The View from Ed Ricketts’ Window: The Diverse Human Ecosystem of Monterey’s Cannery Row

I reached Cannery Row in Monterey in the chilly early morning light. The day before, I had spent many rather lonely hours in the rich person’s fairytale-land of Carmel, only four miles away, but it seemed like a million.

I clutched my coffee, and as I walked down the quiet streets of Cannery Row, my nose immediately comprehended the old saying, “Carmel-by-sea, Cannery-by-smell.” Large former cannery buildings, barn-like and picturesque, towered over me, and the grey water lapped at one closed tourist-trap after another. I braced myself for another solitary day of exploring.

How wrong I turned out to be.

I met first with historian and tour guide Tim Thomas, a character of epic proportions -- funny, friendly, quirky -- with an encyclopedic knowledge and deep seeded love of the history of Cannery Row. As he led me from former cannery to former worker’s shack to former whore house, the place came alive -- both the past and the present. Tourists began flooding the streets, and Tim greeted them with unself-conscious warmth.

“Does that writing make sense?” he asked one couple reading one of the many historical placards placed along the row. They looked up at him in befuddlement. “I hope so, because I wrote it,” he exclaimed, before we ambled off. As we talked in front of the Aquarium, once the site of the Hovden Cannery, a man came outside and ushered us in. “Come on in, Tim,” he smiled, before telling me, “You’ve got the best tour guide there is.”

“Isn’t Tim great?” the equally affable Dennis Copeland, steward of the City of Monterey’s historical collections, continued as he greeted me at the door of Ed Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Lab, squeezed precariously between two giant former canneries. We entered the squat brown structure, a magical place of warmth and conviviality.

There, at the big front window, I stood in the same spot where legendary author John Steinbeck had stood decades ago, and watched as all different types of people, all with their own stories and idiosyncrasies, walked by. I felt happy to be among this mass of humanity that was currently calling Cannery Row home.

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In 1896, a Japanese immigrant named Otosaburo Noda was working as a lumberjack for the Pacific Improvement Company. One day, while climbing a tree near Monterey Wharf, he looked into the harbor below. In the sparkling water he saw “a carpet of abalone.” Abalone, long a delicacy in Japan, was not popular with Americans, who had no idea how to cook these large marine snails. Noda wrote to the Japanese government to tell them of his find. Soon officials, abalone divers, and salmon fishermen from Chiba Prefecture in Japan came to work the fishery of Monterey.

In 1902, Noda, along with an American partner named Harry Malpas, founded the Monterey Fishing and Canning Company.  And thus Cannery Row was born.

When the abalone divers from Chiba, known as “ama,” first began diving in Monterey Bay, they were shocked by the temperature of the water, which was around 15 degrees colder than the waters of Japan. Used to diving in nothing but a thin cotton outfit, they quickly learned to knit their own unique ensembles. According to Thomas: "They’d take wool sweaters and tear them apart and knit this wool underwear, they’d put on a pair of that, sometimes two pairs, put on the big, heavy canvas suit, attach about 65 pounds of lead weights to their front and back, tie lead to their shoes, bolt on this helmet, then go down into the Monterey Bay."

That same year the Booth Cannery opened nearby. For the first decade of the twentieth century, it was salmon that made up the bulk of the canneries’ output. But with the outbreak of War World I, the factories switched to canning Monterey sardines to feed troops all over the world. Many canneries sprang up all along the waterfront where they proceeded to can and process millions of rather unpleasant tasting Monterey sardines, many of which were reduced and sold as chicken feed and fertilizer. These included Hovden Food Products, Monterey Canning Company, Pacific Fish Company, Bayside Fish & Flour, San Xavier Canning Company, California Fisheries Co., and Pacific Packers/Great Western Sardine Co. What Thomas calls a “multi-cultural stew” of Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipino, Sicilian and African Americans came to work the canneries and fisheries of Monterey Bay.

monterey canning company
Photo: Hadley Meares

While men are usually given most of the credit for the success of Cannery Row, Thomas explains that the backbone of these fish factories were thousands of unsung women: "Women had the harder of the jobs in the canneries, and they were paid about 15 cents an hour less than the men. Among the many jobs that women did was working the canning lines. Prior to WWII, you would never see a minority worker working the line, and you would NEVER see a man! That was considered to be women’s work. At the height of the depression, if there were not enough white women to work the line, they shut them down! Even if there were men out on the street who said I’ll do that...During the sardine season, August 1-Feb-15, they would work 10, 12, 15 hours a day, six days a week!  At the same time, many of these women had children and families to deal with."

“It was a hard life,” Thomas says. “You did not make a lot of money, but many families, husband and wife and often times the older children, would all work in the canneries together. Most of the workers lived up above Cannery Row in ‘New Monterey.’” Every morning, when the fisherman came in with their catch, a variety of whistles would pierce the air, calling the workers from each cannery to work. All at once, a mass of people would rush down the steps from New Monterey to Cannery Row.

One woman, a schoolteacher, recalled that when she first moved to town, she was awoken each dawn by the phone ringing. When she picked up, someone would yell, “fish,” and then hang up. She thought she was being pranked until she was told that a woman on the cannery line had lived in her new home before her, and officials were unaware she had moved.

pacific biological lab
Pacific Biological Laboratories, March 11, 1945, during construction of Mar Vista cannery next door.  Edward Ricketts, Jr., photographer and donor. | Courtesy California History Room, Monterey Public Library.

