Rick Smith, steward of Port Washington’s historic Light Station, has an expert’s knowledge of Lakes Michigan and Superior from a lifetime spent on their waters and under them
"If I get too far away from water, my scales start to fall off.”
That’s how maritime historian Rick Smith of Port Washington explains the pull Lake Michigan has on him.
Locally and nationally, Smith is the person people turn to when they want to know about Lake Michigan shipwrecks, lighthouses, commercial shipping and fishing, harbors and almost anything nautical.
If a piece of unusual debris is found along the lakeshore, Smith can tell if it is from a shipwreck, what it was used for on a vessel or if it was part of the cargo. Based on where it was found, he can usually pinpoint the ship, how far offshore it lies and how it sank.
Before the federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act was passed in 1987 prohibiting the public from removing items from the ships, Smith dove on all the shipwrecks in the area and brought up artifacts from many of them.
“I was more interested in the ships than collecting, so when I found something and didn’t know what it was, I would go home and research it,” Smith said.
“Whatever I brought up or bought is used for shows or is in museums. The stuff on the bottom of the lake only an elite few can see.”
Most of the items he recovered are on display at the Port Washington Light Station Museum, which he developed with Linda Nenn, and at other maritime museums.
The rest are in his basement, packed into 70 boxes, each labeled with the contents, ready for his presentations on a variety of maritime topics. Smith uses the artifacts and slides of historic photographs to illustrate the once thriving commerce on the Great Lakes and the tragedies that occurred. His basement is filled with research materials.
Smith stopped diving three years ago and discontinued deep dives to shipwrecks after the salvage law was enacted.
“It’s expensive to dive and to do it without any possibility of reward isn’t worth it,” Smith said. “My diving friends say the ships are collapsing because of the weight of the quaggra and zebra mussels and pretty soon they will turn into reefs like in the ocean.
“I’m not in favor of blatant collecting like before. I think it should be done by archeologists. Then the items can be on display for the people. Now, nobody can see them and soon the ships will disappear.”
He and his former partner, Allen “Butch” Klopp, were known for their extreme dives and the artifacts they recovered.
“In a crash dive, you only have a couple minutes (on the ship) to look around and then you have to start coming up and decompress,” Smith said. “The deepest I went was 252 feet.”
Smith, 67, can’t remember a time he wasn’t in or around the water.
Born in Marinette, Smith spent much of his time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula along the Bay of Green Bay and later in Marquette, Mich., along Lake Superior.
“We bounced from house to house in Marinette-Menomonee, and I always spent a lot of time along Lake Michigan,” Smith said. “My dad was a fisherman and a lumberjack. I used to help him lift pound nets and fish for perch.
“I started diving when I was really young. We made our own gear. I got my first fins and snorkel when I was a young kid. My first boat was a dugout canoe I built. In winter when the bay froze over, we put up a sail and went ice boating.”
His Sea Scout troop had an old schooner it rebuilt and sailed. That’s how he learned so much about schooner rigging, Smith said.
“The Bay of Green Bay has a great history,” he said. “There once were 27 docks poking out into the lake and 30 sawmills. If you poke around enough, you pick up a lot of information.”
Smith was a lifeguard in Marinette and was on the county’s rescue and dive team for four years.
He obtained a degree in geology from Northern Michigan University in Marquette, then got a teaching job at Port Washington High School, where he taught math and science for 35 years. His wife Ellen is a music teacher in the district.
“We moved to Port Washington and loved it,” Smith said. “I had charter fishing and diving boats in Port Washington and also one in the (Upper Peninsula of the) Bay of Green Bay. Once a Yooper, always a Yooper.”
He and Klopp converted an old fishing tug into their dive boat and were called on frequently for underwater tasks, including searching for drowning victims, recovering weapons and clearing intake valves.
“We were the dive team until the fire department formed its team,” Smith said.
Smith has written four maritime histories of Port Washington, a book people can use to find historical places in the city and a history of the Port Washington Light Station, for which he is seeking a publisher.
He has been active behind the scenes in numerous historical and maritime projects. He does most of the maintenance at the Light Station and is the only one allowed to polish the Fresnel lens light in the tower.
His favorite place in the museum is on the walkway of the tower he helped build.
“On a clear day, you can see the Oak Creek smokestacks. I love to watch the fireworks from here,” Smith said.
He loves everything about the lake.
“I love the beaches because they change every day, and now and then you find a plank or something from a ship,” he said. “At Harrington (Beach State Park in the Town of Belgium), I find pieces of planks from two ships, the Niagara and the Knickerbocker. I used to find wreckage on the north side of the pier so there might be a third one out there.”
For the first time since he can remember, Smith said, he doesn’t have a boat. He sold his sailboat three years ago and this year he sold his motorboat.
“I only have two kayaks now,” he said.
“I would love to be kayaking or canoeing right now, but this place (Light Station) keeps me too busy. Maybe now that I don’t have a boat, I’ll have more time.”
Image Information: A spare propeller from his old diving boat is one of many nautical items at Rick Smith’s Port Washington home. Photo by Sam Arendt