The St. Augustine Shipwreck Museum & Gallery presents an authentic treasure

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James Owens came to his love of treasure and shipwrecks because he needed a job.

“I was broke and needed to make a lot of money fast because I was a full-time student and had three babies at the time,” Owens said.

He was studying computer science at the University of Massachusetts when a friend told him that if he got a commercial diving license he could go to Key West and work for legendary treasure hunter Mel Fisher diving on the Atocha , a Spanish galleon discovered by Fisher.

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Working with legendary treasure hunter Mel Fisher

“He was taking everyone. He didn’t care…if you had a certificate and you weren’t a criminal, you were in. It was hard work. You were taking thousands and thousands of pounds of money from the bottom of the ocean,” he said. “I loved it. It was exciting. I was a healthy young man, and just touching this story freaked me out. I couldn’t believe what I was holding in my hand was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

That summer in the early 1980s led to a lifetime of collecting underwater artifacts and treasures. And that collection was starting to pose a problem for Owens, 59, who lives in St. Augustine and owns several software companies.

“It’s like my escape,” he said. “I had all this stuff in closets, around the house, in storage sheds. My girlfriend was yelling at me, ‘This stuff is everywhere, I can’t move and I can’t do this,’ and I I said, well, maybe I should put it somewhere,” he said. “Then I met (local businessman) John Arbizzani, and he told me ‘You could put it in a building and I have a building.’ Then one thing leads to another and the St. Augustine Shipwreck Museum and Gallery was born.”

The Charlotte Street Museum opened in July and is full of items from Owens’ collection.

The St. Augustine Shipwreck Museum has an exhibit of artefacts from the RMS Titanic and original props from the movie.

Visitors can see artifacts from the Atocha, including a large silver ingot recovered by Owens; items from the wreckage of the SS Republic, a Civil War-era steamship that sank in 1865 while carrying silver and gold coins; artifacts salvaged from the SS Central America, a gold-bearing ship that sank off the Carolinas in 1857; and other exhibits featuring items found on shipwrecks around the world.

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Climb the Titanic’s Grand Staircase

“One of our most popular exhibits is about the Titanic,” museum director Michael Foster said during a visit last week. “We have real artifacts salvaged from the wreckage and lots of original props from the movie.”

To access the museum’s second floor, visitors climb a reproduction of the Titanic’s grand staircase.

“It’s our centerpiece,” Foster said. “We had a clock company called Titanic Clock make an exact copy of the one on the ship that is mounted on the stairs.”

The St. Augustine Shipwreck Museum & Gallery features a reproduction of the Titanic's Grand Staircase with a replica of the ship's clock set to 2:20 a.m., the time the ship sank.

The clock is stopped at 2:20 a.m., the time of the sinking of the ship.

According to Foster, the museum is trying to give visitors an interactive experience, with virtual reality stations – places where they can hunt for buried treasure and control a miniature submarine.

“We also have a scavenger hunt going on. You download an app and follow clues all over St. Augustine, and with the clues you either have to answer a question or find a barcode on the establishments of a other retailer, so we’re helping bring business to them too because our treasure hunters have to find the barcode,” Foster said. “When they’re done with the treasure hunt, they can come back here and win prizes.”

The museum is designed for people of all ages.

“We will work hard to make our museum a place that shares a lot of history for children and adults,” said museum director Filiz Montanez. “People can even buy souvenirs to take home. We sell authentic pieces from shipwrecks and silver jewelery from the Atocha.”

Regular visitors can expect to see the exhibits change regularly.

“It’s just part of my collection. I have some really big stuff, like anchors,” Owens said. “I buy pretty much everywhere I go. As soon as I see something sinking, I bid on it. I hope I get it. It’s not about making money. It’s is about my love of history and my legacy.

“It’s my goal that after I leave, I go (the museum) to one of the charities in town,” he continued. “Because I love St. Augustine – it’s where I’ve been for so many good years – I want to give back.”

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily | staugustinemuseum.com | 904-217-0655

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