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Matt McCauley: Searching Out Kirkland's Past

The real-life treasure diver, historian and author shares his story of local fame back in the day.

“Reliving your glory days” is a phrase often misapplied to persons who never really had glory days to begin with. Not so for local historian Matt McCauley of the Kirkland Heritage Society. A journalism major at Seattle University, his college years were dominated by scuba diving treasure hunts and a legal battle against the ominous “people of the United States,” a David vs. Goliath court case where the David’s actually won.

McCauley lived the first twelve years of his life in Kirkland’s rural south Juanita neighborhood, attending A.G. Bell Elementary and making the sort of trouble young boys do, such as throwing dirt clods at neighborhood chickens.

His grandparents noticed his interest in historical items, clipping photos out of the newspapers to go in the “more old pictures for Matt” pile. McCauley fondly remembers using a metal detector to search for treasure around the rural pastures of Kirkland. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the way of treasure to be found yet.

Though his family moved to Mercer Island in 1976, where McCauley eventually graduated from Mercer Island High School, he kept in touch with his friends from Kirkland. In 1978, his buddy Jon Graham taught him to scuba dive in Lake Washington with the simple instructions, “Don’t hold your breath or your lungs will explode!” This is when McCauley’s quest as a treasure hunter began in earnest.

During the WWII era, Lake Washington was home to the Sand Point Naval Air Station, as well as other industrial ventures. Planes deemed as scrap were routinely sunk to the bottom of the lake after being stripped of parts and sometimes burned. Other planes actually crashed and sank.

After finding treasure like glass bottles and metal teapots from the 1890’s off what is now Madison Park, McCauley, Graham and another friend, Jeff Hummel, discovered the remains of a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver in 1984. The boys documented their find, seeking the proper channels as best as they could. They raised the wreck using inflatable air bags to float the plane to the surface.

Their excitement over the find soon plummeted when an official knock on the door turned out to be a U.S. Navy officer informing them that they were being sued by the “people of the United States.” One can imagine the panic felt by the boys, whose parents weren’t going to spend a dime on the case.

“My parents gave me the ‘I told you not to bring that plane up’ speech,” McCauley can now say with a laugh.

Three things, however, worked in the boys’ favor. First, the prosecution terribly botched the case’s PR, villianizing the rambunctious but otherwise simply curious boys as pillaging war graves when all they had done was to bring an obviously scrapped plane to the surface. Second, some serious military legal firepower took the case pro bono. And lastly, the U.S. Distict Judge John C. Coughenour was quite impressed by the boys’ documentation of their process, having taken necessary steps to proceed legally.

In 1985, the judge ruled in favor of the boys, who sold the wreck to a private collector in Minnesota. No doubt, the young men got a great deal of mileage out of the judge’s public statement describing them as, “eager, energetic and well-mannered young men of the type who made this country great.”

Over the course of the next couple of years, the friends salvaged a total of four planes until the State of Washington passed a law stating that everything on the bottom of Lake Washington was official state property. And thus, those glory days came to an end.

Matt McCauley finished his degree in journalism and then went to law school at Seattle University. He spent more than a decade with his then-wife in Baltimore and D.C. as a coffee broker and came back to Kirkland “to stay” in 2010. He has been working as a board member for the Kirkland Heritage Society and will become the vice president in May, 2011.

Watching Kirkland grow from 5,000 people in 1964, the year McCauley was born, to a sprawling 80,000 residents with the upcoming annexation of Finn Hill and other northern neighborhoods, has impressed upon McCauley the need to preserve local history and educate the public about local origins.

He writes a column in the Kirkland Reporter and has even published a book entitled “A Look to the Past: Kirkland,” which is basically a compilation of his columns.

There is a catch phrase on the Kirkland Heritage Society information sheet that says, “Take a break from the hectic present, relax with a step back in time...” When he’s not scouring old photos with a magnifying glass, McCauley likes to relax at his favorite watering holes, including the and the -- classic places where one might hear stories from the glory days, and possibly even a little Springsteen to go with it.

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