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Lost Treasure Trails

My parents gave me a book called Lost Treasure Trails by Thomas Penfield when I was twelve years old. I was enthralled, fascinated, intrigued. The chapters covered buried and sunken treasures and lost mines. I loved it. That year when we visited the Florida Keys, I insisted that we stop at Art McKee’s Sunken Treasure Museum on Plantation Key. Art McKee ( was a Florida diver who built the museum to house some of the items he found diving the Spanish wrecks. These items included one of three silver bars (he sold the other two to the Smithsonian), and jewelry that featured a beautiful gold and emerald earring. The emerald, cut and polished as a drop, was stunning. His museum has disappeared, but drive down to Key West and tour Mel Fisher’s Maritime Museum in Key West. It’s the only fully accredited museum in the Keys and is nationally recognized as a research and archaeology institution.

Mel Fisher found the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha[3] in 1985. The estimated $450 million cache recovered, known as "The Atocha Motherlode," included 40 tons of gold and silver; approximately 114,000 Spanish silver coins known as "pieces of eight", gold coins, Colombian emeralds, gold and silver artifacts, and 1000 silver ingots.[3][2] But the wealthiest part of the ship, the sterncastle, is yet to be found. Still missing are 300 silver bars and 8 bronze cannons, among other things.

The Supreme Court of the United States confirmed Fisher's ownership to the recovered treasure and transferred ownership of 75 percent of the appraised value of all material recovered. Fisher's company, Salvors Inc., also found remains of other shipwrecks in Florida waters, including the Atocha's sister galleon the Santa Margarita and the remains of a slave ship known as the Henrietta Marie, lost in 1700. Mel Fisher hired Duncan Matthewson as chief archaeologist during the Atocha period, and his company, Salvors, Inc. became experts in recovery and conservation of underwater artifacts. Concern in the U.S., and Florida specifically, to protect submerged archaeological sites contributed to the 2001 adoption of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater. Now that the Oak Island mystery has become “The Curse of Oak Island” series on the History Channel, its secret has become common speculation, but I’ve been reading and wondering about this mysterious treasure since I was a child. If you’re serious about sunken ships, read The Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder, published in 2009. This nonfiction book is practically a technical guide to finding, claiming, and salvaging a sunken ship plus the legal issues involved. More than that, the history of this ship and its passengers makes for fascinating reading.

Gary Kinder describes the search for the SS Central America, a sidewheel steamer which left Panama in 1857 and went down in the Atlantic while carrying two million dollars in gold from California. First person survivor accounts tell of the ship's journey, the hurricane, and the frantic efforts of crew and passengers to keep the engines fired and the ship afloat. Kinder reveals the touching love stories in these accounts as women and children were put into lifeboats while their husbands stayed with the ship.

As counterpoint, Kinder describes the life of Tommy Thompson, an inventive child who studied engineering, became fascinated by the challenges of underwater engineering, and eventually worked for Mel Fisher, learning what kind of underwater equipment was needed but not available. Kinder then takes on Thompson's experimentation with equipment, the comprehensive documentation of the site through photographs and film, the legal battles for the salvage rights, and the final recovery tally ranging from gold bars and coins to preserved suitcases of clothing. It’s easy to scoff at the idea of finding and claiming a sunken treasure ship or even buried treasure, but it seems less far-fetched when you realize that Florida, Virginia, and other states have laws about treasure finds and lay out the percentage of the finds that must be given to the state. To some, treasure hunting is serious business.

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