Pirates land in St. Augustine…permanently

Published on: April 14, 2011

Photos by Sherry Sather

Photos by Sherry Sather

IFWTWA (International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association)

ST. AUGUSTINE — Pirates twice turned St. Augustine’s streets red with blood. Sir Francis Drake attacked, pillaged and burned St. Augustine in 1586, which by the way was in the century before the Pilgrims landed on that famous rock. It happened again 82 years later in 1668 when the buccaneer Robert Seales had his turn.

For hundreds of years, pirates impacted life in St. Augustine. Streets and houses were designed and built to protect residents from direct assault from the water. Today, the pirates are back for good at the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum.

Originally located in Key West, the museum was moved to St. Augustine, America’s oldest continuously occupied city, when its founder Pat Croce, discovered that visitors to Key West were more interested in partying than museum going. But it was a good foundation and learning experience for what today is probably the world’s premier museum dedicated solely to the colorful history of pirates.

The pirates made an end run this time, arriving not by ship from their safe havens in the Caribbean, but over land by moving vans from Key West. The residents of St. Augustine should have remembered the signals supposedly used for Paul Revere’s famous ride, “One if by land, two if by sea…”

The Pirate Museum, with its priceless relics, is directly across from St. Augustine’s historic fort, Castillo de San Marcos. Pat Croce couldn’t have picked a more perfect location in this historic city. This was where many of the pirate invasions of the city took place.

Exhibits have been greatly expanded for this new location. Besides artifacts from Pat’s extensive collection of pirate “treasures,” the Florida Division of Historical Resources for the first time gave a private organization access to its extensive collection of shipwreck treasures. Everything in the museum is woven seamlessly into exhibits that bring together 400 years of pirate history.

The St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum opened in St. Augustine in December 2010.

The Below Deck sound chamber was worked on by Disney’s Imagineers. Visitors can fire real cannons electronically to experience the flash/bang/deck shaking reality of being in battle. And not only kids love the experience. I fired the cannons four times during my visit. This is a living, active, hands-on museum.

Blackbeard’s head is on display, not the real one of course, hanging just as it was after his capture and execution in his final sea battle. Be careful though as you pass by, it will talk to you.

The Jolly Roger on display is one of only two surviving pirate flags in the world. The other is in Helsinki, Finland. The flag in St. Augustine’s Pirate & Treasure Museum was in actual use on a pirate ship in the mid 1800s.

One of the highlights is a 17th century pirate treasure chest, the ONLY authentic one left in the world. It could only be opened by a key in the possession of its owner, the pirate Captain Thomas Tew. Pat Croce acquired this at auction in December 2000 and it is insured for more than $1 million. But what most people don’t know about a treasure chest is that inside is another lock box for really valuable items (the formula for Coca Cola?). The construction of the box and its locking mechanism are truly amazing to see.

Visitors can sit in a pitch black “bilge” of a ship and don headphones which bring to life, in three-dimensional audio, Blackbeard’s final battle.

If you’ve ever watched the old Westerns, there’s usually a shot of a “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster tacked up on a tree. Well, the museum can top this. They have an original wanted poster dating back to 1696 for the capture of the pirate Henry Every. It was issued by the King of England and offered 500 pounds for Every’s capture. Avery was never captured.

Pat Croce wore many hats before becoming President/CEO of the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum. If his name is familiar to some of you, it might be from his days as the former owner and president of the Philadelphia 76ers (not the Pittsburgh Pirates?). His exuberant presence can be felt throughout the museum. But “museum” might be a poor word to use in this case since this is not a museum in the usual sense. This is a place for learning, interaction, and excitement.

There is much to see and do in the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum. Real weapons, guns, swords, knives and less appetizing weapons of choice are on display. And much of it can be touched.

Photos by Sherry SatherMany exhibits are computer interactive and the kids love it. This is something they can handle. When they see the real sword of Captain Jack Sparrow and the Cursed Coin from the Pirates of the Caribbean, they get excited. After all, this is “their” pirate not just stuff from some guys long since gone, even if he was just a Hollywood pirate.

Pat Croce’s life-long love of pirates began as a young boy when he saw the movie Captain Blood, the 1935 Hollywood swashbuckling blockbuster version of a pirate starring Errol Flynn. He was hooked. Just as an aside, I’ve visited replicas of these ships and can report that there isn’t enough room in the captain’s quarters to do any of the things Errol Flynn did in the movies.

As Pat grew up, he became a physical therapist, reality TV judge, motivational speaker, sports commentator, and president of the Philadelphia 76ers. But then his true passion took over. Using artifacts he acquired over many years, he opened the Pirate Soul Museum in Key West in 2005. Borrowing a movie term, the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum could be considered a sequel to Key West. But unlike many of Hollywood’s sequels, this one is bigger and better than the original.

The museum offers tours by pirate-costumed guides. For information, go their web site at www.thepiratemuseum.com or call (877)-GO-PLUNDER (877-467- 5863). The museum is located on the waterfront across the street from the fort.