Modern Pioneer - - Front Page - By Dana Ben­ner

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.

Sal­vage City

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.

The Wreck­ers

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

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