- Historic Sites
The saga of Kip Wagner, the first modern American to grow rich from ancient Spanish treasure
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
In the end the treasure finders did not lose out, but they were to go through a lot of trials first. Outstanding among these were the activities of a new and voracious collector for Florida’s Internal Improvement Fund, a man aptly named Kidd. Real Eight had carefully complied with the laws regarding leases and claims, not so much out of innate virtue as from caution, but Kidd could not believe that they were within the law, what with all that gold being brought up from Florida waters. He was hungrily determined to find corruption somewhere, somehow to profit from it. Jumping the gun, after the manner of politicians, he jubilantly announced to the public that through the efforts of his department the state had probably been saved two or three hundred thousand dollars that otherwise would have gone into the coffers of Real Eight and the Treasure Salvors, as Mel Fisher’s outfit was called, and that this was just the beginning.
At this point the business-wise boat owner, Harry Cannon, stepped in and threatened to sue the state for a genuine fortune; the sum of $25,000,000 being bandied about just to start with; then the officials came down to earth and stopped issuing statements like Kidd’s. The smoke cleared away and a new contract was signed to clear up the matter. From then on, new treasure hunters could come into the tract formerly leased by Wagner, but the divers of Real Eight had a renewable six-year contract for their particular eight wreck sites, and this, with options, was to run to 1975. No change was made in the arrangement by which the state of Florida received 25 per cent of the value of anything salvaged. In earlier days the kings of Spain claimed only a fifth of the gold mined within her American empire, but as we haveseen they seldom actually got it. Florida had a better deal all round.
At this point, 1964, the National Geographic broke the story of the Real Eight, and fortune hunters crowded into the area. Wagner’s group was kept busy shooing intruders off their claimed sites. The state of Florida set up an Antiquities Commission, tightening the rules on future treasure hunting.
In 1964 the Sampan , never an ideal divers’ craft, was declared unseaworthy, and the men found a replacement in an even more awkward, uglier—but serviceable—scowlike vessel they named the Derelict . They worked on it whenever diving was impracticable, and in the process they invented an improvement for Mel Fisher’s blaster, a powerful machine that could not only blast away sand and mud with terrific strength but also throttle down to a comparatively gentle current that uncovered prizes without hurting them or blowing them away. It was far more effective than they could have hoped: Wagner said it cut years off their salvage operations, but they were not to know that, of course, until they tried it out. All they knew when at last it was ready in April, 1965, was that they had worked harder than could seem possible ever since July, 1964, and that they had sunk $15,000 in it.
April marked the beginning of the new diving season. They went out full strength, augmented by three youngsters, Rex (he who had found the eleven-foot gold chain), and two companions. There was plenty of work for all, they agreed; both the cabin site, as they called their second working place, and the one at Fort Pierce kept yielding steady supplies of gold and silver in the shape of coins. Finally Bob Johnson, one of the divers, quit his weekday job to be master of the Derelict; to finance this venture, Real Eight sold more of their coins and borrowed from the bank, putting up doubloons as collateral. The Derelict was put to work on April 22. The first finds made off her deck were merely two silver coins and part of a silver candelstick, but everyone took this rather skimpy prize as a good omen, and Bob Johnson nailed one of the coins to the cabin wall as a hopeful sign of better things to come.
Day after day, for nearly a month, the Derelict sailed out with her three young divers and her master, to anchor near known wrecks wherever the weather seemed propitious. It meant a good deal of wandering around: a mild spot might give way to a stormy one in the space of a few minutes. On May 19 they were near the Fort Pierce wreck, after a day in which nothing had been found. It was almost time, thought Johnson, to call a halt, especially when their least experienced diver, Bob Conkey, complained that it was inky black underwater and he couldn’t see anything. The other two agreed. But even as they talked, Johnson as ship’s master thought he saw a break here and there in the blackness, and he got ready to dive once more, just to be sure.
“Keep on trying,” he told the youngsters. “Find clear spots and work them there if you can.” Obediently they dived again. It was Conkey who came up waving a gold doubloon triumphantly in his fist, and everybody went at his work again with new enthusiasm. That day they found nineteen gold coins, and during the next few days they salvaged more, with pewter plates, cannon, and two anchors.