“This is a $250 shot I’m about to give you,” Clifton says, reaching into a secret cabinet he keeps behind a roped-off nook in his museum. “So you better drink all of it.”
Clean and clear, the spirit starts to trickle forth from an extremely weathered glass bottle—no label, no visible markings, almost ancient—and into a small, plastic Dixie cup, where it rests as still as a fog before the dawn. After taking a moment to bow at the altar of its history, I take the drink.
Clifton watches carefully as I do, taking note of my expressions with his signature broad smile, ringing laughter and slight Southern drawl. “Now,” he says, touching my shoulder like a football coach just before the big game, “since you were brave enough to drink that, let me tell you what you just had.” And Clifton starts telling a story. He’s got a million of ’em.
In 1986, while exploring the wreck of a colonial Spanish ship that sank off the coast of Florida in 1733, Clifton and a team of marine archeologists obtained more than 150,000 artifacts from the sea floor—gold, silver, dishware, dozens of jewels. But of all those relics, Clifton’s favorite was a crate of 30 bottles of Royal British Navy rationed rum, 18 of which were still sealed, still drinkable.
When they took one of those bottles to Sotheby’s in New York, it auctioned for more than $20,000. But the reason Clifton was so giddy about them had nothing to do with getting rich. Like everything he brings up from the darkened depths, he had no intention of selling them. Instead, he wanted to keep them here in his museum—so he could share them with folks like me.
Because really, it’s not about the money. It never is with Clifton. Over the course of 35 years of exploration, he has amassed the largest private collection of shipwreck artifacts in the country, but his mission extends far beyond the prosaic lure of dollar signs.
“Everyone comes here and they see all this and they say, ‘This guy must be rich.’ Well, I am. But I’m artifact rich and money poor,” he says, smiling again. Always smiling. “There’s a market, for sure. Everything has a market these days, which means there’s always someone willing to buy. But the historic value of these things greatly outweighs their monetary value.”
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And that’s what this museum—and Clifton’s entire life—are all about: experiencing history in a way that few other places in this world can provide. And now, with this ancient rum in my belly—with history running through my veins—I feel initiated. I have completed my transformation into the world of Dale Clifton. Just like he desires of everyone who visits his DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum, I have just become a part of humanity’s endless march through time. And that delights Clifton immeasurably.
“Certain pieces shouldn’t belong to anyone, like these pieces in here,” he says, gesturing to the entirety of his cozy museum on the second floor of an unassuming souvenir shop on Ocean Highway. “I own them, but they don’t belong to me. When I’m dead and gone, they’ll still be here for the next generation to enjoy. I’m just a custodian that gets to take care of them.”
Long before the rum, or the medallions, or the ornate Colonial swords, or the chains of gold, or the perilous expeditions that brought all of it to the surface, there was a single coin in the sand. The coin that ruined Dale Clifton forever.
“When I was young, I found out about Coin Beach (just north of Indian River Inlet),” says Clifton, launching into a story he’s told so many times that he could probably do it word-for-word in reverse. “So I went out and started looking, walking up and down the beach, looking for anything. It took me about a year, but after that yearlong search I finally found something. A small, blackened disc sticking out of the sand. When I bent down and rubbed it, I suddenly saw the image of King George the Third, and I realized that I was the first person to touch that coin in nearly 200 years. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t about the coin, but about the last guy who touched it. Where was he from? What was he like? Who was he? Standing out there on a sub-zero afternoon, I was literally shaking hands with history.”
If Clifton has a personal maxim, it’s that: shaking hands with history. He exhales the phrase several times. But no matter how many times it issues from his mouth—breathless and hallowed, almost a holy whisper—there’s no cliché in it, nothing tired or rote. That coin was his archangel David, his semi-divine vision. And the venerated, burning significance of that coin—along with the mission it inspired—still feels as real to him today at 48 as it did, lo, those many years ago, when he was just an excitable teenager wandering a freezing beach, looking for buried treasure.
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But it would be many years before Clifton fully answered his calling. Resigned to those familiar societal pressures that demand a practicality measured not by buried treasure but by steady employment, Clifton went to college to study electrical engineering. After graduation he got a job as a computer programmer for a local company, working the night shift while spending his days researching shipwrecks up and down the East Coast, going on diving expeditions to find artifacts and once again reveal to them the light of day.
For more than 10 years he did this, alternating his free time between shipwrecks and work at several museums in Delaware. But he wasn’t satisfied.
“I was discouraged by those museums. I would try to get people to come, because I was excited about it. But I was finding out that people just lost interest. Ya know why?” And here he leans in, about to disclose another secret in a near whisper. “Because they never changed.”
The static, stuffy atmosphere of most museums wasn’t what he wanted. Clifton’s vision was that of a place always in flux, with new exhibits and adventures both behind and in front of the glass, a place that would serve not only as a time capsule but a time machine, a place where children and adults alike could go and, yes, shake hands with history.
“Museums were first started by kings and noblemen and people who had more wealth than the common man, and they wanted to show off their wealth. It was an arrogance thing,” Clifton says. “But history wasn’t just made by the kings and the noblemen. It was made by the common man. And museums today should be places within the community where people have the opportunity not only to learn but to touch it and get involved in history.”
So that’s what he did. While still working his night job, Clifton opened his first museum in West Ocean City, Maryland, in 1990. It was called the Delmarva Historical and Maritime Museum, and it displayed many of his most prized finds: ornate swords, emerald ballast stones, elaborate royal jewelry and coins—lots of coins.
After five years the rent in Ocean City became too high. That’s when Clifton found Sea Shell City in Fenwick. The owner of the souvenir shop at 708 Ocean Highway shared Clifton’s vision for the state’s first privately owned and operated “edutainment” museum. He gave Dale use of the entire second floor, where the DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum still operates today, with free admission for all and without a single cent of state funding.
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“When I started doing this, I had what the state always said they’d love to have. They always said they wanted to do this but that they didn’t have the money or the manpower. Well, they’ve got a heck of a lot more money and manpower than I do, and yet every year we continue to get a lot more tourism than they do. Why?” Again the holy whisper. “Because the people know it’s their museum. It’s not the state’s museum. I have no bosses except the public.”
Over a summer, DiscoverSea may see more than 200,000 visitors pass through its doors. Caravans of cars and busloads of children and adults venture from all over the country to see this astonishing collection, which, in addition to its Colonial jewels and artifacts contains such gems as the world’s largest collection of silverware from the White Star Line’s RMS Republic, sister ship of the Titanic.
And Clifton could talk on any of the pieces (a single thimble, a toy cannon, an hourglass) for more than a day. In fact, a single afternoon with Clifton produces enough stories to fill a magazine from cover to cover. And still we would need more space.
“A lot a times we’ll find even just some fragments in a wreck, and people, the experts, will say, ‘Aw, that’s nothing.’ Yes it is. That fragment was aboard that ship. If it could speak, it would tell you all about that ship. So it’s about every piece, not just the gold and silver anymore.”