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Friday, September 16, 2016

Cannery Row: American Can Company

Original smokestack for the American
Can Company. [Pat Hathaway]
Although geographically not a part of Monterey's Cannery Row and itself not a cannery, the American Can Company facility on the absolute southeastern fringe of Pacific Grove both catered to the local fish canneries and utilised the adjacent Southern Pacific Railroad tracks to transport its goods. The area of the facility was originally Pacific Grove's Chinatown, but changes in the laws and suspicious fires had forced most of the Chinese out of the area in the 1910s. The 1920s saw a drastic increase in the intakes of fishing boats as new techniques were used to raise the sardine and tune yields. However, the can companies that imported their wares to Monterey were unable to meet this new demand. In response, the American Can Company, a New York-based national Tin Can Trust corporation founded in 1901 by Irving Fein of Greenwich, Connecticut, began construction on a large new facility just northeast of Cannery Row in Spring 1926 to create packaging materials for the myriad canneries that lines Ocean View Boulevard. Soon after construction was completed the next year, the company introduced the famed, one-pound oval sardine can that became associated worldwide with Cannery Row.

Satellite view of the American Can company complex showing all four structures, 2011. [Google Maps]
Their facility encompassed an entire industrial block just north of the Row and sat promptly across Ocean View Boulevard from the railroad tracks. The factory was divided into three large sections and a small annex, all of which remain today. The annex was a single-story concrete shipping office located at the corner of Eardley and Ocean View. The first large portion, just to the north, was a spacious area with steel columns supporting a roof lined with skylights. North of that, the second and largest was a 36-foot-hight wood-frame structure garbed in corrugated steel with large multi-paned windows on the walls. And at the end, this tapered off into a smaller concrete shipping warehouse. Sheets of tin were trucked and railroaded into the factory on a near-daily basis from the Monterey Wharf and machined into the sardine cans, which were then shipped by truck and rail to the various packing plants along Cannery Row. The plant averaged tens of millions of cans per year.

Buffer stop at the end of the old freight spur. [Google StreetView]
Railroad service to the can company probably began almost immediately, although it is difficult to determine since Sanborn Maps for this part of Pacific Grove are not forthcoming. At least one spur ran from the north along the side of the corrugated steel structure, ending at a steel buffer stop. The long freight-loading platform still remains today as a pedestrian walkway, with the wooden bumpers along the side painted but still in place. The boardwalk that is now on the ocean side of the skylit structure, meanwhile, may also have acted as a freight platform originally, perhaps catering to a long siding that ran the length of the complex, but evidence for this is less certain.

The American Can Company presence in Pacific Grove survived until 1954, after struggling for years from the sardine market crash. The company itself lived on but slowly shifted its focus to financial ventures, merging with PennCorp in 1982 to become Primerica, Inc., a publicly-traded insurance and financial services company.

The vacant factory was purchased around 1957 by National Automotive Fibers, Inc. (NAFI), which manufactured upholstery for automobiles. NAFI had lost its main Monterey-area factory on November 27, 1956, in a disastrous fire that demolished the former San Carlos Cannery, where NAFI had been based. Its relocation to the recently-abandoned American Can Company facility allowed the company to remain in the region for another three decades. In 1962, the company was renamed Chris-Craft Industries, Inc., although it retained its former name as a subsidiary. The railroad continued to service this new company as it had the previous tenant, shipping finished goods out to the mainline track at Castroville. In the late 1970s, Chris-Craft vacated the facility, although it survived elsewhere until 2001 when it was sold to News Corp as a television subsidiary, the company's other ventures all having been sold off or abandoned. The large factory in Pacific Grove thereafter became the single massive Ardan department store.

The modern American Tin Cannery complex in the old American Can Company buildings, 2011. [Google StreetView]
Ardan shut its doors in 1986 and the entire complex was soon converted into California's first factory outlet center: the American Tin Cannery. The name has always been a bit of a misnomer since, although the original facility did create tin cans, it was not a cannery in the same way that the other packing houses on Cannery Row were called canneries. The American Tin Cannery existed for many years as the popular outlet mall, but declining mall attendance has seen it vacillate between various types of retail complexes, resulting in the mixed retail, restaurant, entertainment, and office facility present today. Few of the early outlets remain, although Reebok in the former shipping warehouse has been in place since the beginning. Plans have been in place since April 2016 to turn the complex into a hotel and convention center, but nothing has yet been done to realise that project.

Street Address, Geo-Coordinates & Current Status:
125 Ocean View Blvd, Pacific Grove, CA
36.619˚N, 121.904˚W

The entirety of the former can company is now the site of the American Tin Cannery retail, shopping, and entertainment center and is open to the public. Images of the can company as well as historical plaques can be found throughout the complex, while some of the original architecture remains in place beside modern commercial retail spaces. The ocean-side curb area on the southeast side of the structure marks the former site of the railroad spur that serviced the company. The former freight-loading platform now serves as an extended boardwalk running along Ocean View Blvd. The northwestern oceanside of the structure supported a freight spur, the buffer stop for which remains in place near the convergence of the two parts of the structure. The freight-loading curb continues as concrete to the end of the building, with the wooden bumper painted but still in place along the sidewall.

Citations & Credits:
  • Architectural Resources Group and Architects, Planners & Conservators, Inc. "299 Cannery Row" and "300 Cannery Row". Primary Record. State of California – The Resources Agency. Department of Parks and Recreation. In Final Cannery Row Cultural Resources Survey Report Document, Monterey, CA, 2001.
  • City of Pacific Grove. "Historic Context (1927 – 1945)". Historic Context Statement – Final.
  • Howe, Kevin. "Factory outlet may get makeover". Monterey Herald, April 7, 2008.

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