How did Destin fisherman keep their catch fresh before artificial ice?

Staff Writer
The Destin Log
Bulletin of the Bureau of Fisheries, Volume 18, published 1899 – United States Fish Commission, pages 341-343.

Another one of the History Mysteries of Destin is how did the Destin fisherman keep their catch of fish fresh in order to sell it in Pensacola before there was artificial ice?  With the Destin Fishing Rodeo in full swing this month this piece of history shows just how much times have changed.

Early Destin fishermen used well-smacks as their fishing vessels prior to the introduction of artificial ice in the United States. The concept of well-smacks was first introduced in England in 1712, being used at Harwich, England where 12 were in operation as early as 1720. By the early 1800s, prior to the general use of ice on vessels in the United States, most of the vessels in New England, especially those used in cod and halibut fishing, were constructed with a well in the hold in which the fish were retained alive until they could be delivered to market and sold.

The use of well-smacks began in the United States at both New London, Connecticut, and Greenport, New York, about 1820. By using well-smacks, New London fishermen were able to extend their fishing all the way to the Georges Bank, off Boston in Massachusetts Bay by 1840. The fish were caught by means of hand lines and were handled very carefully, being placed in the well immediately on removal from the water. Those dying before reaching market, through injuries or otherwise, were sold at about one-fourth the price of live fish.

The well-smacks running cod and sea bass which fished off Sandy Hook and Long Island shore, had a capacity for 8,000 to 20,000 pounds of fish depending on the time of the year and the length of the trip. When the well was so full that the holes could not be seen, it was considered time to sail to market to sell the catch. Normally the market where fish caught by New London fishermen were sold was the Fulton Fish Market located in the Bronx, in New York City.

Well-smacks were also used in red snapper and grouper fishing industry in Key West, Pensacola and East Pass (Destin). The well-smacks used in Gulf of Mexico red-snapper and grouper fishing were of the same type as those in use on the New England coast. Actually, most of them were designed for New England fishing and brought to the Gulf of Mexico by New London fisherman who would winter in the Florida Keys and the Pensacola area after the United States took possession of Florida from Spain in 1822.

Construction of the Well

The well in which the fish were placed was situated amidships at the bottom of the hold. It extended from just forward of the main hatch nearly to the mainmast, and occupied about one-third of the length of the vessel.  Typical New London fishing smacks were of a sloop rig and 39 feet to 44 feet in length, with a 13-foot beam and a 6-foot draft. So the well would have been about 12 – 15 feet in length.

The well was formed by two stout, water-tight bulkheads at either-end, 4 or 5 feet high and about 5 inches thick, extending from keelson to deck and entirely across the vessel. Midway between these is usually another bulkhead, which assists in supporting the deck and divides the well into two compartments. Leading from the well to the deck is a funnel curb, about 2 feet wide by 4 foot long at its upper end and 8 feet long at its lower end.

The frames are usually the same distance apart as elsewhere in the vessel. However, on some smacks they are twice as far apart in order to permit the water to circulate freely and to facilitate dipping the fish from the well.  About 300 auger-holes, 1 inch in diameter, were bored in the bottom planking of the well through which the sea water freely enter. It was kept in circulation and constantly renewed by the motion of the boat. The sectional plan below clearly shows the construction features of the hull of a vessel with a well.

The word “smack” came from the sound the vessel made in the water

The name “smack” actually came from the sound the vessel made while sailing along. With the large number of small holes in the center section of the hull, sea water could enter the hold where the fish that had been caught could be kept alive for 7 – 10 days while at sea. The sound of the sea water entering the exiting the hull made a slapping or “smacking” sound against the hull. That smacking sound is why these vessels were called fishing smacks.

Artificial ice changed the need for keeping fish alive in wells

Prior to the invention of machinery to manufacture artificial ice, the importation of ice in blocks from the north to Florida was very expensive and hard to get. Fish and meat were preserved by salting them. Fisherman kept the fish they caught alive until they could get them to port to sell them by using well smacks.

Once the invention of artificial ice was perfected the rules all changed. No longer did fish and meat need to be preserved by the use of salt. They could be preserved by keeping them cold or by freezing the fish both aboard fishing vessels and for transportation to far away locations.

Pensacola was the first city in Florida to obtain an ice house. The Gulf Ice Factory opened in 1881, but ran into some bad luck. The Dec. 23, 1881 issue of the Columbus Georgia Daily Enquirer newspaper contained the following article titled “Fire in Pensacola.”

In the April 2, 1882 issue of New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper it was reported that The Gulf Ice Factory in Pensacola was a success and it was expected to produce 20,000 pounds of ice when in full production.  Artificial ice became the primary method to preserve meat and fish. Well Smacks slowly were replaced with solid hulled vessels, where newly caught fish were kept fresh with ice until they could reach market.

H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian who visits often and lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas with his wife (the former Muriel Marler of Destin).  He also contributed historical research for Tony Mennillo’s recently published book “Salty Memories along the Coastal Highway – Historic Stories of Destin and the Emerald Coast.”  He can be contacted at