When I visited The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum on the island of Key West, Florida, I was permitted to put my hand through a hole in the wall and to pick up a certain gold bar.
I had to let go of it in order to retrieve my hand and thus I was unable to keep that gold bar. Yet I shall never let go of the memory that I once held this historic treasure in my hand. Let’s face it. There is nothing special about holding a gold bar in one’s hand. Working for a bullion dealer, one probably does it all the time. However, this was a very special gold bar.
It was aboard a Spanish galleon called the Nuestra Senora de Atocha in 1622 and was part of a cargo being transported from New World back to Spain. That cargo of gold, silver and precious stones today appraises at several hundred million dollars. The galleon never reached its destination. It sank in The Florida Straits near Key West. From 1622 until 1985 its fabulously rich cargo slept peacefully on the ocean floor.
The wreck and its cargo were discovered in 1985 by Mel Fisher, an American treasure hunter who had been searching for this particular wreck for many years. It was certainly a story of triumph and tragedy for Fisher, who lost family members in accidents during his lengthy search. Fisher then had to fight to keep the treasure that he had given up so much to find. The State of Florida argued that it owned the treasure and attempted to confiscate it. Yet after 141 court hearings, the United States Supreme Court finally ruled that the treasure was Fisher’s to keep. Fisher established The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West and has donated to the museum literally tens of thousands of exhibits, many of them from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. That museum has over 200,000 visitors annually and it was as one such visitor that I picked up and let go the gold bar mentioned above.
Now Key West is a very remarkable place and there is much to see and to write about. It has the house in which Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his greatest novels.
It has Mallory Square, which is probably the best place in the world from which to watch a sunset. As the giant orange orb sinks into the horizon of the ocean, the crowd is sad that it must wait 24 hours for a repeat performance. Then there is the spectacular highway from mainland Florida to Key West, which passes through all the islands of the Florida Keys. Once a railway, it became a road after the destruction of the railway in a hurricane.
And there is much more, yet none of the attractions of Key West moved me more that Mel Fisher and his museum. Fisher died in 1998, but his legacy is evidence of what perseverance can achieve.