Author’s Note: Cannery Row was Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck’s novel depicting the sardine factory world of Monterey, California. This article is also a chapter update in my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are updated, a new edition of the book will appear.
By Lee Foster
In the 20th century, writer John Steinbeck published a beloved novel about the Cannery Row sardine factory world of the Monterey waterfront. The noted author grew up in Salinas and lived in Monterey in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row appeared in 1944. Its publication coincided with the sardine population peak. Mysteriously, the huge population of this small fish then crashed. Eventually, shops and restaurants took over the aging canneries. Today, travelers are the catch-of-the-day.
You can see a bronze bust of the author in a small plaza in the midst of Cannery Row. There is also a sculptural monument from 2014 titled “The Boys,” depicting characters in the novel.
In addition, the more modern story of ocean life here is told just down the street at the magnificent Monterey Bay Aquarium. This attraction portrays the growing concern for stewardship of the ocean. An environmental concern emerged from the 1970s and progressed to today. Be sure to allow time for a visit to the Aquarium, located in one of the earliest sardine canneries. The Monterey Aquarium ranks as a world-class facility.
The Historic Story
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath told the story of the Okies migrating to the Salinas Valley to pick lettuce. Meanwhile, Cannery Row captured the salty flavor of Monterey’s sardine-fishing world.
At historic Fisherman’s Wharf, the sardine boats came in with their catches to fuel the canneries. However, Steinbeck was a genius at capturing the universal human condition aspirations in the lives of individual Cannery Row characters
When you walk along Cannery Row today, you can still peer into the lab of Doc Ricketts, at 800 Cannery Row. (Street numbers here are confusing. The lab is actually in the 100 block, between the plaza and the Aquarium.) At this weathered-wood structure, Ricketts, Steinbeck’s comrade, who became a lonesome character in the novel, maintained a “lab.” You can walk adjacent to the building out to the ocean and peer into the concrete holding tanks where Doc stored his specimens for the school and biology research trade. Ricketts collected sponges, anemones, barnacles, and octopi. Schools teaching marine biology purchased his creatures.
The Start of Sardine Canning in Monterey
Sardine canning began here before World War I, led by Frank Booth. He had a salmon-canning business on the Sacramento River and decided to expand to Monterey. Booth noted the large numbers of sardines in the harbor. He engaged a Norwegian, Knute Hovden, to develop a cannery. At the same time, World War I cut off supplies of European canned fish. That loss of supply created a demand for USA Monterey sardines.
Steinbeck characterized Cannery Row as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a stone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” In its heyday the Row had 18 canneries. In 1945, just after the novel was published, the production reached nearly a quarter-million tons of sardines.
On Cannery Row people lived their whole lives, working by day and playing after work in the bars at night. However, the silver sardines disappeared in the late 1940s. Their demise was probably due to overfishing, changes in ocean currents, and other environmental factors.
Monterey nevertheless remains a viable commercial fishing area, boasting one of the largest squid harvests in the U.S.
Cannery Row Today, Mainly the Aquarium
Cannery Row is known today for its restaurants, shops, and hotels.
However, at the south end of the Row lies the main attraction, the Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row; 831/648-4800; http://www.montereybayaquarium.org). The facility is a brilliant salute to the local ocean world of California.
The Aquarium occupies the former Hovden Cannery, largest of the now-defunct canneries. A stroke of architectural genius led the aquarium builders to incorporate elements of this existent building in the design rather than create a monstrosity foreign to the site.
The Aquarium is easily the main modern attraction on Cannery Row. Since it opened in October 1984, millions have visited the Aquarium. It is one of the best in the world, with 12 major exhibits.
This aquatic masterpiece was a brilliant gift of the David Packard family. It celebrates the offshore water world of California in superb displays. A highlight is a three-story kelp forest with circling fish. The Open Sea exhibit features jellyfish, sea turtles, and sea birds. There’s a live sea otter exhibit and several hands-on exhibits, such as the Bat Ray Petting Pool.
Other exhibits include a family gallery that combines the best of an aquarium and a children’s museum.
As you walk through the Aquarium, you will see exhibits ranging from a full-size whale model to a simulated tidal surge habitat. The habitat is filled with creatures able to survive in an environment of pounding waves.
The Aquarium presents the wonder of nature so adeptly that there is no urge to train porpoises to jump through hoops. The concept of the Aquarium wisely began its focus on the abundant California coastal fauna and flora. Later it spread outward to display life in the world’s oceans.
Monterey is two hours south of San Francisco via Highway 101, the fastest route. Take the marked Monterey turnoff. If you have more time, drive the coast route Highway 1, which is more scenic.
Be Sure to See
Absorb the atmosphere of Cannery Row by walking it. Note the bust of Steinbeck and the sculpture of “The Boys.” Peruse the exterior of the Doc Ricketts lab. The interior is a private social club. Be sure to stop in at the Aquarium, a world-class presentation of the oceans.
Best Time of Year for Cannery Row
Any time of the year is good for Cannery Row and the Aquarium.
A good place to stay is at the Monterey Plaza Hotel (400 Cannery Row, Monterey; 877/862-7552; https://montereyplazahotel.com). The hotel is located along Cannery Row, directly over the water. You might see sea otters feeding in the kelp beds beneath you.
A good seafood restaurant is the Sandbar & Grill (9 Municipal Wharf, Monterey; 831/373-2818; http://sandbarandgrillmonterey.com). The eatery site is on a public wharf with close-up views of sailboats coming and going and perhaps an occasional sea lion. Try the prawns or sand dabs.
For Further Information
For more information on the area contact the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau (888/221-1010; https://www.seemonterey.com/).
For details on the Monterey Bay Aquarium: 831/648-4800; http://www.montereybayaquarium.org).