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Faculty successfully explore Reeds Lake steamboat shipwrecks

  • Mark Gleason, assistant professor of tourism and hospitality management, aids in the deployment of an ROV February 20 on Reeds Lake. Photo by Amanda Pitts.

Posted on February 26, 2015

A group of Grand Valley State University faculty, students and community members braved single-digit temperatures February 20 to explore the depths of Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids, hoping to digitally map two sunken steamboats, S.S. Hazel A. and S.S. Ramona.

Mark Schwartz, associate professor of anthropology, and Mark Gleason, assistant professor of tourism and hospitality management, are leading the collaborative project, funded by Grand Valley’s Center for Scholarly and Creative Excellence. There team is also comprised of Matthew Daley, associate professor of history; David Cummins from the Marine Technology Program at Alpena Community College; Brian Abbott, owner of Nautilus Marine Group; and Mary Dersch from the East Grand Rapids History Room, among many others.

A video recap of the exploration can be viewed below:

While some law enforcement and local divers have traveled beneath the water to these shipwrecks in the past, Grand Valley’s group is the first academic research team to explore the wrecks.

“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.

Gleason added the February 20 survey cleared up some misconceptions about the Hazel A. wreck in particular. “I had been told that this wreck was lying on its side, but my remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dive last fall showed it sitting upright. Last Friday’s sonar image confirms the wreck is in one piece, sitting upright on the bottom [of Reeds Lake],” he said.

To reach the wrecks, the survey team first cut through ice estimated to be approximately 12 inches thick. Next, the team launched and guided a sonar unit through the ice, down to the wrecks off shore of Collins Park.

While the temperatures may have been low, Schwartz explained that kind of weather is ideal for this type of project.

“The coverage made the launching platform of the ice for the sector scan sonar stable so that our results were as accurate as possible. The sonar imaging was great, especially when you consider the poor visibility in Reeds Lake,” Schwartz said.

The collection of sonar images may have been successful, but the group experienced technical difficulties during the latter portion of the exploration.

“Sadly, we did have trouble with the ROV,” Gleason said. “Problems happen often with this gear, which is why this type of work can be challenging. The most important part of the effort was to get the sonar images and we succeeded with that goal.”

The ROV is equipped with imaging sonar that allows the team to get an acoustic picture of the vessel even if the water visibility is poor. Schwartz said the next step in this project will be to attempt an ROV dive again to collect video and pictures of certain aspects of the wreck, including the name, boiler and below decks.

According to the East Grand Rapids History Room, regularly scheduled rides on excursion steamboats on Reeds Lake began in 1882.

The 100-foot S.S. Hazel A. was originally built and owned by Captain Michael McCarthy. After sinking in 1901 due to a small leak, the Poissons, who are also in the history books as a prominent family of steamboat captains on Reeds Lake, bought and restored the S.S. Hazel A. 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. A strong wind blew it out into the lake where it sank.

For more information about the survey, contact Mark Gleason at (616) 331-8828 or Mark Schwartz at (616) 331-8518.