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Caep Coral 'legend'

Long-time resident involved in many historical events

January 18, 2010

Most people are lucky to experience a historical moment once in their lives, to be part of something that's referenced throughout the years.

For Cape Coral resident Lou Tilley, historical moments simply are his life.

Tilley has directly or indirectly been part of times that have shaped generations - from piloting bombers in World War II, to having his hand in helping launch the space program, to helping find millions of dollars in sunken treasure.

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Lou Tilley
Present Day

He's part of the Cape's story, too, having been here during the reign of the Rosens, buying property in the city's oldest areas which he later developed or sold.

Close friends refer to him as a "legend," as "generous" or as simply "fascinating."

A part of Tilley's legacy will be displayed at the Cape Coral Historical Museum this weekend, as silver coins from the Nuestra Seora de Atocha, a famed Spanish galleon discovered off the Florida coast in 1985 by treasure hunter Mel Fisher, are unveiled.

The legend of the coins is fascinating by itself, but Tilley's role in the saga only heightens the drama of a story that spans hundreds of years.

The Atocha's journey began in 1622, when it sank off the Florida Keys after being laid to waste by a hurricane.

The ship, which was bound for Spain, was carrying loads of precious jewels, a fact that drove Mel Fisher - and numerous other treasure hunters - to search for the ship incessantly.

Fisher spent 16 years scouring the ocean for the famed ship, but it wasn't until he met Tilley during that period that he finally had all the necessary tools to find the sunken treasure.

Tilley and Fisher struck a deal. Tilley would provide Fisher with two tug boats, and Fisher would provide stock in his fledgling company - Treasure Salvors - which would give Tilley a cut of the treasure should it ever be discovered.

"Everyone knew there was treasure, they just didn't know where," Tilley said. "I think Mel Fisher was the only person who could have pulled that off."

It wasn't just some sort of luck of the draw that Tilley happened to have the two boats. They were from another business venture, when Tilley owned a tug boat business in New Orleans.

From 1948 to 1970, Tilley owned and operated the business out of New Orleans, working with the offshore oil industry, among other ventures.

But it was a special contract he had with the United States government that helped to put the first American in space.

"We developed a reputation as a reliable company," Tilley said. "We were recommended to the government, and we ended up bidding on their contract for a third of what other companies were bidding."

Tilley's tugs moved around pieces of the rockets that would be used in the Mercury and Gemini programs, NASA's earliest attempts to launch an American into the stratosphere.

The pieces were ferried between NASA's different facilities in Louisiana and Alabama, and Tilley also helped to ferry rocket fuel to Cape Canaveral on Florida's east coast.

He worked four years with NASA in this capacity, before a sort of falling out led Tilley to not only stop working with the government, but retire from the tug business altogether.

That led him to Cape Coral, which he said he was attracted to because of the waterfront locale.

"Being in the tug boat business, I knew people were going to live by the water," he said.

He started buying properties - working with legendary local figures like Connie Mack III and the Rosen brothers - which he later flipped or sold.

"Connie Mack was working for the Cape Coral Bank at the time - he sold me the first piece of property I bought," Tilley recalled.

An obviously avid avid boater, Tilley was a member of the Caloosahatchee Marching and Chowder Society, a sailing club.

According to Tilley, 20 boats from the club took a trip to the Dry Tortugas and eventually to Key West.

It was in Key West where he had a fortuitous meeting Mel Fisher, and three months later Fisher had his tug boats, and Tilley had his stock in Fisher's company.

Tilley said he eventually received roughly $1 million worth of stock in Fisher's company, all in silver coins, and a few other treasures from the boat.

He said he's never thought about selling the coins, only donating them, which he's done to the Historical Museum of South Florida, and now the Cape Coral Historical Museum.

When asked why he never looked to turn a profit on the coins, Tilley said, "I have never sold a coin. I've given them away to family and friends ... it just goes against my grain to sell something like that. It goes against history."

One person that's incredibly happy to have the coins is Cape historian Paul Sanborn, who praised not only Tilley's generosity but his life.

"He's a fascinating individual and most generous individual, and a true friend to me and to the museum," Sanborn said. "Through his generosity, we have a piece of history we can share with community."



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