Finding the Real Treasures of South Padre Island


sample of "treasure" found by metal detectorists on the beaches of Padre Island

Finding The Real Treasures

Of South Padre Island

By Steve Hathcock

Both my locksmith business and my bookstore/ coffee shop were incredibly busy during the summer of 1997. As a result, I had little time for my real loves; treasure hunting and beachcombing. My metal detecting experience, to date, had been old battlefields, fairgrounds and abandoned drive-in movie theaters. Of course, I hunted the beaches on the island too, but the detector I was using at the time was only good on dry land. Unable to venture into the water, my hunting was greatly limited.

In July, Jimmie Dawson, his wife Kathy and son Nick set up housekeeping in an old RV at Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island. I had seen them hunting the beaches in town and at Isla Blanca several times but didn’t meet them until late August.

 “People lose all kinds of things,” Jimmie said, as I pawed through his bag full of various rings. “Look at this,” he said, handing me a flashy gold ring with three green stones. “Lots of it is just costume jewelry, but you never know what it may have meant to the person who lost it.”

Rings found at South Padre Island

     Examining the 14k mark on the inside of a ring, I smiled, remembering my first girlfriend when I was 14 years old and how impressed she had been when I gave her a silver friendship ring.  For some reason, she was insulted at my explanation of how the green ring left around her finger matched her eyes so nicely.

“Bracelets and anklets are very common, too,” he added handing me a bag of silver and brass body jewelry.  A necklace of tiny bronze bells made a jingling sound as I held it up for closer inspection.

Another find was a man’s gold watch. “Somebody was real sorry to lose this,” Jimmie opined as I examined a smaller bag that included 18k gold rings, a dive watch and other finer pieces.

“Most of this stuff was found in the last couple of weeks. If someone describes a loss to us and we believe it is theirs, we will happily return it to them.”

“It’s all technique,” Jimmie replied when I asked how he and his family were so successful in their hunts. “Let’s go to the beach and I will show you how we do it.”

The tide was high as we reached our destination near the P.J. Pavilion in Isla Blanca Park.

“I start at the water’s edge,” Jimmie said. “You get to carry the important tool,” he added handing me a long handled metal contraption.

“Kinda heavy,” I complained looking down at the mesh bucket.

“Yep,” was all Jimmie said as he strapped a webbed belt, which held  the electronics to the detector, around his waist. Next he adjusted the earphones and fiddled with the dials for a moment.

“When I hear a signal, I scoop the sand into the mesh bucket. The holes allow the water and mud to drain,” he explained, “ but coins and jewelry are trapped in the wire mesh.”

“Let’s go!” he said, beginning a southern trek along the high tide mark.

I noticed Jimmie established a search pattern that he did not deviate from as we drifted down the beach, always moving the coil back and forth, systematically searching every section of the quadrant before moving on.

 “Some days I find a lot and other days I come away empty handed. The important thing to remember,” he said, “is that the coil has to pass over something before it will signal.”

A group of kids began to gather, curious about what we were doing.

“Have you always hunted the beach?” I asked, watching a freighter in the distance, moving on an easterly course along the Brownsville Ship Channel.

“I really got my start a few years back in Tyler, Texas,” said Jimmie.  There is an old railroad depot downtown, now owned by Southern Pacific. It’s located at the end of a nineteen-mile section of narrow gauge track that was laid down in 1871. The railroad was doing some major construction and a lot of dirt was being removed.  The contractor had arranged to dump the dirt on private property near the edge of town. I got permission to hunt the area from the landowner.” 

Jimmie paused. Then moving the coil in concentric circles, he finally centered over one spot.

Following our every movement, one of the kids squealed, “He found something!” 

My own pulse quickened, remembering rumors of a Spanish Galleon having been located in this area after Hurricane Beulah struck here in 1967. Had we found a gold cross, crafted for the Bishop of Seville?

“Sounds like a coin,” Jimmie said,  removing his earphones.

Okay, I would settle for a gold doubloon of the quality that Mel Fischer found off the wreck of the Atocha in the Florida Keys.

Jimmie took the scoop and dug in the sand near his foot. Handing me the mud filled scoop he passed the coil over the spot he had just dug.

“It’s still there,” he said. “Dump the scoop.”

Whatever had given him a signal was not in the first load. Once again, he dug the scoop into the sand.

An old lady in a faded sundress joined us in the ankle deep water. Again, I held the sand filled scoop as he passed the coil over the spot we had gotten the signal from.

“Ha, we have it!”  he exclaimed.

“We could let the sand wash out here,” he said, walking away from the surf, “but I like to dump it where I can search out the smaller stuff.”

Our entourage quickly crowded around us in a semi-circle.  We  were all going to be rich! Jimmie spread the sand in a line on the beach and again passes the coil over the spill. We all saw the golden glint at the same time but Jimmie reached the fastest.  A moment later and he held our trophy high for all to see.

“A penny?” The kids moaned in disappointment.

“Not even enough to pay for putting in your two cents worth.” Jimmie said, laughing as we returned to the waters edge

Muttering in broken English, the old lady shooed the kids back down the beach.

Non-plussed, Jimmie continued telling me about his first hunting experience. “We found 31 old brass baggage tags and numerous

Un peso 1971

19th and 20th century coins.  I continued returning to that area for several years and seldom came away empty handed.”

The waves were coming in at a steady pace now, as I braced against an especially big one.

It’s not all glory,” Jimmie said continuing to swing his detector along his chosen route. “By the time you get done playing out there, you get real wore out.  The detector can get heavy and sometimes the waves are so big they can knock you down. The real pleasure though, is putting on those earphones and just wandering along the beach, enjoying  the outdoors.”

I reflected on those words as I watched the freighter gather speed before it entered the Gulf at the mouth of the south jetties.  Overhead, begging gulls screamed and laughed at the tourists.

It was a LONG day. We found numerous beer tabs, which Jimmie put in a sack he carried for trash, a one peso coin circa 1971 and 87 cents in change. It was worth it, though.  To this day, it is days like that; beautiful sunshine,  clear  blue water  and an unbelievable array of fantastic wildlife (tourists included), which still remind me what the REAL TREASURES of  South Padre Island are.

Author’s Note:  It is extremely important to get permission from landowners BEFORE hunting a site.  The State of Texas has very stringent rules on ownership of lost items found on private property and the landowner has clear title to anything found unless you have made prior arrangements.





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