Search on Reeds Lake for remains of sunken steamboats

Hazel A steamboat circa 1914. (Courtesy East Grand Rapids Library History Room)

EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A group of scientists from several Michigan universities, including Grand Valley State, spent Friday scouring Reeds Lake for the remains of two sunken steamboats.

Survey teams sent a sonar unit and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) into the water Friday.  The sonar unit was able to capture ghostly images of one of the ships, the SS Hazel.

The ROV did not work in the cold temperatures, so the group wasn’t able to get pictures of the ship during Friday’s expedition.

“Our purpose is to document the wrecks with digital photos, video and sonar,” said Mark Schwartz, Associate Professor of Anthropology at GVSU. “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.”

Hazel A steamboat circa 1914. (Courtesy East Grand Rapids Library History Room)
Hazel A steamboat circa 1914. (Courtesy East Grand Rapids Library History Room)

Two steamers, the S.S. Hazel A and the S.S. Ramona — were purposely sunk in Reeds Lake decades ago. Scientists likened it to when a car or truck isn’t useful anymore it is put out to pasture, the ships were sunk in a similar manner.

“Underwater there are lots of wrecks, and that’s because when boats got used they got pushed off to the side,” said Mark Gleason, a GVSU professor of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

In the early 1900s the engine was removed from the S.S. Hazel to be used in a newer boat. One day a strong wind blew it out into the lake where it sank in 1923.

The S.S. Ramona sank in Reeds Lake in 1956 after it burned to the waterline.

S.S. Ramona steamboat circa 1940s. (Courtesy East Grand Rapids Library History Room)
S.S. Ramona steamboat circa 1940s. (Courtesy East Grand Rapids Library History Room)

“In the big scheme of world history it’s not that big of a deal, but to us, like me especially, our family it is a big deal,” said Annette Littell.

Her family ran the ferries on Reeds Lake for generations.  Her great grandfather piloted the first ferry, her father piloted the last.

Littell remembers riding on the ships as a small child.  She talked about a peanut machine, and a player piano that the massive ship used to carry, along with hundreds of passengers.

“The boat was colorful and it just was a happy place,” said Littell.  “People came there to have fun and be happy.”

She braved the frigid temperatures and bitter wind Friday morning with the hopes of seeing those ships again.

“It is very emotional,” Littell said of the experience.  “Because it’s a time out of time – it’s not like anybody else’s experience.”

The expedition was done purposely on a cold day for two reasons, 24 Hour News 8 was told, it’s easier to set up a large operation on ice than on a boat in moving water, and the ice made everything beneath the surface calmer than open water.

A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) will be used to get an acoustic image of the sunken steamboats on Reeds Lake. (Courtesy GVSU)
A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) will be used to get an acoustic image of the sunken steamboats on Reeds Lake. (Courtesy GVSU)

“It’s the coldest day ever – but this is way easier than working on the water. When we’re out on the water and you have to position a boat and you’re moving around the wind is blowing in – you’re getting anchors down – this is actually the easy way of doing what we do through the ice here,” said Dr. Mark Holley, an underwater archaeologist for Northwest Michigan College.

Unfortunately, the cold was too cold for the ROV, but the sonar allowed crews to figure out from above ground where the ship was.

Holley described to 24 Hour News 8 where certain parts of the boat would be beneath the inches of ice.

“You’re standing on the very bow so imagine this is the Titanic — you’d be standing on the bow and you can say, ‘I’m the king of the world,’ you’re right on it right here,” said Holley as he pointed in between three holds cut in the ice.

The purpose of the mission is to take pictures of the ships — not to bring them back to the surface.   In Michigan, shipwrecks are considered public property, and it’s against the law to remove items from or to destroy them.

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