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A Brief Cannery Row Historical Overview
by Michael K. Hemp


Monterey'‚ first major canning operation had begun next to „Fisherman's Wharfš when F.E. Booth‚s sardine canning experiment was matched with the skill of Sicilian fishermen and „lamparaš fishing techniques. Booth‚s early development of sardine packing depended on innovative and inventive personnel, many of whom went on to own or operate other canneries -- all of which were forced to locate away from the harbor, along a rocky stretch of coastline out toward the Chinatown near Pacific Grove.

The rutty, unpaved coastal road from Monterey to Pacific Grove grew to host the sardine factories that for half a century would dominate Monterey history and commerce. In 1902, Otosaburo Noda, an early Japanese commercial venturist with ties to the Japanese abalone cannery at Point Lobos, founded the first canning operation on Ocean View Avenue. In 1958 the street was renamed „Cannery Row,š in honor of a writer who few regarded seriously when he had frequented it: John Steinbeck.

The intervening years are an epic tale of the lives, labor and fortunes at stake on Ocean View Avenue in the plunder of a seemingly inexhaustible natural resource -- sardines!

Two World Wars, Prohibition and The Great Depression imprinted their marks on this famous street and its „Alumni.š Fate's greatest imprint was cast with the disappearance of the sardines in the late 1940‚s. Depletion of the fishery, currents, and pollution in the marine food chain have all been blamed for the demise of this once major industry and the street that supported it.

Pioneering marine biologist, Ed Ricketts (Steinbeck‚s „Docš in „Cannery Rowš) once stated „They're all in cansš as an admitted over-simplification. Of course, he and other authorities on the fishery knew only too well the other answer, with roots even deeper in the canning process: two thirds of Monterey's sardines never made it into cans at all. They left town on the Southern Pacific rails as 100 lb. sacks of fishmeal and as sardine oil. The reduction process which turned the silver tide into sardine by-products was far more profitable than canning for consumption, which required a much larger labor force and sold in far less profitable markets.

By the end of the forties, decades of warnings and urgent appeals for study and conservation had been ignored, ridiculed and discredited. Wartime patriotic fervor had done little to encourage either conservation or attention to what scientists like Ed Ricketts knew only too well: Cannery Row was about to commit suicide.

The sardines virtually vanished in the early fifties. The last sardine catch was packed in 1964, with the last operating cannery, the Hovden Food Products Corp. -- now the Monterey Bay Aquarium -- closing its doors in 1973, canning squid.


The street made world-famous by John Steinbeck‚s 1945 fictional best seller, „Cannery Rowš, was originally a wagon-rutted coastal dirt road which led from Monterey to a Chinese settlement at „China Pointš [Pt. Alones], established in the early 1850s. It was this Chinese settlement, populated largely by entire fishing families arriving directly from China by junk, that began the fishing industry for which Monterey would become famous a century later.

In the late 1800s, Portuguese shore-whaling and salmon fishing were conducted off the rocky shoreline and small beaches below the road. The construction of the railroad to Monterey, and to its lavish Hotel Del Monte, brought vacationers and fashionable tourism to the former [and still sleepy] Spanish-Mexican capital of Alta California. The railroad also brought immigration to the Monterey Bay region. Among these immigrants which were the [Genovese] Italian fisherman that would help pressure, challenge and eventually drive the Chinese from fishing primacy on the bay.

At the turn of the century, salmon was the fishing industry‚s mainstay; the bountiful Monterey sardine, however, was simply too plentiful to ignore. So, the early salmon buyers at Monterey became salmon canners--principally Frank Booth, who, in 1902, built Monterey‚s first real cannery adjacent to the fisherman‚s wharf in the harbor.

Fishing technology at Monterey at the time was archaic and inefficient; the canning process was equally crude. The unsightliness, smell and processing waste from Booth's harbor cannery dictated that all future canneries would have to locate out „Ocean View Avenueš--the coastal road toward China Point.

Sicilians and their „lamparaš net fishing techniques, coupled with the inventive genius of a Norwegian immigrant with fishing industry experience, Knut Hovden, began a decade of improvement in the technology of both fishing and canning that positioned Monterey'‚ burgeoning sardine industry for rapid and enormous expansion due to war-time food and ration demands by created by World War I. A major recession after the war recovered gradually into the „Roaring Twentiesš and the stink of sardine processing--especially the grinding and baking of even edible sardines into fishmeal--became the controversial smell of prosperity.

Monterey‚s fishing and canning industries limped through the Great Depression. Food, at least, in the sardine business was not in critical supply. But the deprivations and hardships of the 1930‚s set the stage on a street lined with sardine factories for one of the best read stories ever to emerge from American literature: John Steinbeck‚s „Cannery Row.š In the intellectual company of pioneering marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts and his friends on old Ocean View Avenue in the early 1930‚s, John Steinbeck lived first-hand the scenes and locations of his charming (if only slightly fictional) accounts of life and times on Cannery Row by one of the most colorful cast of characters in American literature.

The canning boom driven by World War II saw Monterey become „The Sardine Capital of the World,š processing nearly a quarter million tons of sardines a season in its peak wartime years--to less than 1,000 tons per season in the mid 1950‚s. The Sardines had disappeared! Economic devastation settled in on Monterey‚s fishing and canning industries, ending it forever as Monterey‚s major economic engine. Years of decline, disintegration, fire and collapse set in on a street that had no other immediate usefulness to a fish canning industry without fish.

But the curious came. To see „Cannery Rowš and experience its funky, ghostlike revival as a tourist attraction--due largely to the magic of the fame Steinbeck's fiction bestowed upon it. Today Cannery Row enjoys a commercial, historical and literary Renaissance as the major tourism destination in Monterey. An eclectic array of fine restaurants, hotels, activities and shopping of every kind abound to serve the millions of visitors to Cannery Row each year on the once dusty coastal road. The street was officially renamed Cannery Row in 1958, in honor of its Steinbeck fame--and its future is inseparable from its literary and historical heritage.

Michael K. Hemp, Cannery Row Historian

Cannery Row „Factoidsš

1. The Monterey Sardine was 11-14 inches long (smelt or mackerel size), as opposed to the finger-sized sardines many are accustomed to. Also referred to as „pilchardsš to distinguish their larger size.

2. Sardines were caught primarily at night, when the turbulence of their acre sized schools--which caused the ocean surface to literally phosphoresce--could be located by the over 100 „purse seinersš (fishing boats named for the huge purse-like nets they deployed, typically 1/4 mile long and extending down ten stories/200 feet) working from Monterey's harbor each season, each capable of delivering 50-100 tons per boat per night from August to February each season.

3. It is estimated that of the approximately one billion sardines caught each season in Monterey Bay, during its rise to world prominence as the „Sardine Capital of the World,š that nearly two thirds never made into cans at all--but were ground, squeezed for oil, and baked into fish meal and fertilizer. This by-product process was called „reduction,š whose odor lent the saying of those days: „Carmel by the sea, Pacific Grove by God, and Monterey by the smell.š It was also, however, known as „the smell of prosperity.š The reduction process was far more profitable than canning and it was the dependence on this major sector of the Monterey fishing and canning industry that supported it through periodic recessions and the Great Depression--but ultimately figured heavily in the demise of the sardine stock.

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