FROM TRASH TO TREASURE
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure
It’s sad to say, but we live in a throwaway society. If something breaks, we simply toss it out and buy a new one. Granted, many modern products, from autos to washing machines, are designed to be discarded. But, the crafty elite in our midst is embracing the time-honored skill of salvage, though today we call it “repurposing” or “recycling,” as if it were something new.
The Resurgence of an Ancient Practice
Salvage yards, which replaced junkyards, are now very popular. I credit salvaging’s comeback to TV shows like “Alaskan Bush People” and “Alaska: The Last Frontier.” Granted, not everything can be created or repaired through salvage, but the folks on these shows seem to do a great deal with very little.
In the Lower 48, there are few areas with an economy driven by the salvage industry, but Key West, Florida, is an exception. To learn more, I traveled south to find out how salvage was, and still is, a viable economic source for
this south Florida city. The first stop on my research mission was the Key West Shipwreck Museum. Though the museum is geared to the many tourists that visit Key West, it provides a wealth of information for anyone interested in repurposing discarded material.
When Ponce de Leon “discovered” Florida in 1513, the area that we now know as the Florida Keys was named Los Martires or “the martyrs.” The islands were known to and even visited by early explorers, but the landforms didn’t start appearing on European sailing maps for another century or so. This is too bad, because if they had, then many a sailing ship would have been made aware of the dangerous coral reefs that surround the keys, particularly Key West.
Controlled by the British until after the American Revolution, the waters around Key
“… early settlers in Key West soon found a very profitable business salvaging the numerous wrecks.”
West became a haven for pirates and privateers working for Britain who preyed upon Spanish merchant ships. Those captains were unfamiliar with the reefs and often ran aground on them, especially ships sitting low in the water due to their loads of supplies. Wrecks and their cargo of gold, rum, molasses and slaves were freely scavenged by anyone who could reach them.
According to Clinton Curry of the Key West Shipwreck Museum, early settlers to Key West soon found a very profitable business in salvaging the numerous wrecks. By the 1850s, wrecking and salvaging became the island’s top industry. This was the “golden age of sail,” with more than 100 ships passing by Key West daily. According to Clinton, because of the dangerous coral-laden waters, one ship would wreck per week, on average.
From high watchtowers, wreckers (or scavengers) would scan the edges of the reef both day and night looking for unfortunate ships that had run aground. Wreckers could make a large profit if they reached a ship first. The business became so profitable that storehouses abounded to house merchandise until it could be sold. Unless the original owners could afford to pay the price of recovery, the goods would be sold to the highest bidder.
As much as gold, silver and rum had tangible value, of more importance to Key West residents were perishable items like cloth, tools, fruits, vegetables and other items not easily obtainable in that remote area, not to mention the timber and iron the wrecked ships could provide. Because the islands had very little usable timber, houses and storage centers were very difficult, if not impossible, to construct, so usable timber was in high demand.
Salvaged iron was used to make nails, hinges and tools. Other pieces of the ship, such as sails, compasses and rigging, were often pieced out for use on other ships the same way that wrecked cars are sold for parts today. Monetary vs. Historical Value The percentage awarded to the wrecker was governed by wrecking courts, but by 1921, with
the advent of a reliable rail system and better nautical navigation, the industry changed. To learn more, I visited the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum where I spoke with Cory Malcom, director of archaeology. I learned that salvage and treasure hunting focused mainly on the monetary return of items found, where archaeology is concerned with the historical value. While people have been salvaging and treasure hunting since the advent of ships, marine archaeology started taking off in the ’60s.
The historical aspect is important and fun to study, but I was more interested in learning about modern salvage and treasure hunting. I spoke with John Coffin of Coffin Marine Services. His business specializes in all dimensions of marine-recovery operations. Coffin Marine Services is located on Big Pine Key, but I arranged to sit down and talk with Coffin in Key West.
According to Coffin, the rules and regulations governing marine salvage have changed a lot since the 1800s, and wreckers now need special licenses and must follow specific rules to do their jobs. People still buy the items that can be salvaged, which keeps wreckers in business. Coffin also told me that some of the jobs are controlled by state or federal agencies. Some jobs are reported by state and federal agencies, but aren’t under federal control. I found the process very confusing, and it’s obviously far more complicated than it was in the 1800s.
The real money in salvage comes from boats Coffin can recover that authorities consider abandoned. These ships are called derelicts, and they’re the ones from which wreckers can sell anything and everything. Coffin told me that doors, anchors and portholes off these ships are top sellers.
After speaking with Coffin, I walked around Key West to learn more. As I strolled the back streets, I could see that salvage and repurposed items are very important to the culture and aesthetic of the area. The people of Key West seem to really embrace the lifestyle.
Trash or Treasure?
From Florida to Maine and everywhere in between, people repurpose and reuse all sorts of things. The next time you’re prepared to throw something out, consider: Can it be reused or repurposed? Can it be repaired at little or no cost simply by finding salvaged pieces? Can it be taken apart and the working parts sold or traded to someone who needs them? I continually find the old adage to be true, one man’s junk definitely is another man’s treasure. MP
(opposite) For those who have the skill and the gumption, salvage yards offer the spare parts and pieces needed to make broken or dated items like new again.
(below) Salvaging is a time-honored practice that’s enjoying a resurgence thanks in part to reality TV shows like, “Alaskan Bush People.”
This Key West homeowner reused discarded pieces from electrical towers. PHOTO BY DANA BENNER