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EAST GRAND RAPIDS, MI — What is now a placid, community lake was once a battlefield of fierce competition. The prize? Tourists paying 10 cents for a boat ride.

The history of Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids dates back to 1834 when the Reed family settled on large shares of land. But the excitement — rollercoasters with 85-foot dropsburlesque shows and hot air balloon races — came later.

Nothing was more dramatic than the tales of dueling steamboat captains vying for customers.

Although the boats have been dismantled, burned and sank, their stories are preserved through the East Grand Rapids History Room.

The History Room, located in the Kent District Library’s East Grand Rapids branch, has unique items from the past — including a ship wheel and the ship’s wooden nameplate.

Through newspaper articles, postcards, personal donations and oral storytelling, Mary Dersch, the history room’s curator, has all the juicy details about the temperamental captains who “almost came to fisticuffs” over premium dock space.

“There were steamboat wars out on this lake,” Dersch said.

Increased traffic raises the stakes for competition

Activity on Reeds Lake was ramping up in the 1870s as public transportation brought Grand Rapidians just three and half miles southeast to the newly established resort town of East Grand Rapids.

In 1883, Captain John Poisson, a Frenchman from Quebec, Canada, began what would be his family’s steamboat legacy.

His first boat was a 54-foot steel hull, the SS Florence, which traveled from Frankfort to Grand Rapids via the Grand River and was then carted by horse down Wealthy Street to Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids.

Originally a single-decked vehicle, Poisson added a second deck and lengthened the boat to take on more passengers. The lake already had steep competition to get to the bigger docks first to take on passengers.

Boats would circle the lake and entertain guests with music and food or be used a transportation vessel for those staying in cottages around the lake.

In the late 1880s, Poisson’s fiercest competitor was Captain Sigo Tyroller, a Grand Rapids businessman. Tyroller controlled the SS Belknap, and a smaller passenger steamer named the Trixie.

The two captains clash over docking rights. The Grand Rapids Press reported protocol was that any steamer holding a dock must move upon the approach of another, but this often did not happen cordially.

The fiery French versus the fighting Irish

In 1891, Tyroller’s boat hand Michael McCarthy took over the fleet, captaining the SS Belknap and Trixie.

“Whenever McCarthy was seen on a steamer on Reed’s Lake, as a boat hand or captain, he feuded with Capt. Poisson,” Dersch said.

The fight on the water became a clash between the French captain, Poisson, and the Irish captain, McCarthy. A reporter with The Grand Rapids Press described their frequent clashes and disdain for each other as follows:

“If there is a little spot of fresh water on this Earth that has seen the Irish and French at war it is the same Reeds Lake.”

In 1892, Poisson built the SS Major A.B. Watson, the largest of his fleet at 130-feet long and 26-feet wide. He could then carry a maximum of 700 guests at a time.

Not to be outdone, McCarthy’s response was to build the SS Hazel A, named for his daughter Hazel Amberg. Although smaller in length at 100-feet long with a capacity of 350 guests, the Hazel A’s advantage was its speed.

Smaller and quicker, the vessel could consistently beat Poisson’s ship to the docks — fueling their rivalry.

‘Terrible Naval Battle on Reeds Lake’

In 1894, The Grand Rapids Press reported yet another spat between the captains in August: “And once again war is disturbing the placid bosom of classic Reeds Lake.”

The paper describes a sunset brawl where “black bearded” McCarthy and his “piratical” Hazel A. pursued the Major A.B. Watson as it made its way across the lake, heading for patrons waiting at the Manhattan bathing beach.

Despite Poisson’s ship head start, the Hazel A gained on the larger ship and crashed into it sharply, throwing Poisson off his post at the captain’s wheel and tossing McCarthy onboard his enemy’s ship.

McCarthy reportedly gave Poisson a “drubbing” or a beat down. The Irishman won the tourists that evening.

The two captains ended up in the prosecutor’s office the following morning, swearing at each other and pleading their case to not have a warrant against them.

The prosecutor interviewed said they both should pay a bond to keep the peace before lives are lost due to their “monkeying.”

‘Steamboat Squabble’

By 1897, these clashes were becoming so frequent the newspaper described an August battle as “the usual Navy display.”

The 11th annual picnic for the Schwaben society brought 1,200 Germans to East Grand Rapids. Poisson and McCarthy, of course, wanted their business.

The excitement on the water began as the Major A.B. Watson approached the dock when the Hazel A was still there. Watson “insisted upon instantaneous compliance with the rules of the lake.”

The Watson, as reported, came up at full speed, smashing into the Hazel and crushing it so badly that there was no hope of it being used again that summer.

Once the wreckage of the Hazel A was towed away, “Watson had a monopoly upon the business of the day.”

However, McCarthy did not give up. An hour later he brought out the “little pleasure steamer” Trixie to accommodate 20 passengers. But his backup plan was foiled.

By 4 p.m. the Trixie was smashed and towed away by the French captain, “once more leaving the Watson in possession of the field.”

However, the Major A.B. Watson, full of passengers, crashed ashore two hours later after heavy winds pushed it inland.

The captains met again in court weeks later over the dispute. The sheriff seized Poisson’s ship and held it on bond for $2,400. Poisson indicated he would immediately pay the bond and get back to business.

Monopoly on the water

In April 1900, McCarthy opted to build his own dock.

“The war between steamboats promises to be more interesting than ever,” The Grand Rapids Press reported, teeing up the summer season.

McCarthy had paid the railway company $500 per season for the rental of the dock closest to the highly popular Ramona Pavilion. In 1900, the railway company upped the price and McCarthy dropped the deal.

McCarthy moving his dock toward another pavilion gave Poisson the advantage to point its boat toward the railway crowd.

This new war strategy was disrupted, though, by McCarthy’s passing in May of that year.

In July 1900, the Poisson’s bought the Hazel A.

“Thus, the steamboat business at Reeds Lake, after many years of fierce warfare, has practically become a monopoly, with the Poisson’s in control,” The Press reported.

At this time, it was Poisson’s sons, Joseph and Charlie, running the steamboat business. Poisson died in February 1901. The family continued to run steamboats until 1955, the last season for any steamers on Reeds Lake.

The last vessel, the SS Ramona, joined the fleet in 1923, after the Hazel A was decommissioned and was being dismantled. The ship took on water and sunk to the bottom of the lake.

Those looking for more information or to share stories about East Grand Rapids history can contact curator Mary Dersch at


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