From the Pottawattomie Bayou, the Grand River was our gateway to the gravel pits and beyond to the small town of Lamont.
We knew every twisty creek to its farthest reaches and every lightning-struck tree for miles around. We would cruise the shores of Spring Lake and the bayous of Pettys, Lloyds, Stearns, Millhouse, Smith and Deremo. Lost and Indian channels were traveled regularly, as were Crockery Creek and Bass River.
I remember tying up to the breakwall at the state police post, next to the “jackknife” bridge, entering Spring Lake Village. The troopers seemed to enjoy our visits.
Several times we ran out of gas and had to use the oars to get home. Once, we were swamped by a large cabin cruiser and had to swim to shore with our overturned boat.
Hundreds of times we would pass an old cottage that looked like an old boat. It was located on the southeast side of the Pottawattomie, not too far from the Mercury Drive bridge.
Years later, I was to learn that the cottage had in fact once been a steam, two-sided paddlewheeler named the May Graham. Built in St. Joseph in 1879 as Hull No. U.S. 91173, it weighed 91 tons. She paddled the St. Joseph River for several years; occasionally bringing loads of clam shells from Battle Point to be delivered to the button factory on the Grand River at Lamont.
Grand Haven became the homeport for the May Graham around 1885. She paddled the Grand River for decades, had a loaded draft of just 30 inches, averaging four round-trips a week from Grand Haven to Grand Rapids, with an occasional trip to ports in Chicago.
With the building of the last railroad bridge across the Grand just below Wealthy Street, the May Graham could no longer reach the docks in Grand Rapids. Once the railroads laid tracks east of Grand Rapids to Grand Haven and around the lake to Chicago, the steam boats simply disappeared.
The May Graham was retired in 1918 after 39 years of service. Its pilothouse was removed and placed on the west side of the Grand River, at the future site of North Shore Marina. When the marina was constructed in 1952, the pilot house was relocated; this time to the north side of the Grand River, east of Grand Haven.
That property was sold to make room for a campground, so the May Graham’s pilothouse was then moved in 1954 to the shore of the Pottawattomie Bayou.
Nestled under century-old trees, the pilothouse of the May Graham serves as a cottage to this day. Its driveway off Lake Avenue is grassy, wanting wear; its owner, now in her senior years, lives in Hudsonville. The homes nearby are valued at a half-million dollars.
If the May Graham property is sold, what will be the future of the 132-year-old pilothouse? Perhaps, in some way, she can be saved. The old girl deserves as much.
— By Bob DeHare, Tribune guest columnist