Art McKee is The Father of Modern Treasure Hunting

The evolution of modern salvage diving can be understood through life of one man. Arthur McKee Jr., considered the “father of modern treasure hunting,” was the first to recognize that the reef-riddled Florida Keys provided a precious landscape for wrecked ships carrying even more precious cargo. He would be the first to salvage these ships, and in the process, become a pioneer in the salvage industry and the history of diving.

Art McKee (1910-1979) rose from meek beginnings before making his mark on history. A native of

Bridgetown, New Jersey, he had a natural fascination for the underwater environment. As a young boy he is noted to have read books such as: On the Bottom by Commander Ellsberg and I Dive for Treasure by Lieutenant Harry E. Riesenberg, foreshadowing an early passion for his later achievements.

This is one of our earlier post published on Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Art’s first experience in diving came at the coat tails of a major storm that devastated the South Jersey Shore in 1934. A hard-hat diver commissioned young Art McKee to assist in the salvage effort of the collapsed bridge that connected east and west Bridgetown. At the time, McKee was a mere line tender and assistant of sorts but would continue in bridge building efforts to someday become a hard-hat diver himself.

As fate would have it, McKee suffered a knee injury in 1936 forcing him to South Florida where he could rehabilitate in the warm South Florida water year-round. Initially, he was hired to assist in repairing the underwater pipeline that supplied freshwater from Homestead to Key West, a trade he was familiar with from his days in New Jersey.

A key development in the Art McKee story was when he replaced the standard diving equipment with an open-bottom helmet because the full diving-dress was too warm for the south Florida waters. He replaced it with the Miller-Dunn “Divinhood,” (pictured on the left with Art McKee) a design absent of a diving suit. He found the apparatus practical not only for its cooler temperature but for the simplicity of the unit. The standard diving-dress would take a team to suit-up a diver, whereas the Divinhood could be used by a single diver with only the help of a pump operator. Even with the advent of swim-diving, Art remained loyal to the apparatus, a technology he believed much of his career was owed.

Old Art McKeeArt’s first experience in salvaging came when his preparation as a hard-hat diver met opportunity. He was notified by a local fisherman about a cannon protruding from ballast stones a short distance from Key Largo. What first appeared to be scrapped metal turned out to be remnants from the wrecked ship, Capitana el Rui (from the Spanish treasure fleet that wrecked in 1733). Art McKee spent the next 20 years salvaging the wreck, but this was only the beginning of his legacy in the salvage industry.

Treasure village in IslamoradaThe turning point in Art’s career was when he discovered his first silver bar. Locally, his legend as a salvage diver was growing. Art was contacted by Dr. Barney Crile, chief surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, about a wreck off Looe Key. Dr. Crile commissioned Art McKee to investigate the site, in what turned out to be the “Ivory Wreck” (a slave ship that wrecked in the 1700’s). Named for its contents, together they recovered ivory tusks and silver bars. Dr. Crile recorded the salvaging of the wreck in his book entitled, Treasure Diving Holidays, which contains pictures of Art McKee, ivory tusks, and the Miller-Dunn Divinhood.

Nat GeoBefore long, Art had acquired a large collection, and realizing the general public was interested in his new found trade, the logical progression was to open a museum to display his artifacts. The Museum of Sunken Treasure was initially located in Treasure Harbor in Plantation Key, where the building structure remains to this day. As Art continued in his career and the collection continued to grow, the limited space at the first museum proved inadequate to house the collection. The final landing spot for the museum was in Art McKee’s Treasure Castle. Today, most would recognize it as the Montessori School or Treasure Village. When the museum opened it was a major landmark and the premier tourist attraction in the Upper Keys.

Much of Art McKee’s success is owed to his extremely driven and charismatic personality. Art was featured in LIFE Magazine and appeared on the Dave Garroway Show, proof that Art McKee had truly become famous. He persuaded some of the world’s best underwater minds to join him in salvage efforts. Ed Link (best known for the invention of the Link Trainer) and Mendel Peterson (curator and head of archaeology at the Smithsonian Institute) became involved in various capacities with Art McKee. Together, they assume credit for developing the tools for modern salvage diving. They invented the underwater metal detector, jet propulsion vehicle, and sifting cage.

water jet swing bridgeAlthough Art McKee achieved great success as a salvage diver, it was his insatiable appetite for adventure that kept him searching. He was one of the first to excavate Port Royal, but his dying wish was to find the wreck of the Genoves. The mother-load of wrecks, the Genoves contained 3 million pesos of gold and silver. Art McKee launched several expeditions with no success, but shortly before his death in 1979, he discovered the wreck of the Genoves.

Today, information on the life of Art McKee is scant, and his achievements in the salvage industry are just a part of the history of the wrecks that he salvaged. However, diving history allows for the proper avenue for his life to be memorialized. The History of Diving Museum has a single diver on the outside of the building. Due to his impact on diving and the Florida Keys, the museum chose to portray Art McKee as part of the mural on the building’s facade, and inside the museum the Treasure Room displays an exhibit commemorating the extraordinary life of Art McKee.

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