By John Christopher Fine
“Florida is the epicenter for sunken Spanish treasure galleons.” That was the mantra of the late Bob ‘Frogfoot’ Weller. Bob and Margaret Weller searched off Florida’s coast for forty years. Their discoveries rivaled those of Mel Fisher with whom they worked and shared close friendship. Frogfoot was always successful. He knew Florida’s underwater bounty can never be exhausted. Furious hurricanes wrecked about ten percent of Spanish colonial shipping. Centuries of wind, waves and storms in the Atlantic scattered this wreckage over miles of ocean. It will never all be found.
Finding sunken treasure requires careful research, high tech equipment and perseverance. Hauling that gear takes a sturdy vehicle and careful packing. When I decided to travel south to join friends in Florida on underwater explorations I packed my thirty-five horsepower outboard engine, inflatable boat, treasure detectors, scuba tanks and equipment. I took everything I would need to be autonomous in the months that followed. Driving with a packed car was the only alternative. I considered taking a boat trailer. Luckily I had friends operating large support vessels in Florida that made it unnecessary on this trip. The inflatable would be perfect for offshore exploration in shallow water.
A 1,500 mile trip with a full car is exhausting. It requires at least one overnight. While fuel costs have gone down it is not inexpensive to drive. I checked into Amtrak’s Auto Train. They had a sale in effect. I was able to book my SUV and passage very reasonably.
I call Amtrak’s Auto Train my Florida Treasure Express. The train is operated from Lorton, Virginia, just south of Washington, DC right off I 95, to Sanford, Florida about twenty miles north of Orlando, some 27 miles to I 95 south.
Most everyone asks why the Auto Train does not operate from Boston or New York directly to Miami. Auto Train is the longest train in the U.S. The train stretches three-quarters of a mile in length. Pulled by two General Electric P 42 diesel engines, each turning 4,250 horsepower, Auto Train consists of 33 specially designed double decker Auto Carriers and 18 passenger cars that are also double deckers. The large cars will not pass under tunnels and bridges on Amtrak’s northern corridor designed long ago for smaller carriages. Sanford is a fully equipped Amtrak station that can handle the trains and volume of passengers as well vehicles. It also has fully equipped shops to service rolling stock. That Sanford is only a quick drive to Orlando, one of Florida’s most popular destinations, makes it a perfect terminal.
It is no wonder that Auto Train is Amtrak’s most profitable line. Each year Auto Train carries 130,000 vehicles and 250,000 passengers. Bearing height requirements in mind pick up trucks, vans, cargo and boat trailers as well as motorcycles are accommodated. I took a sleeper. All the elegance of rail travel comes to life on Auto Train.
I drove in to Lorton, Virginia station, checked in at the gate, had a magnetic number placed on the driver’s side of my car, pulled up, got my overnight bag, computer and camera, went inside the terminal and left the car to attendants. After I checked in at the ticket counter I went outside to watch Amtrak employees pull vehicles into huge Auto Carriers. There is free Wi Fi inside the terminal and aboard the train. A playground for children offers distraction while they wait.
With my overnight bags on a complimentary dolly I set to work on my computer. Amtrak’s Internet is high speed. I was able to send one of my magazine editors thirty-one photos along with the story and captions. My car and belongings were perfectly safe inside the Auto Carrier. I got onto my treasure research and maps once I’d finished with computer work. Auto Trains leave every day of the year at 4 PM in each direction from Lorton and Sanford. Loading vehicles takes place between 11 AM and 2 PM. Stations have clean restrooms, large snack bars and magazine stands. Once aboard the train there is complimentary coffee, tea, hot chocolate and alcoholic beverage service in lounge cars.
Airline service is not like this any more. I wheeled my baggage dolly to the track, met courteous attendants and was welcomed aboard. Persons with handicaps and elderly passengers were treated with respect and given every thoughtful consideration. That was refreshing to see. No one rushed them, their special needs were considered and handicap accessible rooms on the first level of sleeper cars provide convenience for wheel chair passengers. There are three classes of travel on Auto Train: coach, business class and first class. First class includes a sleeper room. Veteran Auto Train coach passengers take their own pillows and blankets and enjoy reclining seats. Business class travel includes complimentary soft drinks and large recliner seats. Sleepers offer roomettes that fold out into beds from two facing seats. There are rooms with bunk beds and toilets that double as showers. There is a large shower with complimentary soap and terry cloth towels on the lower level of double decker sleeper cars.
