Fishing Industry Once Kept the Balboa Peninsula Humming

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

For 20 years after World War II, the 40 acres of Balboa Peninsula known as Cannery Village were the center of a thriving fishing industry--a miniature version of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Where there now are boutiques, galleries and restaurants, there once were boatyards, landings and canneries, with the smell of fish and the hum of boat engines filling the air.

All that remains are a handful of marine-related industries and a replica of the major landmark of the day, the Western Canners Co., now a Newport Beach seafood restaurant.

The few in the area who remember the glory days of fishing do not conceal their nostalgia for a time when people from all over--including such movie stars as Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney--shared a love of boats and fishing. All too quickly, old-timers say, the era faded into history as the fish moved to deeper, cleaner waters.


“It was a short, fast history, like a lot of California history,” laments Ed Martindale, 60, owner of 36-year-old Mameco Engineering, one of the few businesses in Cannery Village that serve the fishing industry. “I’m grateful I was here when so much was going on.”

Before World War II, the area was mostly undeveloped. In 1925, there were 50 fishermen in Newport Beach. By 1941, the number of commercial fishing boats in Newport Harbor had swelled to more than 400. During the war, several boatyards were opened to build minesweepers and PT boats, and more than 250 military vessels were launched from these yards. The boatyards were converted to commercial use after the war, and the village took off as a fishing hub.

At its peak during the 1950s, the village had nine boat landings and three canneries supplied by hundreds of fishing boats. At one time, the boats brought in enough fish for Western Canners to fill 275,785,048 one-pound cans in a year. Today, there are two boat landings in Newport Harbor that handle 10 commercial fishing boats.

During the industry’s heyday, flickering lantern lights from 50 or more mackerel boats could be seen off the coast at night. The fishing--or “brailing” as it was called--was done at night, Martindale says, because the mackerel were attracted to light. The fishermen would toss out handfuls of ground-up mackerel, and when the fish would come to the light to get the bait, the fishermen would scoop them up with a net fastened to a pole and dump the fish into ice holds to preserve freshness.

When the fully loaded fishing boats returned to shore at daylight, the canneries would blow a steam whistle summoning their workers, most of whom lived within walking distance. The boats would dock alongside a cannery in Newport Harbor, and a big vacuum hose would be used to suck the fish from holds onto a conveyor belt.

Inside the cannery, the fish were cleaned and packed in tins. Then the tins were put in big iron baskets, called retorts, and lowered into vats for 77 minutes at a temperature of 252 degrees Fahrenheit to complete the canning process.

The first commercial fish cannery in the county, the Newport Packing Co., began operating in 1921 along the Rhine Channel between 30th Street and Lido Park Drive. It started with 40 workers, mostly women, according to newspaper accounts.

By the mid-1930s, three fish canneries were operating in the area, providing income for about 300 fishermen and jobs for about 100 workers at each cannery.

In 1934, Western Canners Co. was founded by Walter Longmoor, Tommy Thomas and Jerry Spangler to take over the old Newport Packing plant. The canning operation then was done by hand at the rate of 400 cases a day, according to Western Canners records. By the early 1950s, when the operation was automated and the plant enlarged, the cannery was producing up to 5,000 cases a day. The cannery’s record is believed to be 135 tons of mackerel and 10,000 pounds of albacore (white tuna) in one day.

But pollution from Newport Beach’s growing population and increasing industrialization was driving the mackerel farther out to sea by the early ‘60s. The few remaining mackerel were eliminated by the extensive use of nets, Longmoor says. With no mackerel industry left, Western Canners closed on Aug. 1, 1966. Newport Beach’s days as a busy commercial fishing center were over.

For 25 years, Art Gronsky ran the now-defunct Art’s Landing on Edgewater Street about 2 miles up the harbor from Western Canners. It now is the site of Newport Landing restaurant. Art’s Landing provided fuel and repairs for both commercial fishing and pleasure boats and included among its customers actor John Wayne, a Newport Beach resident from 1964 until his death in 1979. Today, Gronsky, 68, operates a small boat-repair shop, called Sea Marine Services, out of the former Hans Dickman Boat Works at Cannery Village.

In the early days, Gronsky says, the coastal waters of Southern California were a fisherman’s paradise. He used to be able to catch yellowtail directly off Newport Pier. Today, the yellowtail run far offshore. Abalone divers once had only to venture a few hundred yards offshore to make their quotas, Gronsky says. But by the 1960s, they had to go as far as Catalina Island on 2- and 3-day trips to find abalone. The Newport coast became so overfished in ensuing years that some marine species, including sardines and anchovies, almost disappeared. Gronsky blames the overfishing on the growing number of commercial fishing boats and their use of gill nets capable of sweeping up entire schools of fish.

“Those nets just decimated the fish population up and down the coast. The difference between the way it is and the way it used to be is a far cry.”

Local marine life has thinned out so dramatically, Gronsky says, that fishermen now are using airplane spotters and sonar sounding devices to find schools of fish.

“It gets harder and harder each year to catch fish.”

Bill Hamilton remembers the sights, sounds and smells of Cannery Village from the childhood summers he spent at his parents’ beach house on Balboa before World War II. One of his favorite pastimes, he recalls, was going down to Western Canners and watching the canning operation.

After the cannery closed, Hamilton bought the cavernous building and began converting it to the Cannery Restaurant, which opened in 1973 after 2 years of construction. The building was in such disrepair that Hamilton says he was forced to raze it, but the building that took its place is a replica--reduced to three-fifths its horizontal size to make room for a parking lot.

The restoration was a boon to artists: The cannery’s yellow walls, red roof and rakish angles had always been one of the more popular subjects along the coast. It still is. On a recent weekday, small groups of art students from area colleges huddled with sketch pads around the site as their predecessors had done decades before.

“It’s popular to draw because it’s a complex and interesting building,” says Robert Wendell, an Orange Coast College fine arts professor who has been taking students to the cannery building since it was restored. “It’s sort of a ramshackle collection of weird angles and slanting rooftops. There is not a square corner.”

Hamilton went to great pains in reconstructing the building to use as many parts from the old cannery as possible. Wood and corrugated metal siding from the original building were used, and the original 10-foot-high boiler is on display along with a selection of early photographs and business records. The overall effect is so realistic that, Hamilton says, he is regularly approached by older patrons who tell him it brings back memories.

Next door to the Cannery Restaurant is the former Hans Dickman Boat Works building, which opened 66 years ago as the first commercial boatyard in the cannery area. Unlike the converted cannery, the Hans Dickman building has not been renovated.

With termite-ravaged wood and sagging metal siding, the building last year was slated for historical preservation by the Foundation for Sea and Marine Education. The project fell through, however, when the foundation subsequently went out of business. Russ Fluter, a real estate broker and manager of the property, said the owners are now considering either upgrading the building so it can be used as a boatyard or selling the property altogether.

Except for the Cannery Restaurant and the Hans Dickman building, the new Cannery Village bears little resemblance to the old. The dominating feature today is not the restored cannery but two high-rise condominiums built over the past 2 decades.