Exploring West Michigan Shipwrecks

S.S. Ramona on Reed's Lake

A few weeks back I learned that a local research team was planning a dive in East Grand Rapids’ Reeds Lake to explore two shipwrecks: the S.S. Hazel A and the S.S. Ramona. Yes, there are shipwrecks at the bottom of Reeds Lake. A number of them.

I sat down with one of the lead researchers, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Grand Valley State University, Dr. Mark Schwartz, to learn more about the project and what it means for the West Michigan community.

It was during a presentation on the history of the West Michigan area that Schwartz learned about the vessels. An archaeologist by trade, he saw the lake as an opportunity to explore a unique, interesting place of local history. He enlisted the help of his colleague, Mark Gleason, an expert on adventure tourism*. “Many people are surprised to learn that there is a shipwreck in this small inland lake.  But actually that is not true, there are three shipwrecks in Reeds Lake.  We have a chance to document and record this part of our local history while the preservation is still good,” he explained.

 

S.S. Ramona on Reed's Lake
S.S. Ramona on Reeds Lake – Credit: East Grand Rapids History Room

 

I was surprised myself and I’ve lived here for the better part of my life. You can chalk part of that confusion up to the murky water. Visibility below the surface is quite poor and anyone who’s sailed the lake can attest to the thick mat of vegetation that waits under the waves. While the team intends to bring a local diver, many areas of interest will be inaccessible.

He and I spoke in depth about the technology being brought in to overcome those hurdles. A remote operating vehicle (ROV)* equipped with sonar will be helping the team where conditions are difficult all the while providing the precision and accuracy that a human could not. “We can also look in detail at the construction of these vessels and compare them to the existing plans in the Poisson family collection* in order to examine the use of space, ship modification and construction technology,” Schwartz said. “The work in Reeds Lake provides us with a unique opportunity to examine at least two steamships used exclusively for tourism in the late 19th, early 20th centuries.  This will enhance our knowledge of the local history in East Grand Rapids and expose more people to a fascinating feature of West Michigan.”

 

S.S. Hazel A at dock on Reed's Lake
S.S. Hazel A at dock on Reeds Lake – Credit: East Grand Rapids History Room

 

Dr. Schwartz explained that the vast majority of the existing literature surrounding steamships covers industrial use and design. His team aims to expand that knowledge to tourism-focused vessels as well. With the ROV, Mark and his team will have that opportunity.

In 1923, the S.S. Hazel A sailed her final voyage before floating peacefully to the bottom of Reeds Lake. Her better known sister ship, the S.S. Ramona, would gracefully retire 33 year later. While their story was known to the people who enjoyed their comforts, it is mostly lost to us today. Mark and his team hope to help re-write that history.

There will be follow-ups to this story after the dive. Stay tuned.

*Notes:

  • The remote operating vehicle is a collaborative project between the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Marine Technology Program at Alpena Community College.
  • Additional assistance is provided by the archaeology department of Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the East Grand Rapids History Room.
  • Mark Gleason is an expert on adventure tourism. His official title is assistant professor of tourism and hospitality management.
  •  The Poisson family were the original owners and operators of the steamships. Their family graciously donated much of the existing literature to the East Grand Rapids History Room.
  • The photos above are currently held in the East Grand Rapids History Room under the curation of Mary Dersch.

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