Into this mix came a brilliant, charismatic marine biologist by the name of Edward Ricketts. In 1928, Ricketts bought an old structure owned by the Rodriguez family, and named it the Pacific Biological Lab. He had been enticed by the “specimen tanks” Vicente Rodriguez had constructed in the back to press and salt sardines. He moved into the small building, living upstairs and setting up his lab in the basement. To fund his own research and expeditions, he sold marine specimens that he had captured to Universities and laboratories around the country.

Edward F. R. Ricketts [portrait], 1936. 
Bryant Fitch, photographer. 
Courtesy California History Room, Monterey Public Library.

Separated from his wife, an incorrigible ladies’ man and a great listener, Ricketts soon became a kind of pied piper to the thriving Monterey County arts scene. Artists and writers like Jack and Sasha Calvin, Natalia and Rich Lovejoy, Bruce and Jean Ariss Joseph Campbell and James Fitzgerald all considered Pacific Biological Lab their unofficial club-house.

His best friend was John Steinbeck, whose family owned a cottage in nearby Pacific Grove. After a spate of intense writing, Steinbeck could often be found talking at “the lab bench as Ed filled specimen orders for schools and museums,” Copeland says. “Steinbeck sometimes read from his ledger his latest story to Ed or to the group in their gatherings in the front room.”  In Ricketts, Steinbeck found a man whose philosophies matched very closely to his own. According to Copeland: "Ricketts was always the thinker, a biologist, ecologist, and lover of the arts, seeking new ideas and ways to look at things. He was especially interested in the relations of animals, ecology of communities and individuals. In this and other ideas he and Steinbeck moved their thoughts from the tide pool to people.  Ricketts was as comfortable and observant in the tide pool as he was intent and absorbed in his music and ideas."

Ricketts was a natural-born collaborator. In 1939, he and Jack Calvin published "Between Pacific Tides," a best-seller which explored the intertidal ecology of the Pacific Ocean. Steinbeck and Ricketts also collaborated on "The Sea of Cortez," which detailed a 6-week specimen collecting expedition the men had gone on in 1940. According to Copeland, Ricketts’ impact on Steinbeck’s writing and themes was enormous:  "Through music, art, [and] science Ricketts held that there are moments when we reach a state of enlightenment, when clarity and being at one are available. He called it 'breaking through.'  For both Steinbeck and Ricketts holism, the relation of animals, including people, are central ideas -- an ecology of life... As different as they were, they were “in sync”, understanding and living with these ideas which emerged in Steinbeck’s works."

Ricketts also became friends with the many characters who called Cannery Row home. He would often treat the injured children of cannery workers, who liked to call him “Doc” (even though he had never received his doctorate). He often hired some of the homeless men who crowded the row during the Great Depression, and who sometimes lived in large concrete pipes in the area. 

One resident recalled Ricketts blaring Mozart out his window in the evenings, so the exhausted cannery workers could have something to listen to as they trudged home after work.

Despite the pervasive racism and sexism of the time, the cannery workers were a very tight group. All different ethnicities lived together in New Monterey, and the segregation of the canneries was not present in private life -- all were welcome to attend community dances and celebrations.

“Sports were very important, especially baseball,” Thomas explains. “The Japanese boys would play against the Sicilian boys. It was not uncommon for those Japanese boys to learn to speak Sicilian before they spoke English, and those Sicilian boys would learn to speak Japanese before they learned to speak English -- all because of baseball.”

But this truly American, hard-luck community was not to last.

monterey shacks
Photo: Hadley Meares

In 1948, a train hit Ricketts’ car as he was driving just up the road from Cannery Row. He died three days later. In the late 40s and early 50s, the Monterey sardine fishery collapsed, due to a combination of man-made and ecological factors. The canneries began to be sold off or closed, one by one. In 1950, the scheming Knut Hovden, owner of the Hovden Cannery (now the site of the Monterey Bay Aquarium) found himself in major trouble with the IRS. Thomas continues: "So he decides to sell the business, but he wants to retain ownership of the property here.  He finds a couple of guys who are willing to buy the business. He wants a $100,000 and he wants it in cash money. Because if they write him a check, he takes that check to the bank, the bank reports that to the IRS. Those guys go to the bank, withdraw the $100,0000, hand it over to Mr. Hovden, and he takes it in to this cannery one night, cans all that money, seals up the cans, loads them up into his car and drives down to Mexico!"

club gathering
Pacific Biological Lab club gathering, 1961. 
Courtesy California History Room, Monterey Public Library.

Hovden was never found, and is presumed to have died many years later in South America, after starting a new life.

Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Lab would have a second life as well. During the 1950s, a group of local cartoonists, lawyers, businessmen and artists began renting out the space. They built a charming bar (still existent today), brought in a piano and artwork, and began to use the Lab as a private member’s club dedicated to partying, creating and promoting cultural activities. Their unofficial leader was Harlan Watkins, an elegant, intellectual jazz lover. According to Copeland: "In 1957, Harlan Watkins -- and perhaps others, invited jazz promoter and DJ Jimmy Lyons to the Lab. There they discussed the idea of a jazz festival in Monterey ---  so in that way the Lab is the birthplace of the idea of the Monterey Jazz Festival."

Today, the Lab is owned by the City of Monterey, and features priceless mementoes of both Ricketts’ and the club’s residency. The golden days of Cannery Row live on, in the minds of people like Tim Thomas and Dennis Copeland, and in the iconic industrial structures that line this famous street. And most of all, its spirit can be found in Steinbeck’s 1945 novel, Cannery Row, which revolves around a marine biologist named “Doc” and all the fascinating characters that you could see simply looking out his window. 

The books dedication page reads: “For Ed Ricketts, who knows why or should.”



Top Image: ​Pacific Biological Lab today | Photo: Hadley Meares

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