REFUGIO, Texas, March 23, 2009— -- Nathan Smith has gold fever.
He caught it when he picked up a book on American treasures and read these words about a mythical Spanish barkentine and its gold and silver lost in south Texas: "Whoever finds either of these treasures would possess wealth beyond imagining."
The Los Angeles musician started hunting for the ship -- legend has it blowing ashore south of Refugio, Texas, during a hurricane in 1822. His search started with Google Earth. What he saw when he zoomed into a spot north of the Aransas Pass prompted him to get into his car and drive non-stop to Texas.
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He got out his metal detector and Smith said, "I got readings, which indicated gold and silver." The problem for Smith, if a ship does exist, is that it is on private property. The family that owns the property doesn't want anyone digging up the land for a ship no one has proved even exists.
Author and explorer Tom Townsend believes the ship, or the legend, at least, is real.
"It has been my experience, more times than not, a legend like this there is some basis of truth. Because it has been around long enough that they have named Barkentine Creek, Barkentine Creek. That alone makes me think that there was, or is, something buried out there."
The problem for Smith is getting access to whatever it is he sees on Google Earth. His case -- Smith vs. Abandoned Ship -- has landed in federal court in Houston, where next month U.S. District Judge David Hittner will rule whether Smith has the right to dig up a ranch he doesn't own looking for a ship no one is sure exists.
Smith's quest hinges on maritime law. Richard Schwartz, his lawyer, believes in Smith's dream, so much so that he went to the location.
Under maritime law, says Schwartz, "a waterway is navigable if it is capable of being used for transportation or commerce and there is enough water at the location that clearly it is navigable." In other words, finders keepers.
Ron Walker represents Morgan Dunn O'Conner, whose family owns the land in question.
"It was offensive that somebody could go on Google Earth, look down and see what they think, I guess see, under the ground and see a ship and come in and say I want to dig up your property. They have no proof anything is there and no experience."
The exact location of the ship is a secret -- documents and photographs of the area have been sealed by court order.
The Texas coast is dotted with wrecked ships but the muddy waters of the Gulf of Mexico make it very difficult to search for treasure. It took archaeologists years and $3.7 million to salvage La Belle, one of ships used by French explorer La Salle, which sank in 1686 in Matagorda Bay, not far from where Smith believes his ship lies.
Smith has several hurdles before he can start digging for buried treasure. If Hittner rules in his favor, he still has to find investors with deep pockets to help him search for whatever it is he sees on Google Earth.
Even if Smith finds a ship, his legal battles have just begun. If a 19th century ship exists in a marsh south of Refugio, Texas has already filed documents staking its claim.