Cannery Row Historical Profile
A Brief History of Old Ocean View Avenue
by Michael K. Hemp, Cannery Row Historian
The street made world-famous by John Steinbeck's 1945 fictional best seller, “Cannery Row”, was originally a wagon-rutted coastal dirt road which led from Monterey to a Chinese settlement at “China Point” [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 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 Avenue”--the coastal road toward China Point.
Sicilians and their “lampara” 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's 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 Twenties” 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.” 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,” 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 MontereyÌs 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 Row” 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--a street who's future is inseparable from its literary and historical heritage.
A few Cannery Row “Factoids”
1. The Monterey Sardine was 11-14 inches long (smelt or mackerel size), as opposed to the finger-sized Atlantic sardines many are accustomed to. Also referred to as “pilchards.”
2. Sardines were caught primarily at night, when the turbulence of their acre sized schools--which caused the ocean surface to literally fluoresce--could be located by the over 100 “purse seiners” (fishing boats named for the huge purse 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” nearly two thirds never made into cans at all--but were ground, squeezed and baked into fertilizer, fish meal and oil by-products. The process was called “reduction,” whose odor lent the saying of those days: “Carmel by the sea, Pacific Grove by God, and Monterey by the smell.” It was also, however, known as “the smell of prosperity.” 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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