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The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is a 501 (c) (3) accredited, not-for-profit organization existing to research, interpret, and exhibit the maritime history of Florida and the Caribbean in ways that increase knowledge, enrich the spirit, and stimulate inquiry.

Archaeology  & Research/ More ... Marie J. Thompson

The Marie J. Thompson, a 1920s Schooner

Norberg Thompson’s cigar box factory was at the foot of William St., fronting the Key West Bight. The Marie J. Thompson’s role was to bring raw lumber to the facility so it could be transformed into boxes to supply the island’s booming cigar industry. The schooner also carried goods to other ports, as it traveled throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Life on the Marie J. Thompson was not always easy. Newspaper reports tell of a crewman falling overboard and being eaten by sharks; an adjacent ship at dock was consumed by fire, nearly taking the Marie J., too; and in 1925, the schooner went missing for 54 days after being becalmed, with the crew nearly starving to death.

One constant in the Marie J. Thompson’s career was that it frequently needed repair. There is some thought that when its launch went awry, leaving the large schooner half in and half out of the water, it caused it to flex in ways it was not meant to, leaving it weakened. 

Norberg Thompson's WWI Key West Waterfront Pass.

In 1927, the Marie J. needed to be put into dry dock, and it was sent to a yard in Kingston, Jamaica, the only place that could haul a vessel of its size. As the schooner was being lifted, the lift failed and the Marie J. was dropped. That broke the schooner’s keel, and as was described by Thompson’s son-in-law Edward Knight, “Like a racehorse with a broken leg, the Marie J. Thompson could sail no more.” The crippled schooner was hauled to Key West, driven onto the banks of Man of War channel north of the island, stripped of anything useful, then abandoned.

The submerged remains of the Marie J. Thompson.
A red X marks the location of the Marie J. Thompson site.
Bahamian Shipwright W. E. Roberts' original 1917 sketch of th Marie J. Thompson.

In 2009, after research into the Thompson businesses, it was learned that the wreck of the Marie J. Thompson could still be found where it had been discarded, a mile north of Key West in Man of War Harbor. Since that time, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum has worked with the Florida Keys Community College’s “Research Diving” course to familiarize students with the ideas and techniques utilized in marine archaeology and to document the remains of the long-forgotten schooner. Now, three times a year, after learning basic survey techniques and formulating a research plan, groups of undergraduates create basic site plans by measuring the wreck’s dimensions. Remarkably, these surveys show the Marie J. Thompson is still nearly as long as it was when it sailed!

All in all, the Marie J. Thompson represents a not-too-distant time in the history of Florida and The Bahamas when wooden ship building was a practical trade and when nothing more than wind, canvas, and a well-designed hull could be relied upon to do business. But when the Marie J. went, so did the era.

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