Caller-Times Interactive: LOST TREASURES
Saturday, July 17, 1993

The lure of lost treasure

Money and the thrill of discovery motivates most treasure hunters

By Scott Williams
Staff Writer

There's gold in them there hills.

And sunken treasure off Padre Island. Legend has it a pay chest that once belonged to Santa Ana's army awaits discovery on the Nueces River bottom.

Some say there's a silver mine near Edroy. Others claim you'll find precious church ornaments buried on St. Joseph Island.

But you say you want gold?

No problem. If we're to believe the stories, gold is hidden all over South Texas, from Rockport to Armstrong to Live Oak County.

Most are pure fabrications, but some stories are true. Since 1554 at least 1,700 ships have sunk along the Texas coast, many containing gold, silver and jewels.

The prospect of discovering such valuables motivates people like Eugene French, the owner of Frenchy's Crabhouse Seafood Restaurant, to search for lost treasure.

"I guess it kind of reminds you of what you've always heard about people in California. They've got gold fever. I guess I've got the treasure fever," he said.

French, a ruddy-faced man with pale blue eyes, first caught treasure fever as a boy. Louis Raywalt, who was then overseer of a vast, privately owned portion of Padre Island, told French that three Spanish galleons had wrecked on the island in 1553. The San Esteban, Espiritu Santo and Santa Maria De Yciar were carrying gold and silver from Mexico to Spain.

French couldn't get the story out of his mind. He went to the local library to read more about it and eventually the idea of finding it began to consume him.

Over the next 15 years, he walked 1,000 miles searching for the ships.

"I've actually walked the length of the island, from Port Aransas to Port Isabel, and back three different times looking for this particular treasure," he said.

French located two of the ships in the early '60s but couldn't convince investors to fund his salvaging operation. In 1967, a private group, Platoro Inc., found the wrecks and eventually removed more than $2 million worth of gold and jewels.

But before they could complete the job, the state intervened, claiming the treasure because the ships lay on submerged land owned by the state. An estimated 51,000 pounds of precious metals have yet to be salvaged.

"I've always made a vow that before I die I'm going to make an attempt to get it," French said.

But to do that, he would have to break the law.

The state antiquities code prevents treasure-hunting at shipwrecks dating before 1900. The Shipwreck Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in April 1988, gives coastal states control over submerged historic shipwrecks and protects archaeological artifacts.

Florida laws are more flexible, he said. To salvage a wreck, all you have to do is pay a $1,200 claim fee and turn over 25 percent to the state, French said.

"It's such a sad thing that I do feel that I know where these wrecks are but I don't have the freedom to go out and find them," French said. "And it's a shame because they may not ever be found."

Members of the Corpus Christi Exploration and Metal Detecting Society say there's plenty of treasure to be found despite the fact that metal detectors are not allowed in national parks and seashores.

"You can have a lot of fun and it can pay off for you if you do a little research," said H.L. Kerbow, a club member the past 12 years.

Kerbow spends much of his time hunting in the surf off Corpus Christi Beach.

"Over there in the water you find modern coins that kids have lost out of their bathing suits or daddy has lost out of his bathing suit," he said.

On a good day, Kerbow and his wife will find between 150 and 200 coins. Chains, medallions, watches and knives are common discoveries, and so far they've each found more than a hundred gold rings and two to three times that number of silver ones.

Art Curry, past president of the club, says he loves the thrill of discovery.

His treasure hunts have taken him to England and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas is a good spot because it's a popular place to swim, and wherever people swim they lose jewelry and money.

Using a metal detector he found $900 in gold rings.

Curry, 59, said the idea of searching for buried treasure is intriguing but probably not very rewarding.

"You really have to do a lot of research and there's so many rumors. I guess Jesse James has gold buried all over the world if you want to start tracking down rumors," he said.

French, who once earned his living combing the 117-mile-long Padre Island, has found eight doubloons, 86 Spanish coins and hundreds of coins from all over the world. He once found a doubloon that sold for $3,500.

A display case in the lobby of his restaurant is filled with his discoveries including antique razors, bottles, silverware, a Chinese opium pipe, a silver mirror and coffeepot, a Spanish pistol, a sword, knives, buttons and more.

French says the nine dead bodies found washed up onshore are the most interesting things he has ever found. And the most unusual? That would be the artificial leg propped against a wall inside his display case.

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