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Fishing Industry Once Kept the Balboa Peninsula Humming

May 06, 1989|JIM CARLTON | Times Staff Writer

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.

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