Originally called Ocean View Avenue, an anonymous writer first mentioned the bustling spot and its sardine industry in a local Monterey newspaper in 1919. However, even before Cannery Row made a name for itself, the native Rumen Ohlones were harvesting sardines, anchovies and rockfish off Monterey’s coast nearly 5,000 years before. Archaeological research also revealed that a bony growth known as “surfer’s ear” was evident in some remains found in burial grounds, concluding that the Rumen Ohlones spent much of their time diving in the waters off shore.
In the early 20th century, more canneries opened and employed immigrant workers from all over the world. The onset of WWI created a surge in production, with 1.4 million cases in 1918 alone. In its heyday, there were 19 canneries and reduction plants, making Monterey Bay “the sardine capital of the world.” According to historical archives, the canneries had their own distinct sound of whistle that called their employees to work.
The industry experienced a slump during the Great Depression, but WWII sparked an increase in demand for sardines. Many believed this industry was to last forever. However, scientists at the California Fish and Game Commission were tracking the sardine population in the waters of Monterey Bay and warned of the imminent disaster of the fish disappearing. Their warnings proved to be correct.
In his investigation of where the sardines had gone, local marine biologist Ed Ricketts finally concluded: “They’re in cans.”
Fortunately, sardine populations have made a come back, and people are fishing them in the bay once again.
Cannery Row Today
Cannery Row is a top tourist attraction, with local artists’ galleries, hotels, bars, a mix of specialty shops and 25 restaurants, many of which are in the former cannery buildings. A walk along the Row also illustrates vintage colored sardine cans cemented into the sidewalks. They reminded me of the sardines I used to eat, and I wondered if they came from Monterey Bay.
Steinbeck Plaza is a vibrant focal point of Cannery Row, providing the best place to take in the beautiful ocean views and simply watch scenes of local life unfold, with a chorus of seagulls overhead to enhance the festive atmosphere. At the center is the admirable Cannery Row Monument by Steven Whyte. The nine life-sized figures memorialize the locals who played an important role in shaping Cannery Row in many ways. The artist’s attention to detail is simply remarkable.
Perched atop the rocky outcrop sits a statue of John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize winning author who immortalized Cannery Row in his novel of the same name. The city renamed Ocean View Avenue to Cannery Row 13 years after the release of his book in 1945. The other statues include four local entrepreneurs who were responsible for bringing the Row back to life; a Chinese man for the role many Chinese immigrants played in the industry; local marine biologist Ed Ricketts, plus Madame Flora, whose real name was Flora Woods. She owned a brothel across from Rickett’s lab and was strict about not serving hard alcohol or permitting the use of vulgarity in her bordello.
On the day we visited, we met a lovely couple with their dog in the Plaza. They were extremely nice to our kids, who quickly adopted the man as grandpa. We enjoyed sitting with them and having a pleasant conversation, all the while taking some photographs of them with our two children.
A passageway that guides visitors to the ocean also leads to the place where marine biologist Ed Ricketts had his laboratory from 1928 to 1948. He was John Steinbeck’s friend and mentor, and the American author based the character Doc after Ricketts in his novel Cannery Row.
Ricketts’ passion was to learn more about the marine life in the waters and tidal pools of Monterey Bay. He collected specimens, packed and shipped them to different schools and institutions for study and further conducted research in his own lab. Unfortunately, one day a fire destroyed Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboratory. Though he lost everything he had owned, he built it all again and continued with his work. The scattering of large barrels, boiler’s pants, containers and metal rods at his former lab at 800 Cannery Row looks as if Ricketts had been there yesterday.
The famed Monterey Bay Aquarium is at the former site of the Hovden Cannery. Knut Hovden was a Norwegian immigrant who founded Hovden Food Products Corporation in 1916. Though it was the last cannery to close its doors in 1973, a few privately owned fishing companies are in business at the piers.
When we reached the end of Cannery Row, we closed our eyes and imagined a scene in its heyday, with workers rushing to bring fresh fish from the boats to the canneries for processing and shipping in cans to places around the world; restaurants abuzz with the chatter of hungry patrons at lunchtime; Madame Flora busy socializing with her guests; Ed Ricketts diligently working in his lab, and John Steinbeck writing one of his famous novels.
This is how we relived a vibrant day on Cannery Row, and maybe one day you will, too.