When Ron Hotchkiss was 14 years old, he spent $25 he’d made mowing lawns on some secondhand diving gear.
In those days, he’d hunt under the diving boards of Coeur d’Alene Lake, sifting the sand for the $1.75 in spare change it took to fill his air tank.
Time was when Hotchkiss would do a couple hundred dives a year in the waters of North Idaho and beyond. Exploring the lake beds and sunken boats, he uncovered buried treasure.
One time, off Independence Point, he found two cases of 1880s soda pop bottles from the Spokane Soda Works, many still sealed and containing their original contents.
“One even still has a berry in it,” the retired Coeur d’Alene police lieutenant said. Not that they taste good. One of the bottles later shattered, and he sampled the liquid. “I can’t even begin to describe the bitterness. It’s like, ‘How fast can you spit it out?’ “
In 1983, he made a big find – an antique carbide light, the kind used on Coeur d’Alene’s many steamboats. It’s mostly complete, too, missing only the rubber tube that connected the carbide crystal chamber with the light box above. When he took it to Spokane for the recent taping of “Antiques Roadshow,” the appraiser said it dated from the 1890s or early 1900s and was worth about $1,000.
A brass kerosene port/starboard light of the same vintage that his brother found in Lake Pend Oreille was valued at between $200 and $400.
“It’s been a hoot of a sport that’s actively paid for itself,” Hotchkiss said.
Not that he’s sold many of his treasures. The home he shares with his wife, Sally, is decorated with many of Hotchkiss’ finds. The carbide and kerosene lights are among the items mounted on the living room wall. A large display case holds dozens of objects found underwater.
Sally Hotchkiss doesn’t dive. She joked that she would sit in the boat and count air bubbles. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t enjoy the fruits of her husband’s endeavors.
“He’s real good about doing something with (his finds),” she said. “I like the looks, too. So I enjoy the décor.”
His collection includes cell phones and sunglasses. Dishes and a bathtub faucet. Propellers and anchors. Old cider jugs and a bunch of tokens from an old cigar store on Sherman Avenue. He found a Navy ring off the city dock, and he and some friends once pulled a Model A car out of the lake, across from Carlin Bay.
Looking for old tools? Pend Oreille’s the place. Hotchkiss has a spot there he calls the “hammer farm” because the tools knocked off the docks litter the lake bed.
Diving in Virginia in 1986, he found a rifle and bayonet that dated to 1828 and had been refitted for use in the Civil War. He found a Civil War-era bugle on that trip, too, along with a 200-pound gun boat mortar, a colonial-era clothes iron and a silver tiara, among other items. Once, in Hayden Lake, he found a prosthetic arm, and eventually reunited it with its owner.
Then there are the slot machines. Back in the mid-1950s, Coeur d’Alene police raided an illegal gambling barge that was operating on the lake. Police confiscated the slot machines and dumped them into the water. Over the years, various divers had found nine of them. Only two remain.
Hotchkiss brought the rest of them – 25 – to the surface back in the 80s.
“They were the holy grail of diving on the lake,” he said.
Two of them, a 1934 Castle Front and a 1935 Watling Rol-A-Tor, he fully restored. Each took about 100 hours to complete. Like many objects that spend a lot of time in Coeur d’Alene Lake, they were in pretty bad shape.
“The water in Coeur d’Alene has a lot of acid in it from the mines,” he said. “It just chews steel up.”
Now 56, Hotchkiss doesn’t get in the water much these days, maybe 10 times a year. Retirement has a funny way of keeping one busy, he said. But he offers some advice for others who want to go treasure hunting in North Idaho’s waters.
“If you want clarity, you go to Pend Oreille or Hayden,” he said. “For finding stuff, Coeur d’Alene is hard to beat.”
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