The real treasures in the DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum stowed away on the 2,500-square-foot second floor of Sea Shell City in Fenwick Island are the stories that the 5,000 artifacts tell.
Some of America’s most significant early ports were in Delaware and Philadelphia, so ships sank here and left treasure off Delmarva Peninsula shorelines, partly explaining how beaches like Coin Beach were named.
The Faithful Steward, an Irish immigrant ship sunk in 1785 just north of Delaware’s Indian River Inlet. Of the 249 immigrants aboard the merchant vessel, only 68 survived. To this day, though, coins from the ship’s 400 barrels of British and Irish halfpennies and gold rose guineas still wash ashore.
An item from the museum’s collection.//photo by
“We’re essentially one of the larger graveyards of the Atlantic because of Delaware’s maritime business,” says Dale W. Clifton, owner director of the museum on Coastal Highway in Fenwick Island.
He has filled the space largely with his own personally-recovered collection of what American poet Adrienne Rich once called “maritime floss.”
There are other maritime museums, even in this region, but based on both the history of shipwrecks and the volume of treasure recovered his is unsinkable. “We use the sinkings as our drawing card,” Clifton says.
Originally from Milton, Clifton jokes that his mother, a school librarian, brought home too many copies of “Treasure Island.”
He discovered his first shipwreck at age 14, then “what started as a hobby became an obsession and now a career,” he says. He stresses the professional level of his ongoing research, archaeological digs and dives (including one from 1640 off the Eastern Shore of Maryland), his knowledge of geology, his countless awards and his alignment with academic institutions and museums around the world. “It’s been years and years of doing this, so I’m not a treasure hunter—I’m a treasure finder.”
Though he opened the museum in 1994, he doesn’t view it as his, so much as everyone’s. “Appreciate what I do by appreciating what the artifacts have to say,” he insists.
Every year, the artifacts from 30-40 shipwrecks on display are ever-changing. While a portion of his collection is always on loan to other museums, the Fenwick Island location always gets the newest additions. This year more than 65 percent of the exhibits are local to the region, including more material from The Faithful Steward, and the wreck from the 1860s of a Chinese vessel off Lewes.
Items from the museum’s collection.// photo by maria deforrest
And, yes, he does have Titanic treasure, but more significant, he says, are the artifacts from her sister, the RMS Republic.
Clifton has one of the largest White Star Line collections in existence, but, “Titanic is so overplayed,” he says. “Republic, her predecessor, could tell you more, and people don’t know about her. In the museum, we do a comparison: Why the Titanic sank is because no one paid attention to what happened to the Republic a few years before. The only reason Titanic was built was to replace Republic when she sank in 1909. The White Star Line didn’t have that good of a record—just good collectibles.”
708 Coastal Highway, Fenwick Island • 539-9366
For hours of operation and more, visit discoversea.com.