Exploring a wreck site in Reeds Lake

EAST GRAND RAPIDS, MI -- For more than 60 years, a livery of steam-driven excursion boats circled Reeds Lake with passengers visiting East Grand Rapids and its former 'amusement mecca' known as Ramona Park.

At least one, maybe two of them are still there, hidden under the frozen surface.

On Friday, Feb. 20, a team of faculty and students from Grand Valley State University will brave the bitter cold to document the remains of the SS Hazel A, which settled under the surface of Reeds Lake for good in the mid-1920s.

The team also hopes to confirm a wreck site as final resting place of the SS Ramona, which followed the Hazel but was scrapped, burned and is said to be sunk off John Collins Park.

"Our purpose is to document the wrecks with digital photos, video and sonar," said Mark Schwartz, an associate professor of anthropology at GVSU.

The team will drop a sonar unit and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) through the ice. The ROV is equipped with imaging sonar that will produce an acoustic picture of the wreck site despite the poor lake water visibility.

The survey project was originally scheduled for last October but was postponed due to poor weather conditions.
 
Mark Holley from the Underwater Archaeology Program at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City and David Cummins from the Marine Technology Program at Alpena Community College will join Schwartz on the project.

Other Grand Valley professors involved are Mark Gleason, assistant professor of tourism and hospitality management, and Matthew Daley, associate professor of history.

The East Grand Rapids History Room and Andy Poisson, son of William Poisson, the last captain of the SS Ramona are also involved.

Once a regular sight: Steamers on Reeds Lake

Steamships began operating on Reeds Lake in the 1890s. They were run by three generations of the Poisson family from 1882 to 1956. John Poisson started the business, followed by son Charles and then by William, who ran the business and operated a boat livery on Reeds Lake until 1956.

In 2010, a stone monument commemorating Poisson's Landing was placed at John Collins Park. The total excursion distance of Bill Poisson, who died in 2008, is supposedly equivalent to circling the world 20 times.

Poisson's first steamship was the 54-foot long SS Florence, which operated between 1883 and 1902. The Florence was followed by the 130-foot Major Watson, which operated between 1894 and 1921.

The Watson and the SS Hazel A, built in 1893, ran on opposing schedules until mid-1920s, when they were supplanted by the SS Ramona, which continued the tradition of plying the lake with passengers until 1954, when nearby Ramona Park closed.

The Poisson family sold the SS Ramona and the Industrial Salvage Company eventually gutted the steamer of usable material and burned the hull at the dock in 1956, according to historian Gail Snow.

Snow, who is writing a book about the steamships and other going-on around Reeds Lake as companion to her 2013 self-published book "Remarkable Ramona Park," said the hulk was hauled onto the shore, flipped over and stripped of its steel.

"That was the end of a ship that remains in the memories of thousands of people who remember 'riding all day' on the SS Ramona," said Snow.
 
Exactly what happened to whatever was left of the ship after that is unclear, she said. The GVSU team will investigate a site near the Hazel wreck that is thought to be the Ramona.

The SS Hazel was discovered in 1971, said Snow. The ship was intentionally sunk.

The GVSU expedition is funded by a $10,000 grant through the university's Center for Scholarly and Creative Excellence.

Schwartz said the grant is also helping fund dives planned later this year to wreck sites in Lake Michigan. Those dives will happen in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association.

Written by Garret Ellison. Garret covers business, government, environment and breaking news for MLive/The Grand Rapids Press. Email him at gellison@mlive.com or follow on Twitter & Instagram