A Literary Tour of the Monterey Peninsula
A Travelogue; words and photos by Scot Hampton
Along the craggy Northern California coast, there’s a stretch of rocky peninsula that jets out into the cool blue of the Pacific ocean. It’s here you’ll find unforgiving waves crashing upon a shoreline with it’s own salty secrets.
In 1902, the same year John Steinbeck was born, the first cannery shed opened up on Ocean View Avenue. Not long after, a thriving fishing economy emerged from the bountiful amount of salmon and sardines that were being scooped up in the nets of enterprising fisherman.
Soon thereafter, one after another cannery opened up along this stretch of aqua blue coast, to take advantage of the emerging and booming fishing economy. To differentiate themselves from each other, each cannery had its own whistle with its own unique sound that would call its workers every morning to work. If a worker didn’t hear their particular employer’s whistle, there was no work that day.
John Steinbeck wrote that Cannery Row “is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.” In 1958 Ocean View Avenue was named Cannery Row in honor of the now famous novel.
Along the street formerly known as Ocean Avenue sits the Monterey Canning Company, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, McAbee Beach, Steinbeck Plaza, and a crowded array of tourist shops and restaurants, all running parallel to the shoreline just a few feet away.
Across town, Steinbeck lived for about a year in the Lara Soto Adobe, at 460 Pierce St. (now home to the Monterey Institute of International Studies), built in the 1830’s. It was while living here that he wrote The Pearl. Originally, Steinbeck was born in the sleepy hamlet of Salinas, which is now home to the National Steinbeck Center. On February 27th, the National Steinbeck Center hosts it’s annual Steinbeck Birthday Celebration from 10 AM to 3 PM. From May 6th through the 8th, the center will also host the 35th annual Steinbeck Festival.
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” — John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
Back in Monterey, along the waterfront at Steinbeck Plaza, you’ll find tenacious and squawking seagulls perching from the bronze head & shoulders of Steinbeck (looking down on Cannery Row Company founders Balestreri, Cutino, Davidian and Zarounian), while avoiding the throngs of tourists flocking through the plaza for a brief respite before swooping back down to snatch the scraps and crumbs of food that have fallen from their hands to the ground below.
Further down the waterfront, lies McAbee Beach (originally called China Point), named after Scotsman John B. McAbee. Portuguese whaling crews used McAbee Beach in the 1880’s as a base for their whaling operations. Years later, the Chinese would lease the beach and build a small fishing village. The mural on the remaining wall depicts the Chinese fisherman that James. B. McAbee used to lease to in the early 1900's. He also rented boats, tents and cabins to tourists. In 1906 a suspicious fire tore through and destroyed the Chinese fishing village at China Point.
One of the last remaining original buildings along this stretch of fenced-off coastline is the abandoned Stohan’s Gallery, which in 1917 was home to the San Xavier Cannery and its reduction plant, where they would make bulk chicken feed by boiling all the sardine leftovers in giant vats.
At 800 Cannery Row, in a nondescript wooden building that’s sandwiched between the more modern, bigger buildings on both sides, a self-taught marine biologist by the name of Ed Ricketts would later become inspiration for the character “Doc” in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, Cannery Row. Ricketts and Steinbeck had met earlier and in 1940 journeyed to the Sea of Cortez together, sailing in a chartered fishing boat to collect invertebrates for the scientific catalog in their book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which would remain Steinbeck’s favorite novel.
“Doc tips his hat to dogs as he drives by and the dogs look up and smile at him.” —John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
The building was the home of Pacific Biological Laboratories, a marine biology supply house that Ed and his business partner Albert Galigher started in 1923.
They would host regular gatherings of musicians, poets, artists, writers and kindred souls from all walks of life that would often last for days.
Steinbeck was heavily influenced by Ricketts, and several of the characters in Steinbeck’s novels pay tribute to him. In the novel Cannery Row, the lab was fictionalized as “Western Biological Laboratories.”
Steinbeck also became a silent partner in the lab after a fire (originating at the Del Mar Cannery next door) destroyed most of it, investing his own money so Ed could rebuild the lab. Since the 1930's the building has gone on nearly unchanged. After Ed died, his friends turned the lab into a social club and brought in a piano.
Once a year, it is open to the public and looks much as it did when Ed Ricketts and Joseph Campbell (Doc’s assistant at the Lab) lived there. The Cannery Row Foundation will open Doc’s lab for tours this year on February 27th, in honor of Steinbeck’s annual birthday celebration.
Stevenson House (French Hotel)
Traveling from Scotland in August of 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in Monterey nearly a month later, sick and in poor health after an exhausting journey. He was nursed back to health by friends at Girardin’s French Hotel, a two story adobe built in the 1830’s by Don Rafael Gonzalez, but at the time a boarding-house run by Manuela Girardin.
While recuperating here, and waiting for his love and future wife Fanny Osborne to divorce her current husband, Stevenson penned his essay about Monterey called, The Old Pacific Capital. In this work, he notes the warm hospitality of Allan Luce, the light keeper at Point Pinos Lighthouse.
