By: Douglas Love, Chairman, California History Board.
Monterey holds a special place in the hearts of Native Sons throughout California. After all, it was where Commodore Sloat raised the National Ensign on July 7, 1846 and claimed California for the United States, an act which came to fruition with the signing and ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Monterey was named in 1602 by Sebastian Vizcaino but it wasn’t until 1770 that Gaspar de Portola founded the Presidio of Monterey and Saint Junipero Serra founded the mission of San Carlos de Borromeo, that there was a permanent European settlement at Monterey. Up until this time, Monterey had been inhabited solely by the Rumsen Ohlone tribe who fished the bay, hunted and gathered food from the Monterey Peninsula.
In 1777, Monterey became the capital of the “Province of both Californias” and became the seat of Spanish and later Mexican government in California. In Monterey, during this period, several structures were built, the Customs House, in 1814 and the Presidio itself including the original mission, later the Royal Presidio Chapel. Today, the Chapel is the oldest stone structure in California, the smallest operating cathedral in the United States and the oldest continuously operating Catholic parish in California. It is also the only original presidio chapel that survives and the only original building left of the Presidio. During the 1800’s Yankee traders made their presence felt along the California Coast and one, Thomas O. Larkin, later one of the founders of Benicia, built the Larkin House now a museum. Monterey had the first theatre, school, newspaper, printing press and public library in California. Monterey also had the first public building, Cotton Hall, the site of the state’s first constitutional convention in 1849.
Statehood brought many changes to Monterey. It was no longer the capital and the Presidio fell into disuse. But the riches of the Bay attracted fishermen and in the early 1900’s, Ocean Avenue, now Cannery Row, became the center of the Pacific sardine fishery. Thousands of laborers and fisherman made their livelihoods from the riches of Monterey Bay. Writers, poets and artists made their homes in Monterey and nearby Carmel. John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, chronicled the lives of the fishermen and the cannery workers in his novel, Cannery Row. Ed Ricketts opened a small laboratory at 800 Ocean Avenue and began studying the marine life of the bay, the California Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. His studies would result in two books, Ricketts’ Between Pacific Tides and Steinbeck’s Log of the Sea of Cortez.
The sardine fishery collapsed in the late forties and early fifties due to overfishing and depletion of the fishing grounds. The last cannery closed in 1973. Most of the fishermen and cannery workers left to seek employment elsewhere. The old cannery buildings were abandoned and left to fall into disrepair or torn down. Today, Cannery Row is a tourist destination, the remaining buildings house shops, restaurants and boutiques, a far cry from the cannery workers, prostitutes and fishermen of Steinbeck’s novel.
Today, you can visit many of the sites of historic Monterey. The Presidio, while not open to the public is home to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center and is the primary training facility in foreign languages for the Department of Defense. Its operation also means that the Presidio of Monterey is the last Spanish Presidio still in active operation. Fisherman’s Wharf has several restaurants and gift shops and the Customs House, Larkin House and Cotton Hall, as well as several other structures are preserved and open to the public as part of Monterey State Historic Park.
Ed Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboratory is preserved at 800 Cannery Row and across the street from it are three preserved cannery worker’s cabins. The crown jewel of Cannery Row is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, founded in 1984, on the site of a former cannery. It houses many exhibits of Pacific marine life and was featured, in fictionalized versions, in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Finding Dory. It is well worth a visit to learn about the incredible variety and abundance of marine life in the Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Getting There: From San Francisco take US 101 South to CA 156 West towards the Monterey Peninsula.