Getting the most out of a visit to Cannery Row is helped by an appreciation of what went on before its popularity as a tourist destination obscured the history - human and otherwise - that underlies what you see today. Much has been written of its past - though most remains challenging to find in evidence on the street now.
Cannery Row's origins are actually a mixture of the rocky Monterey coastline and the toil and industry of the Orient. Chinese fishing families arrived by junk on the rocky shoreline south of Monterey in the early 1950s and established a settlement at "China Point." These families began the famed Monterey fishing industry.
Arrival of the Southern Pacific in 1879 opened the scenic Monterey Peninsula to tourism with the construction of the lavish Hotel Del Monte (now the Naval Postgraduate School). Thousands of acres of the Peninsula were acquired, with water for the lavish hotel piped from upper Carmel Valley.
The railroad provided the Chinese a means of shipping their catch as far as San Francisco's Chinatown, but their success would soon be challenged by other arriving nationalities with fishing skills of their own.
At the turn of the 20th Century, a fleet of small, mostly Japanese-owned sailboats could catch 7,000 salmon by hook and line in a single day on Monterey Bay. The nearest canneries, however, were at San Francisco and Black Diamond (now Pittsburg) on the Sacramento River. Cost and spoilage of shipping fresh salmon by rail was prohibitive. Frank Booth, salmon buyer and Bay Area canner, built Monterey's first major cannery in the harbor and expanded to include packing the abundant and nearly year-round supply of sardines. His problem was a dearth of skilled fishermen and a dependable supply of an 11-inch sardine - not the finger sized variety from Norway that dominated the market. Sicilian fishermen from Back Diamond solved the problem with the Mediterranean lampara net, which could encircle the catch and be drawn together to trap fish in its huge "bag" at the middle.
In 1905, Norwegian Knut Hovden began modernizing and mechanizing Booth's cannery. His many inventions sped the unloading of boats and also automated critical parts of the canning process. Until shortly before World War I, sardines were cooked in boiling oil: French-fried! Introduction of Hovden's mechanical can sealer allowed sardines to be cooked in their cans in large, horizontal pressure cookers called "retorts." The Monterey sardine industry began an expansion halted only by the disappearance of the sardines shortly after WWII.
The processing of fish scraps, waste - and edible fish - became a highly profitable "reduction" enterprise. Except during wartime when canning was a maximum priority, four or five men in the reduction plant in every cannery could grind, centrifuge and bake sardines into fishmeal in huge rotary kilns at a far greater profit than operating an entire sardine cannery facing subsidized international competition.
Cannery Row's big secret is that it became a fishmeal and fertilizer industry that was required economically in order to can minimal amounts of edible sardines. As unbelievable as it may sound, approximately two thirds of the sardines processed through Monterey's canneries never saw a can at all. They were converted into fishmeal, fertilizer and sardine oil in a process that produced the horrific "stink" for which Monterey became famous.
Renowned novelist John Steinbeck spent from 1930 to 1935 in close contact with marine biologist Ed Ricketts. His exposure to old Ocean View Avenue provided the people and places used in his world-famous 1945 novel, "Cannery Row." Eschewing the history of old Ocean View, Steinbeck seized on the "truer than fiction" characters and material Cannery Row provided him.
Huge catches during World War II made Monterey the "Sardine Capital of the World," replacing Stavanger, Norway. However, catches plunged sharply after the war, and by the early 1950s an industry accustomed to over 200,000 tons per season faced a 1951-1952 season that yielded 15,897 tons.
For years Ricketts and State Fisheries biologists had warned of impending disaster. Unfortunately, the industry and the community were totally unprepared for the consequences of this abrupt and long-lasting decline after decades of prosperity brought by silvery tides of sardines that canners claimed could never be exhausted. Cannery Row's sardine industry had committed suicide - dying a ghostly, unnatural death on its own waterfront.
With the canneries stilled and useless, Cannery Row sat moribund. A few brave souls ventured to the "wrong side of the tracks" in the middle of this crisis. In the early '50s, Neil DeVaughn opened an upscale restaurant in the old Chinese-owned Ocean View Hotel, and his improbable success proved encouraging for canny and courageous businessmen (and women). He was followed by Kalisa Moore (the "Queen of Cannery Row") who started up Kalisa's Cosmopolitan Gourmet Place in the old La Ida Café bordello of Steinbeck's "CanneryRow," further opening the door to other new ventures. In 1964, Dick O'Kane opened "The Warehouse" restaurant and ignited Cannery Row's Phoenix rising.
Starting in the early 1950s, Wesley Dodge, a Salinas equipment broker, formed the Cannery Row Properties Co. and bought up most of the defunct canneries, astutely selling off their canning and reduction equipment to South America and the Orient for more than they paid for the properties. This made possible the eventual 1960s bulk sale of most of Cannery Row to hotelier Ben Swig, who, in turn, sold the majority of Cannery Row's commercial property to today's Cannery Row Company. The flagship of this partnership, led by Ted Balestreri and Bert Cutino, was the Sardine Factory Restaurant. The Renaissance began for real.
Julie Packard's leadership brought the Monterey Bay Aquarium to world prominence, further strengthening the resurgence of "Destination Cannery Row." Today, this historic street is bustling with an eclectic mix of spectacular seaside hotels and inns, renowned restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, and a panorama of shopping and activities that match its expansive views and access to Monterey Bay. Quite a street to experience.
And, the sardines are back.
Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.