Crude ingots were sometimes made by pouring molten gold into beach sand.
Crude ingots were sometimes made by pouring molten gold into beach sand.

DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum

Field review by the editors.

Fenwick Island, Delaware

Most people associate Delaware with shell corporations and chemical refineries, not sunken treasure and pirate booty. Dale Clifton is not most people. He found his first shipwreck off of the Delaware coast when he was 14, and after 40+ years of digging and diving, displays his treasures in his seaside DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum.

Shipwreck booty runs the gamut from emerald bricks to a doll baby head.
Shipwreck booty runs the gamut from emerald bricks to a doll baby head.

Historians estimate that thousands of ships may lie in briny graves just off the Delaware coast. In addition to Age of Sail hazards such as nor'easters and hurricanes, Delaware -- just outside the busy port of Philadelphia -- was home to wily land pirates. According to Dale, the pirates would build fake lighthouses on the beach, lure ships to their doom on offshore shoals, then plunder the wrecks.

Crusty flintlock pistol shows the effect of a 350-year sea bath.
Crusty flintlock pistol shows the effect of a 350-year sea bath.

Dale once lashed himself to a truck with a rope during a storm so he could be at the surf line as treasure was uncovered. He calls this emergency archeology.

"People say that the best time to look for treasure is after a storm, but the real best time is during a storm," said Dale. "The key is to be able to dig it up before the next wave comes in. You've got to get while the getting's good, or it's gonna be gone."

Dale added with a laugh, "I've been known to be an idiot."

Dale's idiocy has netted him one of the world's largest collections of shipwreck artifacts, from everyday crockery and tools to gold and silver bars, emerald bricks, goblets, jewels, flintlocks and swords, cannons and daggers, a 10-foot-long gold chain meant for the queen of Spain, sculptures carved out of human bones, a Feejee Mermaid, and several treasure chests. Dale estimates that his haul of coins alone totals around 200,000.

Feejee Mermaid from the 18th century.
Feejee Mermaid from the 18th century.

From the beginning, said Dale, his goal was always to showcase it in a museum. "When I was a kid," he said, "I'd go to museums and they'd tell me these fantastic shipwreck stories and I'd say, 'Wow! Can I see the treasure?' And they'd all say, 'No, we don't have any of it. We sold it.'"

Dale Clifton tears down his displays every January and restocks with new treasure.
Dale Clifton tears down his displays every January and restocks with new treasure.

So Dale decided to keep most of what he found, and display it in a place where people could hear the stories and see the treasure. "I really don't look at this stuff as belonging to me," he said. "I'm kind of like a custodian that gets to take care of it." Even his choice of museum location, a humble spot above a strip mall seashell shop, allows Dale to keep the museum open free of charge, so that families can afford to visit. "It's small, but it's not small," said Dale. "I give people a lot to look at."

And sometimes visitors do more than look. When Dale is around -- and not out treasure-hunting -- he's been known to drape children in gold to get them excited about marine archaeology. Older visitors have occasionally enjoyed sips from a bottle of 350-year-old rum, which has continued to ferment and is now at 186 proof. "It's exciting that we can drink it and not get sick and die," said Dale, although he added that the air extracted from between the cork and the beverage was far more historically valuable than the rum.

Comb designed to evict a common shipboard stowaway.
Comb designed to evict a common shipboard stowaway.

Dale said that it's the history and personal items that he finds that keeps him going at this point, and that he wants his collection to give visitors a better appreciation of what life was like 200-300 years ago. The idea that he could become rich by selling his collection, he said, doesn't interest him at all. "What are you gonna do if you get the money? All you're gonna do is spend it on something else, and the next thing you know you're not gonna have any money anyway."

Skeleton hoodoo was found to be carved from someone's human bone.
Skeleton hoodoo was found to be carved from someone's human bone.

Dale's history-first attitude applies even to himself. Although widely respected in his field, he prefers to stay in the background and would rather focus attention on his artifacts than on Dale Clifton. Some of that, of course, comes from a profession that rewards discretion. "I don't say a lot about what I'm doing to anybody until the work is done."

In fact, the only thing that may have changed in the past 40+ years of Dale Clifton is his approach to weather. "In my younger days I was the only person that would pray for a hurricane to hit the coast," he said. Now if a hurricane hits, Dale plans to batten down his museum and be safely inland with his treasure.

DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum

Address:
708 Coastal Hwy, Fenwick Island, DE
Directions:
On the southbound side of Coastal Hwy, just south of its intersection with W. Bayard St., only few blocks north of the Delaware-Maryland state line. In a strip mall, on the second floor above Sea Shell City.
Hours:
Summer daily (except W) 11-8. Fewer hours and days off-season. (Call to verify)
Phone:
302-539-9366
Admission:
Free. Donations appreciated.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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