Art McKee: The Father of Modern Treasure Hunting

The evolution of modern salvage diving can be understood through the life of one man, Art McKee. Long before Mel Fisher discovered the Atocha, McKee stood as the consummate symbol of Florida Keys treasure hunting. This is the story of his life and how he came to be known as the “Father of Modern Treasure Hunting.”

Art McKee was born in Bridgetown, New Jersey in 1910. From the outset, McKee was enthralled by undersea exploration. He is noted to have read books such as: “On the Bottom,” by Commander Ellsberg and “I Dive For Treasure,” by Lieutenant Harry E. Riesenberg.

His first exposure to diving, however, came at the coat tails of a major storm that hit the South Jersey shore in 1934. A hard-hat diver commissioned young Art McKee to help salvage a collapsed bridge, the bridge conntected east and west bridgetown. At this point, McKee was a mere line tender and assistant of sorts, however in the following years, McKee would continue in bridgebuilding efforts and eventually become a hard-hat diver himself.

As legend has it, McKee sustained a knee injury in 1936, which forced him to move to South Florida where he could rehabilitate year-round. Initially, McKee worked repairing the freshwater pipeline from Homestead to Key West; an endeavor that allowed him to perfect his hard-hat diving skills.

Art McKee eventually replaced the full diving-dress with the Miller-Dunn Divinhood. The Divinhood, invented in Miami, FL, is an open-bottom helmet design. He eventually became the poster-child for the Divinhood; even after swim-diving became popular, he continued to use the Divinhood for he believed much of his career was owed to the aparatus.

McKee, to his credit, made many important discoveries that allowed his persona to ascend to infamy. However, the most significant very well could have been the salvage of the “Ivory Wreck,” a slave ship that wrecked off Loo Key in the 1700’s. Although McKee recieved an enourmous amount of credit for his efforts, it was Dr. Barney Crile that tipped him off to its where abouts. Crile, a surgeon and head of the Cleveland Clinic, was vacationing with his family when the wreck was discovered.

Locally, McKee was growing in noteriety for his efforts as a salvage diver; Crile had heard of his reputation and commissioned him to assist in the salvage effort. Among many artifacts retrieved from the depths, the most significant were multiple silver bars and of course, Ivory tusks (an original is on display at the History of Diving Museum). Crile recorded these discoveries in his book entitled “Treasure Diving Holidays.” The book recounts the events of the salvage and contains pictures of Art McKee.

McKee’s salvage operations transformed this trade from leisure to a career path. Before long he collected so many artifacts that the next logical step was to open a museum. At first a small museum was adequate to house his artifacts, but eventually the collection grew so large he had to expand to a larger facility. The final landing spot would be the Museum of Sunken Treasure located at Treasure Harbor in Plantation Key, Florida. Today, most would recognize the once Sunken Treasure Museum as the Montessori School or formerly Treasure Village. When the museum opened, it was the premier tourist attraction in the Upper Keys; he even advertised the first glass bottom boat trips to salvage sites.

If Art McKee had ceased to continue his career in the field of diving, he would have already accomplished enough to make his mark permanently on history.

In the years following, he began marketing a travelling exhibit. On display were many artifacts to include a tusk from the “Ivory Wreck,” and more tantalizing to audiences, the silver bar.

McKee caught the attention of LIFE Magazine, where he appeared on multiple occasions. He also appeared on the Dave Garroway Show. To fully understand the magnitude of these achievements, imagine at the time, it was a significant achievement for a bridgebuilder and salvage diver from a small city in South Florida to appear on television and magazine. This was proof that McKee had truly become famous.

Art McKee was extremely charismatic in personality. Many people came to visit him because of their desire to discover for themselves the mysteries of the deep. Ed Link (aviation and marine specialist) and Mendel Peterson (curator and head of archaeology at the Smithsonian Institute) both came to work with McKee. Together these men invented the tools that allow for modern salvage diving. Together, they assume credit for developing the first underwater metal detector, jet propulsion vehicle and sifting cage.

Sadly, the life of such an instrumental figure in the field of diving was almost forgotten. Information on Art McKee’s life is scant, and his achievements in salvage diving are a just a part of the broader picture of the wrecks that he salvaged. However, the context of diving history allowed Art McKee’s legacy the proper avenue to be memorialized.

The History of Diving Museum stands as the greatest monument to his life, achievements and innovation. The museum was allowed a single diver to be painted on the building; The Guy Harvey and David Dunleavy mural depicts Art McKee atop his anchor searching the Florida Keys water.

Inside the museum, the Treasure Room displays Art McKee in his own exhibit in a myriad of ballast stones, coral, remnants from the Sunken Treasure Museum and his original inventions.

It is our firm belief, this is a major part in explaining the history of diving, and the story of the salvage industry cannot be properly understood without learning of the life and legacy of Art McKee.