An unarmed Navy torpedo, which slammed into the muddy bottom of Lake Pend Oreille 30 years ago, still rests there. It’s unreachable beneath 1,200 feet of water.
Two Rolex watches rest somewhere below the throngs of boaters on Lake Coeur d’Alene. So does the skeleton of a horse, with one end of a rope still cinched around its neck, the other tied to a heavy rock.
“It’s amazing what’s down in these lakes. There is a little bit of everything and some things few people know about,” said Fred Kennedy.
For most of his 84 years, Kennedy has piloted barges on Lake Pend Oreille, a massive 43-mile-long basin and the fifth-deepest lake in the country.
For 40 of those years, Kennedy worked with the U.S. Navy’s submarine testing base in the deepest water near Bayview. He knows the truths and tales of what lies at the bottom of what old-timers call “The Big Hole.”
Kennedy’s even reluctantly chased the elusive Pend Oreille Paddler, a rumored giant fish that’s become the legend of Lake Pend Oreille.
“I had sheriffs call me out a couple of times to check on reports of a sea monster,” Kennedy said with a grin. “I’ve seen things that look like a monster, but never found it. It was always a big tree with limbs sticking out of the water.”
Most suspect the creature is a large sturgeon. But boaters with sonar equipment have picked up other monster-sized objects in the big lake.
Kennedy says they are all explainable, like the two railroad boxcars that careened off the tracks near Trestle Creek in the 1930s and remain in the lake.
Or a huge Navy barge, with an estimated $1 million worth of equipment still on it, that sunk to a depth of 1,000 feet in Bayview in the 1970s.
The Navy sent a two-man submarine after it years ago, but deemed it too costly to raise from the murky, 39-degree water.
He’s seen the deepest part of the lake through an underwater camera.
“There’s virtually nothing down there but a flat, dark, muddy bottom. I never even saw a fish,” he said.
Sunken steamer ships are the most well-known of Lake Coeur d’Alene’s treasures. The worn-out ships were stripped of useful parts, set on fire and sunk off Independence Point during Fourth of July festivities. The area is an underwater park for divers who relish swimming in and out of windows or up and down stairwells of ships like the Spokane and Georgie Oakes.
“To me it’s relaxing and exciting,” said Ron Hotchkiss, a Coeur d’Alene police lieutenant who’s been diving since he was 14 years old.
He’s recovered a prosthetic arm from Hayden Lake and 1,522 business tokens off Tubbs Hill. The tokens, dating back to 1915, were for Henry Giguere’s Coeur d’Alene cigar store.
Hotchkiss also found the first golf balls ever hit toward the Coeur d’Alene Resort’s floating green. The golfer was resort developer Duane Hagadone - and he missed the green.
Hotchkiss later talked Hagadone into signing the balls.
Among his most prized possessions, however, are the 25 Watling slot machines he brought up from the lake bottom. They were all dumped off a barge in the 1950s when gambling was made illegal.
Now most relics in the shallower waters have been recovered. Serious treasure hunters have to go deeper to be rewarded. Tom Michalski, who owns a dive shop in Coeur d’Alene, said in shallower water there’s a graveyard of goodies, history and, of course, junk.
“I’m kind of a junk and treasure hunter,” said Michalski, 54. “I enjoy finding stuff and trying to figure out why it’s down there.”
He’s brought up antique bottles, tackle boxes, anchors, steering wheels from old steamers, even a new boat.
He located the boat in Priest Lake after it was reported stolen. It was filled with rocks and sunk. When Michalski raised it, it still had plastic over the seats. No one ever claimed it.
“I got a new boat out of the deal,” Michalski said.
He also yanked a 1929 Model A Ford Coupe from Lake Coeur d’Alene a few years ago.
“It still had the oil in it. I sold it to a guy for $500 and he had it running in two days. It was in a Post Falls parade the next weekend,” Michalski said. “That’s the great thing about fresh water. It doesn’t ruin things.”
One treasure Michalski would love to get his hands is a small Bonanza airplane that crashed on Pend Oreille about 10 years ago. The pilot ran out of gas near Garfield Bay. He belly-landed the plane on the water and was rescued by boat before the aircraft sank.
The plane’s worth about $10,000 but it’s now under 805 feet of water.
A favorite hunting ground for divers is near docks, bridges and boathouses. That’s where Michalski’s pulled out bikes, guns, sunglasses and hundreds of tools, including electric sanders and drills that still work.
“Docks and bridges are a junk hunter’s paradise. It’s where people toss stuff or drop it while loading their boats,” he said. “Most of the tools I have at my house I never had to buy.”
Years ago, houseboat owners dumped their trash in the drink. Under 60 feet of water in Bayview, Michalski’s seen kitchen sinks, hot water heaters, vacuum cleaners, sewing machines and refrigerators strewn across the lake bed.
Hundreds of steel barrels, once used to keep boathouses afloat, also litter the bottom of the lake at Bayview. So do tackle boxes. Michalski found three this month at depths of 87 feet to 204 feet.
“Even at 87 feet, the water pressure is incredible,” he said. A can of corn in one tackle box was completely crushed.
Some divers, like Hotchkiss and Michalski, still are hunting for the legendary 150 tons of silver ore in Lake Coeur d’Alene. It’s said the ore spilled from a listing barge off McDonald Point in the late 1880s. If the story is true, the mother lode of silver could be worth $75,000.
Local historian Bob Singletary is a nonbeliever. He’s found no reports of the accident in newspaper archives.
Hotchkiss thinks it’s just buried too deep to find. “It’s like sand … it’s under really deep muck.”
Michalski believes the silver is in another part of the lake. “If you spilled that much ore, would you tell everyone where it is?”
That legend is similar to one at Lake Pend Oreille, where a man reportedly found an underwater vein of gold. The man would go chip nuggets from the site when he needed money.
“That tale is a little more far-fetched,” Michalski said. “It’s like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
But there are a few trinkets of gold in Lake Coeur d’Alene. At least two men asked Michalski to dive for their Rolex watches. They lost them while fishing and sailing.
“They said, ‘Yeah, I know the exact spot where we were on the lake. You could see the tower of the Coeur d’Alene Resort.’ Well, that narrows it down,” Michalski said with a shrug.
Then there are the gruesome finds. Hard-core divers have been pressed into service several times to find the bodies of drowning victims. Some never have been recovered.
Hotchkiss quit that duty after being sent to recover a mysterious missing swimmer who turned out to be a duck splashing around in the water, alarming passersby.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
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