AUBURN — When he’s not being a copier repair man, Richard Carney Jr. scuba dives for treasure all around New England. He’s been at it for 30 years.
On Thursday, after a service call, he tugged on a wet suit, strapped on fins and stepped into the Androscoggin River underneath Railroad Bridge, barely visible to walkers-by on the trestle above except for the odd burst of bubbles.
An hour later, he brought up an ornate pewter cup, rusty toy gun, broken 1850s decanter, a half-dozen pottery pieces he can turn into “artifact art” and he got a second look at the largest “wall” of underwater bicycles he’s ever seen.
“(It’s) untouched underwater, untouched,” Carney, 53, said.
Thursday was his fourth dive exploring the local depths of the Androscoggin. During the first, in February, he and a buddy counted among their watery prizes a small 1850s bottle embossed “Cook’s Hair Restorer, Lewiston, Maine.” Unusual because of its age, being made locally and being intact.
“We were all quivery over that,” Carney said.
Carney, from Brunswick, dives year-round. In the winter, it’s sea harbors. In the spring, it’s rivers. In the summer, it’s hitting lakes with an underwater metal detector. He started out decades ago after pre-1880s bottles. In advance of dives, he researches old swimming holes and steamer ship landing sites. One lake in Cumberland with an old Catholic beach yielded 2,000 coins, 42 gold rings and hundreds of religious medallions.
“There is treasure everywhere, Anytown, U.S.A.,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is look for it.”
Five years ago, Carney started taking imperfect finds — a broken 1820s milk pitcher, half an old clay pipe — and turning it into art with stained glass backdrops. He has a gallery, Old Bottle Sea Glass of Maine, next to his business, Excel Copier Service, on Mere Point Road in Brunswick. He also shows at craft fairs around the state. The next is The Enlightenment Expo on April 29 in Portland.
“You can’t be claustrophobic and you can’t be afraid of snapping turtles,” Carney said. Experience and scuba dive training is also a must.
Most old dump sites on land were pretty well scoured by the 1970s, he said, while underwater has been left alone. He only knows of a handful of divers doing what he does.
As recently as the 1920s, Twin Cities residents brought trash out onto the Androscoggin when the river iced over, and, “in the spring when the ice went out, there went the trash,” he said.
Carney found pockets of that old debris near Railroad Bridge, along with boulders, massive trees and about 30 bikes likely pitched off the trestle over the decades.
“I found another debris field upstream,” he said.
He and his 110 pounds of gear will be back.