Hidden History

A Windsor Scuba Diver Locates Historic
Artifact in the Detroit River for National Geographic

“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure” is certainly true when it comes to the hidden history lying on the bed of the Detroit River. In 2020, the venerable National Geographic began inquiring in the area about what historical artifacts might lie at the bottom of the river—and was there anyone around who could help them find them. Windsor Port Authority harbourmaster, Peter Barry, knew exactly the person to call: area diver Matt Zuidema. 

Haling from Wallaceburg, Matt came to Windsor in the 1990s to attend the University of Windsor. His lifelong love of water led to a passion for scuba diving. As he says in National Geographic’s series Drain the Oceans, “Rise of the Mob” about the Detroit River dive: “I’ve been a scuba diver and diving instructor for over twenty-five years. I was a broke university student and [the Detroit River] was the only place I could dive.” 

Matt, between film shoots on the Detroit River in front of the Hiram Walker distillery.

The rules about diving in the Detroit River were much looser in the 1990s than they are today. One constant rule, however, has always been that the riverbed is not a salvage yard. Divers finding the remnants of automobiles, shipwrecks, or other historical artifacts, must leave the items where they are found. These days, a hard-to-come-by permit is required to dive in the river—that is, for divers willing to endure the current and poor visibility, which could be as much as five feet and as little as one foot, depending on conditions.

“I found a car somewhere around 1995 in the river out front of the Casino,” Matt recalls. “It was sitting upright on the riverbed. I researched that car and I think it was a Buick from somewhere around 1915-1920. It was very low on the bottom of the river. When I dove in 2020, looking for that car, I could not find it. I figured it was covered up by the silt. ‘The National Geographic people need a car!’ I thought. ‘I lost my car.’” 

Matt and his team—boat captain Paul Boycott and first mate Mike Lahoud—engaged in research and numerous dives looking for it. 

With local historian Marty Gervais discussing Prohibition, artifacts and pictures.

“I went on some diving forums,” Matt continues. “Then, I was speaking with a local diver. He said he had found a vehicle that was upside-down, laying in the middle of the Detroit River and it was something that definitely should not have been there. Since this was something that was not well-known, I wanted to follow up and see it for myself. With very limited visibility in the river, that’s easier said than done. I had a hard time locating it.”

By 2022, National Geographic told Matt that he had until Memorial Day—May 30—to find the car or they would scrub the episode. 

“I did a search pattern,” Matt explains during the “Rise of the Mob” episode, “where you just do a zigzag on the bottom of the river, going back and forth and just seeing what I could find. I actually saw coming out of the gloom wooden spokes for a vehicle. That told me that vehicle was very early.”

At Willistead Manor being interviewed about prohibition and the exploration in the Detroit River.

With a day left, Matt located the Model T truck, which lay upside-down on the bottom of the river: a remnant of the days when bootleggers risked their lives driving cars across the frozen expanse of the Detroit River during the most forbidding months of winter, to sell Canadian booze to American customers languishing under Prohibition.

The National Geographic team came to Windsor and over the course of two days in July, filmed the episode “Rise of the Mob,” focusing on Windsor’s rum-running past. Matt notes that Ron Waxman of Benthic Scuba was helpful in the filming of the episode, which aired in late March 2023, and can be viewed on the National Geographic website for a few dollars.

The episode is augmented with interviews with Matt that took place at Willistead Manor. The National Geographic crew also took a ride out to the Canadian Automotive Museum in Kingsville where they found a truck that matched what was found in the river.

For Matt, it was the experience of a lifetime. He said in local media following the episode: “And the funny thing is some of my most enjoyable dives—even those amazing dives all over the world—I find some of the neatest things I’ve done are right here in the Detroit River.”

In Matt’s garage filming B roll of some of his diving finds.

He goes on: “I love the adventure of it all. I did a dive behind the old Holiday Inn by the Caron Avenue Pumping Station. That’s a treasure trove because people used to throw stuff out of the windows of the hotel. A while back I found a toilet down there with the floorboard still attached. I found a piano, furniture, and last year, I found a suitcase—one of the roller types—full of mixed tapes and videos from the 1990s… from what it looks like.” 

It bears repeating that diving in the Detroit River is not for the faint of heart, or for amateurs. At its deepest, the river is approximately sixty feet deep, out in the middle of the channel. When freighters come through the area, some of them are so massive, they draw approximately thirty feet of water. Couple that with the river’s powerful current, poor visibility, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision how divers could find themselves in trouble. There are few things less forgiving than the unrelenting, colossal propellers that move those ships through the channel.

That said, as pastimes go, Matt cannot think of anything better than scuba diving for adventure and enjoyment. 

“For people who want to dive, Lake Erie and Lake Huron offer some of the best freshwater diving,” he says. “And nothing compares to the diving in Tobermory and the experiences you can have in the Fathom Five National Marine Park. There are lots of shipwrecks out there. The diving is unbelievable!” 

Check out more of Matt’s dives by visiting his YouTube channel:
Matt Zuidema@mattzuidema6930

Add comment