A Big Fish Story, Part I

Paul S. George, Ph.D

Despite its relative youth, Miami has had its share of unique characters and stories.  This was clearly the case in its early years. Captain Charlie Thompson, a storied fisherman, was one of its most compelling characters in that era.  Thompson also provided the young city with one of its most memorable moments. 

A member of a Bahamian family that had migrated to southeast Florida in the 1800s, Charles Thompson was born in 1873 at the Cape Florida Lighthouse on Key Biscayne, where his father served as keeper.  Charlie was a handsome youth who quickly carved out a great reputation for his fishing prowess, ultimately serving as a fishing guide for four U.S. presidents, and many other famous visitors in the Magic City.  According to Dr. John Oliver LaGorce, associate editor of National Geographic magazine, and a longtime friend of the fisherman, Thompson was blessed with “the most amazing set of eyes,” which, it is presumed, assisted him considerably in his craft.  LaGorce averred that Thompson “knew more about fish in warm waters than any six factual finding scientists I have ever known.  He could spot the fin of a fish a quarter of a mile away from the boat and tell what kind of fish it was.”  Charlie’s deep familiarity with the region’s waters meant that “he could take you to any spot in the Florida Keys or in the Gulfstream and on given days tell you what kind of fish would bite.”

Thompson often answered the summons to assist in a highly challenging or even bizarre fishing situation.  In 1908, for instance, a headline in the Miami Daily Metropolis told of Captain Charlie chasing a “sea serpent” on the Little River, a stream lying some six miles north of the City of Miami.  The journal predicted that “if there is anything that swims of extraordinary dimensions, playing peek-a-boo with Captain Charley (sic) Thompson up around Little River within the next few days, its name will be ‘mud.’  When Charley Thompson gets the hooks into a sea cow, sea horse, or sea elephant, the varmint might just as well make up its mind not to resist.  Although Captain Charlie never found the “sea serpent,” he made up for it when, in 1912, he was the protagonist in one of the great fish stories of any era.

In June 1912, when Miami was a city with under 10,000 residents, Captain Charlie took a party of twelve south to the waters off the upper Florida Keys aboard his charter vessel, the Samoa.  Thompson towed a small, open launch behind his boat.  While fishing near Trestle No. 2, a segment of the superstructure of Henry M. Flagler’s recently-completed Overseas Railroad to Key West, near Knight’s Key, Thompson and his party spotted a huge fish on the surface of the water, prompting them to jump into the trailing launch and pursue it.  As they later learned, the big fish had been injured earlier, preventing it from submerging itself.  For the next thirty-six hours, Thompson and his party struggled with the monster, which measured forty-five feet in length, possessed a circumference of twenty-four feet, and weighed about 30,000 pounds! Its liver alone weighed 5,000 pounds!

When Thompson harpooned the fish, his vessel was “towed in wild and merry circles” by the wounded monster.  As the marathon struggle continued throughout the night, frightened passengers begged Captain Charlie to cut the harpoon lines, even offering him an ample sum of money to do so. But an enraged Thompson reportedly threatened to shoot anyone who cut the lines.  Ultimately, it took five harpoons and 151 bullets to subdue the fish, defined as a whale shark (Rhinodon typicus).

In the next installment of this column, we will examine the aftermath of this titanic struggle, including the appearance of the monstrous fish in downtown Miami, and the period beyond. 

Paul S. George, Ph.D., serves as Resident Historian, HistoryMiami Museum.  He conducts history tours throughout the County and even beyond for HistoryMiami. Additionally, he teaches classes in Miami/S. Florida and Florida history for the Museum. Dr. George also leads Little Havana tours as part of Viernes Culturales, a monthly celebration, every third Friday, of the culture and history of that quarter.

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