down permanently in the 1960s.
Dalan Bapor started to become impassable and useless too, due to siltation. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo completed the river’s devastation. Today, in the middle of the once wide and flowing river, from across where the Guagua Cannery formerly stood, is a sliver of an island called Duck Island, so named because, from their planes, American pilots described it as duck-shaped. But island residents believe it refers to when ships used Guagua as a “dock” to load and unload their precious canned cargo, back in those days when the town’s bustling growth and prosperity knew no boundaries.