GVSU faculty and students to explore steamboat shipwrecks in Reeds Lake

EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In the late 1800s speedboats, jet skis and pontoon boats were only ideas still to be had and certainly wouldn’t be seen cruising on Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids. Instead, it was common to see regularly scheduled excursions on local steamboats, such as the S.S. Ramona, S.S. Major Watson or the S.S. Hazel A.

While these vessels flourished on the East Grand Rapids waters in their heyday, many have since found their resting places at the bottom of Reeds Lake.

On Friday, October 3 and Saturday, October 4, a group of Grand Valley State University anthropologists, archaeologists and historians, local divers, and a descendant of the original captain will embark on an underwater survey of the S.S. Hazel A. and S.S. Ramona— two of the three confirmed shipwrecks in Reeds Lake.

The collaborative project, funded by Grand Valley’s Center for Scholarly and Creative Excellence, is being conducted by Mark Schwartz, associate professor of anthropology; Mark Gleason, assistant professor of tourism and hospitality management; Matthew Daley, associate professor of history; the Marine Technology Program at Alpena Community College; the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration; the archaeology department of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources; and the East Grand Rapids History Room.

“Our purpose is to document the wrecks with digital photos, video and sonar,” said Schwartz. “We want to document these wrecks and learn more about the naval architecture that went into a steamboat designed for tourism versus a steamboat designed for trade.”

Schwartz said the survey team will launch and guide a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from a boat on the water’s surface down to the wrecks. The ROV is equipped with imaging sonar that will allow the team to get an acoustic picture of the vessel even if the water visibility is poor.

According to the East Grand Rapids History Room, regularly scheduled rides on excursion steamboats on Reeds Lake began in 1882 when Captain John Poisson came to live in West Michigan. Poisson originally from Three Rivers, Quebec, Canada, came to Grand Rapids for a job as a tailor and owned his own shop. When his failing eyesight forced him to give up this profession, he purchased the S.S. Florence and became part of the history of East Grand Rapids.

Continuing the family’s legacy, Poisson’s son, Charles, and grandson, William, followed in his footsteps as boat livery and steamboat owners and captains on the lake. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! has even noted that Charles Poisson holds the record for going around the world the equivalent of 20 times during his trips around Reeds Lake on the steamers.

The 100-foot S.S. Hazel A. was originally built and owned by Captain Michael McCarthy, who was the primary competition to the Poisson family for docking space on the lake. After sinking in 1901 due to a small leak, Poisson bought and restored the ship to working order in 1905. As fate would have it, the S.S. Hazel A. was buried at sea again in 1923 when the engine was removed for use in a newer boat. One day a strong wind blew it out into the lake where it sank. Its hull is now located straight out from the boat launch on Reeds Lake.

The dive will also confirm the supposed location of the S.S. Ramona, which was burned to the waterline and sunk in 1956, not far from the Hazel A. Local shipwreck diver John Fuger and William Poisson’s son, Andy, will also participate in the ROV survey work.

Gleason said this year marks the team’s fourth year of exploring shipwrecks in the both the Great Lakes and local lakes such as Reeds Lake.

For more information about the survey, contact Mark Schwartz at (616) 331-8518 or schwamar@gvsu.edu.

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