I put my overnight bag in my roomette then walked to the lounge car, took a cup of coffee from a self-service dispenser then set about my research. Art and Dan Schweitzer worked with Dan Porter on the 1715 fleet off Ft. Pierce, Florida over the summer. They had an amazing season. The 1715 fleet wrecked in a hurricane on shallow reefs and shoals along the coast. Shipwrecks were scattered from Ft. Pierce north to Sebastian. Some wreckage was scattered all the way to what is now Satellite Beach.
“I found four gold coins myself,” Art told me. “We worked just off Frederick Douglas Park. Other divers brought up more gold coins.” The area the father and son team of Art and Dan, working with contract licensee and boat captain Dan Porter, searched were sites Bob and Margaret Weller worked for years. On days when I dove with the Weller’s we always found something off what is now called Frederick Douglas State Park. In the grim and unjust days of segregation the beach there was known as Colored Beach. Old time treasure divers may still refer to the site by that name.
It is here, just off shore, in water not even ten feet deep, where the Weller team consisting of Bob and Margaret Weller, Chris James, Bob Luyendyk and Bill Cassinelli discovered a treasure cache they called the ‘Queen’s Jewels.’
In those days, before cell phones and GPS, I’d call Frogfoot early morning. They rented a town house to make the summer season convenient working the 1715 fleet. They docked their lucky treasure hunting boat the ‘Pandion’ in a marina on the Intracoastal Waterway not far from the inlet. If weather looked good, if ocean conditions were calm enough to work near shore and the boat would be secure so the mail box would not bounce up and down on top of divers working below, Frogfoot would give me the signal to drive up to Ft. Pierce.
I’d ask permission from the new owners of Kip Wagner’s cottage just on the beach if the Weller’s were working that site or park in the parking lot at what is now Frederick Douglas State Park. I’d grab my gear, walk down to the beach, wave to the Weller’s working on ‘Pandion’ just off shore then swim out.
The ‘Queen’s Jewels,’ became the most important underwater treasure discovery in many years. The clutch of magnificent gold jewelry studded with blue white diamonds radiated sunlight. Gold is not affected by immersion in water. It comes up just as it went down, unlike silver that oxidizes when submerged. The Weller team had gold fever. I joined a happy boat. We would dive all day in shifts. Since it was shallow it was likely we would stay underwater two hours or more. It gets chilly underwater despite the relative warmth of Gulf Stream waters.
When I got too cold to work I’d head for the surface with stuff I’d found using my Garrett Treasure Hunter underwater metal detector, call up to whoever was on board ‘Pandion,’ hand up my finds then my heavy weight belt and tank and climb on board. If Margaret Weller, known far and wide as ‘Lady Gold Diver,’ was not underwater there would be hot soup and delicious gourmet food served up. Often the meal aboard ‘Pandion,’ shared in fellowship with the Weller’s, was the envy of the treasure hunting fleet. Margaret is a wonderful cook. No simple fare was adequate. She would prepare delicious meals at the townhouse for divers to enjoy aboard ‘Pandion.’
Contemplating Lady Gold Diver’s shrimp salad I enjoyed the comfort of Amtrak’s lounge car anticipating dinner. Dinner and breakfasts are included in the price of an Auto Train ticket. Seatings in the first class dining car are at 5, 7 and 9 PM. It is a scenic ride through Virginia. Auto Train’s double decker lounge cars and rooms offer terrific views of rivers and bays. The conductor announced Quantico so passengers could see the world famous U.S. Marine Corps training base built along the water. As sun sets in the west there are glorious views of Virginia’s rivers and wetlands that glow with orange and red as day changes into twilight.
Tables aboard are set with flowers, linen cloths and napkins. Auto Train has switched from real china plates to plastic. That does not change the ambiance of service. Entrees come with a salad and dinner rolls. Seared beef shoulder comes out tender and is served with steamed green beans and baked potato. Four people are seated at each table. Conversation usually centers around winter snow in the northland. Veteran Auto Train passengers lament the fact that complimentary carafes of wine have been eliminated. Those that fancy wine can order it by the glass, bottle or half-bottle from the bar, brought to table by an attendant. Sea food entrees on my voyage included baked cod, there was roast chicken breast and vegetarian mushroom bolognese lasagna. Special meals are provided for kids. Desserts include cheesecake, ginger date pudding or ice cream.
