Diver finds rum-runners’ Model T in river

Ford Model T (Pxfuel)
Ford Model T (Pxfuel)

A diving instructor has found the remains of a 1920s Model T Ford car thought to have belonged to US Prohibition-era bootleggers, following a challenging river dive near the Canadian city of Windsor.

Matt Zuidema, who has been diving for 30 years, located and filmed the car after being contacted by National Geographic through Windsor Port Authority. The producers of the TV series Drain The Oceans were looking for sunken evidence of historic organized crime activity, and the diver’s discovery forms part of an episode called Rise Of The Mob.

Also Read: Shipwreck silver, brass – even a Model T Ford!

Zuidema was diving in the Detroit River, which flows 24 miles from Lake St Clair to Lake Erie and forms part of the US-Canadian border, dividing Windsor, Ontario from Detroit, Michigan.

There had long been rumours among local divers of a Model T with a trailer behind it facing upriver near the site of a Canadian Club plant in Windsor.

Zuidema recalled another diver telling him about the car wreck back in the 1980s, and agreed to take a look. GoPro footage he took on discovering the vehicle was used by automobile experts to confirm the make and model, and features in the programme. 


Rum-runners drive alcohol from Canada over the frozen Detroit River in December 1929 (Walter P Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University)
Rum-runners drive alcohol from Canada over the frozen Detroit River in December 1929 (Walter P Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University)

During the USA’s Prohibition era between 1920 and 1933, Detroit became the centre of “rum-running” operations, as criminal organisations such as the notorious Purple Gang smuggled large quantities of alcohol across the border. The river, Lake St Clair and the St Clair River are thought to have accounted for 75% of all the bootleg liquor that found its way into the USA. 

Large amounts of smuggled alcohol were distilled at the plant near where the Model T was found – its owner Hiram Walker, a friend of Henry Ford, was from Detroit but had set up on the Canadian side of the river, where land was less expensive.

There were no bridges over, or tunnels under, the Detroit River at that time, so bootleggers would carry the contraband in boats in summer, and in winter used cars to cross the thick ice that a century ago would form over the river.

Overloaded vehicles were known to have fallen through the ice, as would have occurred with the car Zuidema found. Chain he recovered from the scene was likely used to link the car to a trailer, boosting the load capacity but increasing the risk.

Challenging dive

According to Zuidema the Detroit River is challenging to dive, with 5 knot currents, various layers creating a strong undertow and visibility typically little more than 30cm – or 1.5m “on a good day”.

Recreational diving is banned in the river between the two cities because of safety concerns – but also, say the police, because of the amount of historic criminal evidence the waters hold.

Windsor viewed from Detroit (Ken Lund)
Windsor viewed across the river from Detroit (Ken Lund)

If special permission to dive is obtained, as was the case with Zuidema, professional cover has to be engaged to ensure that the diver does not run foul of boat traffic or currents. Finds are the property of the Canadian government.

Zuidema says he believes other rum-runner vehicles have yet to be found in the river. Many were likely to have been Model Ts – mass-produced by Ford between 1908 and 1927, these were the world’s first widely affordable cars. Fifteen million were sold, the last models priced at $360 (about £4,500 today).

Drain The Oceans: Rise Of The Mob, presented by crime historian Christian Cipollini, examines how a range of evidence long-hidden under water can reveal how the Mob prospered in 1920s America. The documentary airs on Disney+ in the UK on Sunday 7 May, and is available on YouTube with a subscription.

Also on Divernet: Scuba Diver Spots Treasure In Cornish River, Weapon Finds Punctuate Divers’ SAR Training, Meg Diver: Bill’s Big-Tooth Adventures, Israeli Divers On River Mission In Hungary



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1 month ago

That car photo is a Model A Ford built 1928 -1931. Model T. Looks totally different. Some one used the wrong stock photo

Howard Hope
Howard Hope
8 days ago

Just to say…that’s a later Model A Ford in the heading image. The b/w one of the car crossing the frozen lake IS a Model T! I’ve just seen Bob has already posted the same.

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