Ric Mixter chronicles maritime history through the stories of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes

When looking out into Saginaw Bay, the glassy blue waters touching the cloudless horizon paint an image of serenity and peace. But beneath its surface lies the decaying skeletons of shipwrecks from ages past.
Ric Mixter, a filmmaker, documentarian, author, diver, and former broadcaster from the Great Lakes Bay Region, has spent decades researching maritime stories in the Great Lakes and is noted for interviewing survivors of shipwreck catastrophes.
In 2009, Mixter was awarded the Joyce S. Hayward Award for Historic Interpretation by the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History, one of his most notable achievements. 

During a recent interview, he talked about his experiences with diving and documenting in Michigan waters and the Saginaw Bay region.
Mixter grew up in the Upper Peninsula, one of seven kids living in a trailer. His interest in diving was sparked by Joe Myers, a family friend, who was a certified diver who regaled the youth with watery tales of exploration.
Mixter went on to pursue a career in broadcasting, entering the field in Marquette County when he was 16 years old. Eventually, he found a job at WNEM-TV5.

Mixter is an award-winning documentarian best known for his work research Great Lakes shipwrecks. (Photo courtesy of Ric Mixter)In 1990, while Mixter worked at TV-5, the MV Jupiter freighter exploded while it was offloading millions of gallons of gasoline at the Total Oil Company refinery on the Saginaw River. The station paid for Mixter’s SCUBA training to get access to the wreck. This re-ignited his passion for diving.
Since then, Mixter has traveled throughout the Great Lakes, diving, interviewing survivors of shipwrecks, and writing about their experiences.
One of his craziest dives happened in the St. Clair River while exploring the wreck of the Sydney Smith freighter under the Blue Water Bridge.
The freighter capsized when it hit another vessel in treacherous narrows flowing off Lake Huron. When Mixter dived on the wreck, the water from the river was flowing at a quick 6 knots and managed to pin Mixter in a hollow under 40 feet of water. He feared losing his regulator and drowning. He eventually crawled his way out of the trench and made it to the surface.
Another harrowing dive in Lake Huron involved the schooner Spangler, which wrecked on the day Abraham Lincoln won the presidency. The corn-carrying Spangler collided with the schooner Racine, which crushed the Spangler’s bow and sank it.

Decades later, Mixter dove the wreck, which lay in over 180 feet of water. He was improperly prepared for such a deep dive depth, coaxed by the clarity of the water. He was using the wrong breathing gas, which made him disoriented from nitrogen narcosis. He composed himself in time, though, ensuring that he and his dive buddy ascended safely. 
These incidents did not detract from Mixter from diving Huron again. 

One of his favorite wrecks in the lake is the Charles S. Price, a steamer that sank during the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, one of the deadliest natural disasters to hit the region. 

In the storm, 19 ships were destroyed, 19 were stranded, and more than 250 people lost their lives. Mixter interviewed wheelsman Ed Kanaby, one of four people to see the steamer. Mixter featured Kanaby in his documentary, “Final Run.”

Another of Mixter’s favorite Lake Huron maritime tales is of Dennis Hale, who gave Mixter an interview about the 1966 sinking of the freighter Daniel J. Morrell. The interview marked the first time Hale shared his eyewitness testimony on TV. 

The Morrell ship broke in half during a wicked storm. Many of the crew jumped into the 34-degree water to their deaths. Hale made it to a lifeboat with three other men, who each died later from exposure. Hale survived for 30 hours in freezing temperatures in only a pea coat. Later, he had his toes amputated due to complications from frozen feet.
Saginaw Bay maritime history

The Saginaw Bay holds a special place in Mixter’s heart. 

The bay has multiple shipwrecks and a compelling history, due to its connection to the booming lumber industry of the 1880s and 1900s. Dozens of ships lay on the bay’s bottom, meeting their demise due to the treacherous conditions of the water. Twenty of the wrecks lie in just 20 to 30 feet of water, but can be difficult to see due to poor visibility.
Mixter has researched the Saginaw Bay history, from its first recorded storm in 1679 to rumors of treasure ships lying in its waters. 

Today, the bay continues to hold secrets, despite its shallow waters. Wreck hunters recently discovered what was said to be the Water Witch, which was lost with 23 lives in 1863. Mixter and others believe it to be the Bucephelus, which was 10 feet longer. 

It can be challenging to identify the wrecks in the bay. Mixter says it's a lot easier when divers find a name painted on the ship or a capstan cover embossed with the vessel's identity. 

Such finds are rare, so instead researchers look at the length, engine details, or even the shape of the propeller for clues.

View shipwrecks without getting wet

You don’t have to dive to see shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, Mixter says.

One of the best opportunities is in Lake Huron off the coast of Alpena at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Over 100 wrecks lie in clear water, many at a depth of only 20 feet. 

The Monohansett is one of the most popular wrecks and one of the first wrecks Mixter dove. The ship was a wooden steam barge that caught fire when an oil lantern tipped over and ignited its 900 tons of coal. A glass bottom boat tour is available from May through October. 

In Saginaw, on the Saginaw River near Third Street, where the West Bay City Shipyard used to stand, the Montauk remains submerged in the river next to the Wheeler Landing Yacht Club and may be seen via kayak.

For those who don’t want to go on the water, Mixter suggested the Bay County Historical Museum, 321 Washington Ave., which holds the Kantzler Maritime Gallery. The gallery showcases local maritime history and covers such topics as boat building and marine navigation. 

Also in Bay City, the Saginaw River Historical Society has a museum that highlights the building of over 650 ships on the Saginaw River. The temporary museum and store are in the Bay City Town Center and you can call (989) 545-9425 to make an appointment.

Mixter also produces Shipwreck Podcasts for more maritime history. The podcast features more than 17 hours of interviews with wreck survivors. 
Mixter’s current project is chronicling famous dog rescues on the Great Lakes, including stories on Lake Huron. 

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