Auto Train’s fare did not rival the delicacies Margaret ‘Lady Gold Diver’ Weller served aboard ‘Pandion,’ then Margaret didn’t bother with linen table cloths and certainly never wore a pressed uniform to serve us. Well not unless you consider her wet suit a suitable uniform.
We had convivial conversation at table. It turned out that all of my table mates were headed to the same place in Florida I was. I hid my treasure maps from view and told them I was an insurance salesman. That certainly foreclosed business conversation. Kidding of course. It is always fascinating to talk with fellow travelers at table aboard the train. Service was not rushed. Those that ordered a bottle of wine enjoyed it at leisure. For any that wanted seconds the wait staff was more than accommodating. As we finished an announcement was made that breakfast would be served the next morning starting at 6:30 AM for early birds. A call would be made at 7 AM for the first formal serving of breakfast. I bid my table mates good night and returned to my roomette to do a little more work on my computer with treasure research while they set out for the lounge car to play cards and enjoy libations.
Breakfast was served in elegant style. A fancy continental breakfast of cereal, peaches, bagels, sweet rolls, orange juice and hot beverages. For whatever reason coffee aboard Auto Train always tastes fresh brewed and savory. Done with breakfast I returned to my roomette. The attendant that set out my bed the night before had made up the room for seating. Florida’s early morning was shrouded in mist. As sun rise came up I saw Spanish moss hanging precariously from live oak trees. Fog and mist gave northern Florida’s landscape a hallowed appearance. The train arrived in Sanford station an hour early. Average speed on Auto Train is about 55 miles per hour, they top out on straight runs at about 65. I slept well, my roomette bed comfortable, the shower on the lower level large enough to bathe with ample towels and complimentary soap.
Passengers can ante up an extra $60 for priority car service. These vehicles come off the Auto Carriers first. I did not think that necessary although persons with handicaps find it convenient as Amtrak attendants take every care to insure their comfort and safety. I used the station facilities, went outside in bright Florida sunshine, albeit chilly this far north on a winter morning, and stretched pushing my luggage dolly around.
It was only when I got in and started unpacking my dive gear and underwater treasure hunting equipment that I realized just how much a saving it was to take Auto Train. My 35 horsepower outboard motor and inflatable boat alone would have required special shipping. I certainly didn’t relish driving the extra 900 miles Auto Train saved me.
I headed to the beach. First thing I did was check out areas I knew where Spanish galleons wrecked offshore. Hurricane Irma ripped up the keys and did considerable damage along Florida’s Atlantic coast. For veteran treasure hunters hurricanes and storms provide opportunities to search eroded beaches for Spanish treasure coins as well as artifacts thrown up from their inshore graveyards.
One of my favorite spots to search for coins is Treasure Beach. Locals know this thin spit of land, just beyond Lower Matecumbe Key at Mile Marker 74, as Bale Beach. Since land was donated on the apron next to US 1 to preserve natural sea oats, the beach also bears the name Sea Oats Beach. Bale Beach is derived from the fact that the U.S. Coast Guard had helicopter intervention when bales of illegal marijuana floated ashore. Authorities arrested smugglers waiting to pick it up.
Free parking in a lot opposite Treasure Beach at the lobster house and dock, west of the Atlantic Ocean, enables access to the water. Hurricane Irma brought good fortune to some detectorists on Treasure Beach. They came up with several silver pieces of eight.
I took my time searching the sand along the narrow beach. It is here that Bill Cassinelli found a small clump that registered on his detector. When Bill broke the clump apart there were two pillar dollar minted pieces of eight bearing the 1732 date. The outside of the coins were corroded. The coins faced each other in the clump thus the inside faces were in perfect condition. If both sides of the coins were in perfect condition they would be worth $10,000 each. The year 1732 was the first year Spanish mint masters used a screw press in the New World to mint perfectly round coins.
I discovered a well worn piece of eight and a smaller silver coin that could be seen to be of colonial Spanish mintage. These coins were clearly thrown up on the beach by the fury of Hurricane Irma. The coins were rolled around in sand thus did not offer perfect dates or markings. Gifts from a hurricane that brought terrible turmoil to many people.
