Researchers map two shipwrecked steamboats with sonar beneath frozen Reeds Lake

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EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Andy Poisson had a gleam in his eye, looking at his family’s history discovered on a sonar screen in a tent Friday morning on Reeds Lake, huddled inside with a negative-degree wind chill.

“My great grandfather, Captain John, he was a tailor here in Grand Rapids,” said Poisson.

Poisson’s father was the last of three steamboat captains on the S.S. Ramona; his great grandfather started the tourism boat business in East Grand Rapids on Reeds Lake.

“It was an excursion boat, there was actually a beach located on this end of the lake, and you could get on it over here and it stopped at the beach, and they had a swimming beach and a concession stand,” recalled Poisson.

Friday, a team of students, professors and researchers from Grand Valley State University and other schools used sonar to dive below frozen Reeds Lake and map two historic steamboat shipwrecks: the S.S. Hazel A and S.S. Ramona.

Long before stand-up paddle board yoga and sailing, tourists circled Reeds Lake on a steamboat. Those regularly scheduled rides began back in 1882. Now two of those steamboats have sunk and rest within Reeds Lake.

Drilling through a foot of ice on a day with at least negative-15-degree-windchill, the research crew was determined to map both steamboats using sonar and a small remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

The steamboats were the heart of tourism in the area, cruising families around Reeds Lake, while looking onto the glitzy shores of the former amusement park and the swimmers around it.

“So now we’re starting to see some of the curvature of the bow section, the outline of the vessel that sits here,” said Brian Abbott of Nautilus Marine in Lansing.

Abbott is part of the research team who has extensive experience mapping shipwrecks. He said he was on a 2010 team which mapped portions of the Titanic.

Researchers from GVSU and other schools are teamed up to build an overall picture of the ships, as well as to learn more about the evolution of ship design and the industry.

“It was built specifically for tourism, so we can kind of see it fits into the whole evolution and change of shipbuilding through history,” said Mark Schwartz, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at GVSU. “We can kind of learn about design, shipbuilding technology, that kind of thing."

Schwartz said they will present their research to the public March 24 at 7 p.m. at the East Grand Rapids Library.

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