Monterey’s first commercial fish canning shed opened in 1902, the year of Steinbeck’s birth. Stimulated by World War I demands, salmon and abalone packing operations soon expanded to sardine canning.
Dozens of canneries opened along Ocean View Avenue to process about a billion fish per season at the peak. This business generated huge profits until the late 1940s when over-fishing and other environmental factors depleted the catch. The last sardine was packed in 1964. Buildings fell into disrepair. Many burned to the ground.
Steinbeck’s popular 1945 novel of life along Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday soon began to attract curious readers to see the real life characters and places that inspired his stories, including Ricketts’ Lab, Flora Woods “genteel and respected whorehouse”, and the Wing Chong Market. By 1958 the city of Monterey realized the tourism potential of the area and renamed the street “Cannery Row.”
One of the nation’s most famous literary miles is today the Monterey Peninsula’s most popular tourist destination. Headlined by the Monterey Bay Aquarium that opened in a remodeled cannery building in 1984, the former foul-smelling, gritty industrial district bustles with visitors to the restaurants, souvenir stores, and upscale hotels.