I headed north toward Key Largo to join friends that were licensed by the State of Florida under a pre-existing admiralty claim. When the Abandoned Shipwreck Act was passed in 1988, formally codified as Public Law 100-298, found in 43 U.S.C. 2101-2106, the U.S. government transferred its title and authority under Admiralty Law to the states. Abandoned shipwrecks embedded in coralline formations on the state’s submerged lands as well as abandoned shipwrecks located on a state’s submerged lands were ceded to states. State waters include areas from the high water mark seaward three miles. Islands can extend state jurisdiction to three miles from the island. Those admiralty claims filed by treasure salvors prior to the effective date of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act are grandfathered in. These shipwreck sites can be worked by the licensee usually with the participation, cooperation and sharing of artifacts with the state in whose waters the shipwreck is found.
Some states took the position that treasure divers are not capable of excavating shipwrecks and therefore refused to grant search and salvage licenses in abnegation of the tenor of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act that called for promulgation of regulations and cooperation with interested parties. Licensees, like Mel Fisher and his family, were able to continue to work sites for which they had admiralty claims. The Fishers and other salvage divers with valid admiralty claims that pre-existed the Act continued to work Spanish shipwreck sites in Florida waters in cooperation with state authorities. Their contracts usually provided that the state of Florida could retain any artifact of historic or archaeological importance as well as having 20% of the value of all finds.
Thus salvors in the Atlantic ocean with licenses from the State of Florida, acting under pre-existing admiralty claims, adhering to environmentally safe excavation methods, employing certified archaeologists to document and preserve finds, continue to explore and exploit Spanish colonial shipwrecks.
I went out with friends that were licensed by the State of Florida and documented the remains of a Spanish shipwreck with my underwater camera. Nothing remained of the hull. What was left to see on the ocean bottom, after the fury of a hurricane that struck the treasure fleet returning to Spain in 1733 in the vicinity of Florida’s keys that wrecked many ships scattering their remains over miles of ocean from about Marathon north to Key Largo and beyond, were ballast stones. These river rocks can easily be distinguished from the normal bottom of coralline rock formations.
Builders placed round stones from rivers near ports where ships left for the New World against the keel of ships. This kept their ungainly naos and galleons steady under sail. The round river stones could be replaced with ore deposits or stones containing emeralds from the New World. If not, river rocks remained along their keels to steady vessels in wind.
When hurricanes struck galleons were bounced over shoals and shallow reefs. Ballast stones would be scattered out of broken hulls. Heavy cannons would either be thrown overboard to give the galleons maneuverability and prevent sinking when they took on water or the wrecking would also leave behind a ship’s cannons and anchors as the ship sank.
I photographed an anchor underwater. Its huge flukes were embedded in coral. The stem of the anchor faced shore, its flukes dug in. This is evidence that sailors put over an anchor to hold their ship to prevent it careening into shallow reefs. Like as not hurricane force winds broke a hawser and the ship continued its juggernaut onto the reefs where it broke apart scattering its cargo.
Underwater photography has progressed over time. While I still have my expensive film cameras I now use a SeaLife Micro 2 to document underwater finds. Small, compact, with high digital resolution I was able to capture good images in clear keys water only about thirty feet deep.
We inflated the rubber boat and used my 35 horsepower engine to explore offshore reaches. Channels are marked in the keys and it is important for boat operators to keep in channels to avoid damaging shallow reefs. Many reefs are just under the surface, exposed at low tide.
There is fun diving anywhere in Florida’s keys. Shipwrecks abound and offer underwater photographers many great opportunities. It is important to remember that all submerged abandoned shipwreck sites are protected by Florida laws. Look, photograph but do not touch unless under permit from state authorities. If in any of the national underwater parks and sanctuary areas their jurisdiction applies as well.
Florida has designated the shipwreck site of the San Pedro as a historic underwater preserve. While the original cannons have been removed the state has placed cement cannons around a ballast pile for divers to enjoy. The San Pedro is a shallow dive accessible to snorkelers. The cement cannons simulate an original 1733 fleet wreck site.
The travail of getting all my equipment to Florida has been greatly eased by Auto Train. I can get right to the fun without having to rest up a couple of days after an arduous drive. Treasure Beach awaits intrepid explorers as do shipwrecks offshore. Immerse yourself in history. Helpful telephone contacts: Auto Train 1-877-SKIP-I-95; Key Dives 305-664-2211; Islamorada Chamber of Commerce 1-800-FAB-KEYS or 305-664-4503.
SOURCES: Author’s personal experience, beach detecting and diving on shipwreck sites. The author Dr. John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist, Master Scuba Instructor and Instructor Trainer. He is an expert in maritime affairs and has authored 26 published books. His large format coffee table book TREASURES OF THE SPANISH MAIN contains information and photographs of Spanish colonial shipwrecks.