On September 14th, 1924, a bolt of lightning struck one of the large petroleum storage tanks on the hillside below the Presidio in New Monterey, igniting a fire that burned for several days before the tanks exploded, sending a burning river of oil flowing to the sea. Black clouds darkened the area all day while curious onlookers lined the streets or took picnic baskets upwind from the fire, to watch the conflagration from a safe vantage point on the hills.
The local city and military fire departments were ill equipped to fight such a devastating oil fire. In the path of the blazing river of oil were the E.B. Gross cannery, the Japanese built California Fisheries plant, and the Coalinga Oil and Transportation Pier - none of which survived the inferno. The stately Murray-Tevis mansion and estate only narrowly escaped. The floating river of oil continued to burn as it drifted perilously into the harbor and toward the piling of Old Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf. The wooden Wharf, still seen today from the Monterey Bay Inn, was only saved by a fateful change of wind and tide. Monterey harbor's protective breakwater was built between 1932 and 1934, constructed on the piling of the destroyed Coalinga Oil and Transportation Pier. The ensuing decades saw the neighborhood's ocean-front lots, left vacant since the 1924 fire, again become sardine factories and warehouses for Monterey's famous fishing and canning area.
In Cannery Row's modern renaissance, the Monterey Bay Inn was constructed on the rocky shoreline adjacent to the 1916 California Fisheries venture. The site was formerly occupied by the Enterprise Packing Company cannery, constructed in 1945 in response to wartime demand for sardines - only a year before catastrophic decline in the industries, its rapid decent, and eventual total demise. The location of the Monterey Bay Inn abounds with spectacular vistas of this entire historical era.During Cannery Row's heyday, the 10 to 11 inch Monterey Sardine - also known as a Pilchard - was canned or reduced into fertilizer, a process of grinding and baking, and exported around the world. Before the 1940s, the sardine season ran from August through mid-February, and came to be known as the "Silver Harvest."
This harvest was conducted primarily at night when an astute and experienced captain with a keen eye could spot the roiling phosphorescence of vast schools of sardines. Huge purse-seine nets, stretching a quarter mile long and dropping ten stories deep, encircled the catch before the cable running the bottom was winched in - closing the bottom of the net under the catch like a purse cinched shut. As many as several hundred tons of sardines could be harvested at a time with this tremendous technology. When the catch was in, the Cannery whistles summoned workers from their homes in the hills of New Monterey. No matter what time of day or night, when the cannery whistles blew folks would put on their boots and aprons, and make their way down to Cannery Row, ready to clean, cut, and pack the catch. Not until the last fish was processed did they return home.
The hours were long, the work hard, and the conditions so "fragrant" that some cannery workers were reported to have simply burned their clothes after a few weeks. But the "smell of prosperity" from the processors supported a congenial and multi-cultural assortment of fishermen and cannery workers through both World Wars and even the Great Depression. Sardines were a plentiful and inexpensive source of protein, and Monterey exported to over 60 countries.San Carlos beach, named for the huge cannery formerly adjacent to the Monterey Bay Inn, is now enjoyed by divers and tide-pool explorers. Along its shoreline one can still find the remains of the once powerful San Carlos Cannery erected in 1927 by a consortium of boat owners and fisherman, and some of the concrete footings of the E.B. Gross cannery, its early neighbor. Immediately adjacent to the Monterey Bay Inn remain fragmentary foundation of the Sal Ventimiglia's ill-fated California Frozen Fish Co. - an unfortunately late entrant into the industry - built in 1945 over the remains of the California Fisheries cannery which had been destroyed in the 1924 fire.
Although the street flourished through the heyday of the sardine canning industry, at the end of World War II, and through the late 1940s and early 1950s, the once immense sardine catches dwindled. The once powerful San Carlos, along with most of the other canneries along the street, could not sustain. Boilers and other equipment were sold off, doors and windows were boarded up, and the once prosperous canneries were closed, abandoned, with many eventually falling victim to arson. John Steinbeck's short novel, Cannery Row, was published in 1945 while he lived in New York and recalled the area he knew in the 1930s. The book has enjoyed an enduring success and has been translated into numerous languages, including Polish, Italian, Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, and Finish. Thanks in great part to Steinbeck's colorful, and fictional, accounts of Cannery Row tourists began to frequent the historic Monterey canning waterfront along old Ocean View Boulevard and its hulking reminders of a bygone era.
Visitors came in even greater number to enjoy the eclectic restaurants, book shops, antique stores, and gift shops that sprang up and gave new use to the remaining cannery buildings. In 1958, the City of Monterey renamed the stretch of Ocean View Blvd from the Coastguard Pier to David Ave, naming it Cannery Row in honor of the book which had helped give it new life.Today, Cannery Row continues to create itself. With panoramic views of the Monterey Marine Sanctuary, easy access to the water, world class attractions and restaurants, and elegant lodging, Cannery Row is an increasingly favored destination for people from many cultures and countries. And the gateway to Cannery Row can be found in the sophisticated comfort and elegance of the Monterey Bay Inn. The architectural design of the Monterey Bay Inn reflects the essential functionality of old cannery buildings, utilizing the spirit of that era's industrial angularity and scale, while also expressing an elegance that avoids mimicking a rigid "cannery" stereotype.
As architect Will Shaw likes to explain, "We wanted to create a feeling for the Monterey Bay Inn that fit in with the character of the old Row, but… also expressed a complimentary and contemporary sophistication." The success of this goal has resulted in the uniquely elegant comfort and character of this Cannery Row landmark, enjoying its unique historical location, with an equally intriguing view of the past.