Rescuing Memories from the Sea

Hometown Heroes, Odd Collections, People
on December 3, 2000

Theres gold in his museum. And silver. And jewels. And there are coinsthousands of themall returned from the sea. But if you ask Dale Clifton about the most valuable treasure in his collection, hell point to a handcrafted vase resting in a glass case and share its story.

My father made that vase when he was a boy during the Depression, back when nobody had any money. He brought it home from school unglazed. His mother was so proud of it that she saved her egg money for four weeks, gave it to her son, and said, Now you take this vase back to the school and have them glaze it. My father was shocked, says Clifton, and said to her, But Mother, we cant afford that! And she said, One day your children or grandchildren are going to look at that like I do, and its my responsibility to make sure its still here for them to enjoy.

Clifton says its his responsibility to future generations to share and protect the treasures he retrieves from the sea and the beaches, just as his grandmother did many years ago.

I want people to be able to shake hands with history, he says.

He helps them do that by recovering the past from the seathrough beachcombing, both with and without metal detectors, through controlled archeological digs along the shore, and by skindiving to old wrecks in the relatively shallow Deleware Bay and along the Atlantic coastline. The wreckage of one ship was discovered in 40 feet of water.

Clifton found his first coin, a 1785 King George III halfpenny, more than 20 years ago. He simply picked it up from the beach during a walk. Since then, he has salvaged more than 200,000 coins. But coins are just a fraction of the treasure he has pulled from beneath the sea and dug from the sand of Delaware and Maryland beaches near Fenwick Island, Del., a town of 198 people. Gold bars, chains, silverware, goblets, porcelain bowls and pottery, weapons, and jewelry all have been released from their underwater tombs to be enshrined in his museum.

A self-taught scuba diver, Dale steers his boat to areas of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay where shipwrecks have been recorded. Depending on the size of the site, as many as eight crewmembers assist.

Among the treasures he finds most fascinating are the bits of everyday life such as a childs tiny shoe or a fragment of a porcelain dolls head. Such items, he says, enable him to keep his perspective by reminding him that first and foremost, the ill-fated ships he salvages contained people.

Many times, he says, ships such as the Faithful Steward, which sank in 1785 just off the southern Delaware coastline, contained entire families. They were bound for America to begin a new life together, and every generation was on that ship. And when it sank, many times the family line and the family name perished with its members. Id like to think my museum keeps their memory alive.

The Discover-Sea Shipwreck Museum in Fenwick Islandthe town looks out on the sea from the southeastern corner of the stateholds hundreds of artifacts, each with a story to tell. Yet the multitude of treasures on display there represent only one-tenth of the pieces of the past he has salvaged. He has artifacts on loan to seven museums around the world. He receives no state, local, federal or private funding, and no admission fee is charged.

He is paid a salary from the owner of Sea Shell City, where his second-floor museum is located. He also receives support from the Sussex County and Delaware state tourism offices, and jokes that he is artifact rich and money poor.

This museum belongs to the public, declares Clifton. Im kind of like a time detective returning items from the past to their owners. It is my way of making sure our past, our history, isnt lost.

His inspiration, he says, comes from his own family, who instilled in him the morals and ethics he feels are still important today.

I love it when families come in together and get excited together. Sharing an experience makes them closer, he says. People are going wow, and that makes me feel good.

The excitement doesnt end at the museum. He wows people throughout the state by sharing his take on maritime history with an area elder hostel, by providing traveling treasure chests for elementary school educators, and by distributing informational videos and CDs on seafaring and shipwrecks. Investigation into the past is ongoing. (My mother was a librarian, he says, explaining his propensity for research.) And he has not one, but three books in progress.

Still, its the call of the sea and the challenge of unraveling the mysteries of the past that push him to don his gear and dive.

The beach and the ocean are the last frontiers, says Clifton. How can we ignore that?