81. Thompson-O'Neal Fish House

Historic Marker number 81 is located at 631 Greene Street on the corner of Greene and Elizabeth Streets.

This historic site has played an important role in the prosperity of Key West since the 1890s. The discovery of large sponge beds in the shallow waters of the backcountry spawned an industry that lasted 50 years.

Large, wide docks were built on the water stretching to Historic Marker #46 displaying the catch of the day. Wholesalers would stroll along the docks to inspect the wide variety of sponges to purchase for markets throughout the country.

At its peak Key West held a monopoly on the sponge trade in the United States. The trade employed 1,200 men working on 350 "hook boats". It produced an average of 2,000 tons a year which yielded the economy $750,000 annually.

This building was built for and around the discovery of Florida Pink Shrimp in 1947. News about the abundance of the nocturnal pink shrimp found off the shores of South Florida spread like wildfire. By 1950 there were 500 shrimp trawlers in port and the "pink gold rush" was on.

The metal clad building was built in 1948 by two fish house companies, Thompson and O'Neal shrimp packing houses, combining their resources to meet the demand of the new industry

A fish house is a packing plant that unloads and purchases seafood from boats. It cleans the catch and packs it in wooden crates with ice for transport to market. Workers removed the heads and cleaned the catch by hand. The fish house also provided dockage and land storage space, supplies the fuel, ice, bait, gear, and repairs that a fisherman needed to operate efficiently. The building also served as a social meeting place for the fishermen and the community. The numerous jobs it created were a significant bolster for the city's economy.

Shrimp heads and refuse from the cleaning process was thrown into the water off the dock much to the delight of large schools of tarpon fish.

In conjunction to the fish house, Thompson-O'Neal built a large two story ice factory. It employed the latest ice making technology that proved to be much safer than the volatility of ammonia based ice production.

In 1976, Henry Singleton's Corporation purchased the Thompson-O'Neal Shrimp Company. The purchase included most of the waterfront of the historic seaport. You can see a life-size statue of John "Booty" Singleton next to Historic Marker #77.

With the decline of the shrimp industry and the relocation of the fleet to a neighboring island there was no need for the ice factory. Today it is an educational facility for Reef Relief.

Our shrimp fleet has dwindled from nearly 500 trawlers in the 1950s to three working boats today. The industry has been rocked by cheap imports and high fuel prices.

By the 1960s the building was being used by watersport companies, fishing and scuba charters, sailmakers and water transportation to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.

In its latest transformation the fish house building operates as a restaurant and bar overlooking the Historic Seaport.