It’s rumored that he drew inspiration for his future novel Treasure Island from long walks in the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
“These long beaches are enticing to the idle man. It would be hard to find a walk more solitary and at the same time more exciting to the mind.” — Robert Louis Stevenson, The Old Pacific Capital.
The French Hotel, or Stevenson House as it is also known, is open April through September and contains an assortment of historical memorabilia and ephemera. It has a wonderful garden on the rear side of the property that can also be accessed from Munras street during open hours. The house is located at 530 Houston street.
Tor House and Hawk Tower
By far, my favorite place on the Monterey Peninsula with a deep literary history is the estate of the late poet Robinson Jeffers, located in Carmel. When walking through the garden, with the stone structures towering above and the salty scent of the Pacific ocean blowing through the air, you get a strong sense of the peaceful tranquility that drew Robinson and Una to this special place. You can almost hear the rocks and stones whisper to you between the breeze, with memories of a simpler time long forgotten as you stand amongst the granite buildings of Tor House and Hawk Tower.
In 1918, Robinson Jeffers and his wife Una purchased a plot of land on the outskirts of town which had been among their favorite picnic spots. Modeled after a Tudor barn in England that Una had admired, construction of the small granite house began that year and was completed in mid-1919. Robinson hired a contractor and a stone mason (Pierson of Monterey) to build Tor House. Robinson apprenticed under the stone mason, learning his craft, and would work for $4 dollars a day (he paid himself) hauling heavy granite stones from the beach up to the construction site via a chute.
Tor house (from the Celtic word “Tor”) is named after the rocky granite outcroppings on which the house was built; exposed boulders that are incorporated into the northwestern foundation of the original house. Originally, the first floor had a front bedroom for guests, a low-ceiling living room, a bath and kitchen. Upstairs was a bedroom where Robinson, Una and their two sons would sleep. There was no electricity or telephone, and heat was provided by a wood stove and the stone fireplaces. Other rooms and buildings would be added over the years.
Built as a retreat for Una and kids, Jeffers began work on Hawk Tower in 1920 and finished four years later. Una loved the medieval towers of Ireland and this one would contain a room for Una, a dungeon for the children, with a secret passageway to connect the two.
Jeffers used a block and tackle system to build the tower, which he accomplished all by himself. Perched precariously on wooden planks, Jeffers once took a serious fall, but never let that stop him from continuing the work. Over the door of the lower room and carved into the keystone is the letter U with the letters RJ carved below it, the initials of Una and Robinson.
Another fascinating detail of the buildings on the property, which Jeffers would continue to build and work on for most of his life, are the unique stones and rocks from around the world that Jeffers placed during the construction. The family picked up exotic stones and geologically significant specimens in their travels, in addition to many unique pieces that were brought to them buy their guests and friends that would come to visit.
Among the many exotic stones found on the property are Babylonian tile from the temple at Erich, pebbles from the beach below King Arthur’s Castle, white lava from Mt. Vesuvius, stone from the Great Wall of China, petrified wood, meteorite fragments from the Great Meteor Crater in Arizona, and piece of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. There is a small pamphlet (written by Jeffers’ son Donnan) for purchase in the bookstore that describes the location and details of many of the stones.
A tour of Tor House and Hawk Tower is an intimate affair. You brush your hand along the very desk that Robinson wrote his poetry, with your fingers you feel the rough granite that he hauled up from the beach below, and you may even take turns reciting verses of Jeffers’ poems with the tour guide in various rooms. You don’t have to read aloud of course, but I would strongly encourage you to do so, as it‘s a rich way to experience, and instill a deep sense of connection with, the words of Jeffers and his family’s historic estate.
As you survey the area and the surrounding neighborhood, one may also notice the trees. This part of town was barren when Robinson and Una first arrived but throughout his time here Jeffers would go on to plant over 2000 trees throughout the Carmel area. Visit there today and rising above yards and lining the streets in all directions you’ll see tall Monterey Cypress and Eucalyptus trees, seedlings that Jeffers most likely placed in the dirt with his own hands, weathered from years of stone work, almost 100 years ago.
Tor House and Hawk Tower are now a National Historic Landmark and maintained by the Tor Foundation.
“If you should look for this place after a
handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark leaved Australians or the
Coast cypress, haggard.
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my
fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant…”
— Robinson Jeffers, Tor House
The Stone Mason of Tor House — Melba Berry Bennett
The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers — Robinson Jeffers
Big Sur — Jack Kerouac (A little further south you’ll find Bixby Canyon Bridge. Big Sur is an autobiographical novel by Jack Kerouac that retells his stay in Bixby Canyon, at a cabin owned by friend and beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti)
Between Pacific Tides — Ed Ricketts
Cannery Row — John Steinbeck
The Log From The Sea Of Cortez— John Steinbeck
The Pearl — John Steinbeck
The Amateur Emigrant; The Old & New Pacific Capitals; The Silverado Squatters; The Silverado Diary (Collected Works)— Robert Louis Stevenson