The Safe

The contents of this safe could be worth billions

A few years back, a local man donated an antique safe to the Museums of Port Isabel.South Padre Bank Padre Island The only catch though, was that the combination to the strong box, which dated back to around the turn of the last century and supposedly came out of the old Champion Building, had been lost for many years. One could only speculate on its contents. Recently, the subject of the safe was brought up once again and it was decided to do a live opening during a yearly fundraiser for the museum. Seeing as how I am a practicing locksmith (Almost Always Available Locksmith) I was the man tasked with the job. Though I am a person of many talents, safe cracking is not one of my skills. So I needed an expert and Monty Cantu (Always Open safe and Lock) answered my call. After hearing the details, Monty agreed to donate his time and skills Together we assessed the situation. It was obvious that at one time someone had tried to muscle their way in with pry-bar and sledge hammer. But the safe had to this date resisted all efforts.
Professional that he is, Monty decided to drill a hole alongside the combination dial. If the mechanism inside still worked he would be able to manipulate the gears and release the bolts that held the door shut. It sounded good in theory….after about twenty minutes of drilling, with one broken bit, Monty announced he had punched through the outer layer and was ready for a “peek” inside. With the use of a miniature camera mounted on a long cable Monty was able to get a close-up view of the mechanism. Unfortunately, past attempts to open the safe had resulted in damaging the gears so badly they would no longer retract the bolts. Monty’s back-up plan was to cut through the top or back of the safe and with the help of our volunteer sidewalk supervisor Darrell Magnum (Air-Tech air conditioning of Port Isabel) who supplied us with a saw and blade we did just that. First we removed an outer sheath of steel and then several inches of fire retardant concrete; all that remained between us and a treasure whose value we could only guess at, was a thin-wooden-barrier. That evening, and in front of a live audience Monty ceremoniously peeled back the wood slats to reveal……well, I think it would be more appropriate if you were to watch the opening yourself so here is a link to a video of the event, courtsey of Valerie Bates.

But our real story is revealed in the following: Let’s just say that the treasure we found inside that antique safe pales when compared to the value of the contents of a similar strongbox that was lost a 150 years ago.
The Mexican American War had ended with the February 2, 1848 signing of the Treaty of Hidalgo. Provisions in this document assured landowners that title to their property would not be taken from them by the victorious Americans.
The Miller and Bourland Commission, formed in 1850 were taskeTexas Spanish Land Grant d with authenticating Spanish and Mexican land grants held by the former Mexican citizens. William H. Bourland and James B. Miller were appointed commissioners, while Robert Jones Rivers, a well-known lawyer and judge, served as the board’s attorney.
To authenticate their claims, property owners were required to submit a full written description of the land claimed, along with all the evidence of title and rights on which the claim was based. They also had to sign an affidavit stating that all documents submitted were not forged. Testimony by witnesses was quite often accepted in lieu of documentation.
Based on this information the commissioners determined which titles were perfect. The commission could also recommend confirmation if it concluded that all requirements for perfecting the title would have been met had there not been a change in national sovereignty. Following their decision the commission prepared an abstract on each claim together with a recommendation on whether it should be confirmed or rejected. The abstract and supporting evidence would then be submitted to the governor who, in turn, would present the documents to the legislature for final action.Deed Book Cameron County Texas Rio Grande Valley
Strong Box Bouland Miller CommisionThe completed paperwork was carefully cataloged before being stored in a giant strong box aboard the steamer Anson. The vessel, captained by Richard King was enroute from Clarksville Landing at the mouth of the Rio Grande to Galveston when a lookout sighted the schooner Colonel Cross stranded near the middle of Padre Island.. With Captain King’s assistance, the Colonel Cross was refloated and continued on her way. Subsequently, the Anson herself was lost, stranded on Matagorda peninsula on the night of November 25, the vessel was a total loss. Passengers and crew were saved but her precious cargo had vanished beneath the waves.
Map Cameron County Texas Relying on notes and memory, the commissioners replicated the original grants. I would not want to speculate on the accuracy of the new report (this happened in the same time frame as Richard King began buying property to build the fabulous King Ranch, but would bet money that if the contents of that safe were ever salvaged, it could rewrite the real estate history of most of South Texas. Even considering today’s soft real estate market, land covered by the titles said to be in the strong box could be worth billions.
© Steve Hathcock 2011
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