Local Historian Explores Cannery Row Connections to the PNW


Ted Olinger, KP News

Ed Ricketts examines the beach near Port Townsend sometime in the 1930s. Courtesy Pat Hathaway Collection.

Michael Kenneth Hemp relocated to Wauna from Carmel, California in early 2017 to research the role of Puget Sound in the work of Ed Ricketts, a Monterey marine biologist of the 1930s and '40s whose work laid the foundation for the modern science of ecology and whose reputation was made famous by John Steinbeck.

Ricketts ran a marine specimen supply business in Monterey called Pacific Biological Laboratories that had an outsized impact. His work is curated by Stanford University and specimens he collected are housed in museums around the world. The lab itself was a center of intellectual exploration as well, with frequent gatherings that included the likes of Henry Miller, Joseph Campbell, Francis Whitaker and Steinbeck.

Ricketts also served as the inspiration for the character “Doc” in Steinbeck’s 1945 novel “Cannery Row” and its 1954 sequel, “Sweet Thursday.”

Hemp’s interest started early.

“I was born and raised in Berkeley and was going to Monterey ever since I had a driver’s permit,” he said. “It was 1980 when I fell for Cannery Row.”

After attending college at Gonzaga and Berkeley, and after four years in the Air Force (including one in special ops in Laos and Cambodia), Hemp was working for a Monterey magazine in the late 1970s when he was asked to do a profile on Cannery Row.

“There was no history then; a couple of academics had touched it, but nobody had really done it,” he said. “I happened to end up pals with Charlie Nonella, one of ‘Mac and the boys’ from ‘Cannery Row.’”

Hemp delved into the history of what was originally Ocean View Avenue—the name was changed to Cannery Row in 1958 after Steinbeck’s novel made it famous. Hemp conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with men and women who’d worked in the canneries and on the fishing boats from the early part of the 20th century until the collapse of the fishery in the 1960s. The last cannery closed in 1973.

Courtesy Michael Kenneth Hemp

Hemp created the Cannery Row Foundation in 1983 to collect and preserve this history and published his book, “Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue,” in 1986. The book is now in its third edition.

“In the last few years, I had reached the end of my arc,” Hemp said. “I’d done over a thousand interviews to put this book together since 1980; there was no one left.”

His book includes hundreds of historical photos collected by Pat Hathaway. While assembling the book, Hathaway showed Hemp a 1930s-era photo of Ricketts in Port Townsend.

“And when I saw that shot of Ed Ricketts kneeling in the bull kelp in front of Point Wilson Light, I thought, ‘Holy Moses—there’s a whole different story up here.’”

Hemp and his wife, Terri, have been tracking down signs of Ed Ricketts in the Northwest ever since.

“We put everything we could into our two Hondas and headed north,” he said, before finding a house to buy in Wauna. “I’m having a ball looking for where Ed Ricketts and his family stayed during his forays all over Puget Sound, all the way up to Comox, B.C.

“Ricketts talks about Wollochet Bay and how great the clamming was,” Hemp said. “His 1930s work was based from Hoodsport all over the Sound and up to Vancouver Island, and then in the ‛40s he shifted to the Queen Charlotte Islands. And that’s where he and Steinbeck were going to go when (Ricketts) got killed.” Ricketts was hit by a train in May 1948.

In 1940, Steinbeck and Ricketts chartered a Monterey purse seiner called the Western Flyer to explore sea life in Baja, a voyage and vessel Steinbeck made famous in 1951 in his nonfiction work “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.” This was an abridged version of the more technical and less popular book, “Sea of Cortez,” which the two wrote in 1941.

“A month after Ricketts got hit by the train in May of '48, he and Steinbeck were supposed to be on their way to the Queen Charlottes to do another book,” Hemp said. “If they’d done it, it would’ve completed what they called the trilogy: the three books where Ed Ricketts basically surveyed the entire intertidal west coast of North America: ‘Between Pacific Tides,’ ‘Sea of Cortez,’ and this one on the outer shores. He was that close to being a household figure. He’s better known as ‘Doc’ from ‘Cannery Row,’ but that has masked the fact that he is one of the greatest naturalists we’ve ever produced.

“I wanted to come up here because of that picture of Ed Ricketts to launch the rest of my career with whatever time I’ve got left,” Hemp said. “There may not be enough time to complete his story up here, but I’ll get it started.”