By Scott Sullivan
Last rites may loom for the historic Reiss tugboat when, per a classified listing last week, current owner Steve Horn hopes to sell it for scrap, cash only, Oct. 3
Built in 1913 the tug, then named the Q.A. Gillmore after a Civil War Union general, served maritime traffic in and near Cleveland’s Lake Erie harbor.
The Reiss Steamship Co. bought and renamed the 71-foot-long steel vessel in 1932, moving her to assist ships in Green Bay to coal docks.
Late Tower Marine owner R.J. Peterson bought and brought the Reiss to Douglas in 1969 as part of a planned maritime museum, partnered with the 350-foot-long 1907 Great Lakes steamship S.S. Keewatin.
For 40+ years he and volunteer enthusiasts guided tours of the Kee. For those who fit it had a giant, clanking twin-screw steam engine through which you squeezed, middle floors of portholed crew and guest occupants, plus kitchen, plus plant-lined and carpeted steps to a window-lined Edwardian ballroom above. It even had its own shoeshine and barber shops.
The 71-foot Reiss was less an attraction and more problematic, less majestic, stuck in offshore muck. Its primary uses were as a base for dinghy-accessible human parties and seagull flocks perching and nesting. She became less than watertight.
Now-Commercial Record Correspondent Jim Hayden wrote Oct. 12, 2011 for the Holland Sentinel, “The tugboat stuck in the Kalamazoo Lake mud for about five years and in the shadow of the Keewatin for more than 40 years moved a little — about 20 feet — Tuesday.”
I was trying to stay on the Reiss when that happened. Peterson, in his mid-‘80s faced with two increasingly costly-to-maintain old vessels, decided time was due to unload them.
In 2010 Horn, of Clearwater Marine LLC on South Shore Drive in Holland, agreed to buy the Reiss. To complete the purchase, Peterson set out to dislodge her from muck and have his trusty Tower crew repaint her.
“Bring you camera,” he said. “I’ll have the guys take you out on the Whizzer and help you onboard. You’ll love it.” I was less sure but knew he’d love it.
As I struggled to gather sea legs on a slanting, seagull- encrusted deck teeming with wire-rigging booby traps, balancing camera, changing lenses on it from my bag, R.J. rammed it with his beloved River Queen, a houseboat brand he’d invented and done well selling.
Bam bam. “Hold on,” he called up from the Queen. “Hope your camera gear’s watertight.” Below, he had two men with a mechanical pump bailing water out of the Reiss’s hold — with luck more quickly than it leaked back in — to make his and Horn’s dreamboat lighter and more movable.
“Owners righted the tug that was listing due to sediment buildup, hoping to pull it out of the mud this fall,” Hayden wrote in his story.
“The Keewatin is expected to be moved in June to the city of Port McNicoll in Ontario, Canada.”
I’d heard more than a bit about that too. Peterson, working with Kee enthusiast/friend Eric Conroy, had brokered its sale to Toronto-based Skyline International.
Conroy spun his yarn for me over beers at The Cove up the hill in Douglas. As a teen in Port McNicoll, he’d worked a summer on board during the ship’s last active summer transporting cargo and passengers across the upper Great Lakes west to the Canadian Pacific Railways’ Port William Arthur depot.
He’d stayed below in crew’s quarters, rising nights to serve dressed-up passenger meals in the ballroom, balancing platters of covered dishes, flutes of champagne and more.
“R.J. saved her from scrap in ’69,” remembered Conroy. “I’d drive down from Toronto and visit, swap stories with him.
“When time came, Skyline was interested in moving and setting her up as a draw to a Port McNicoll development they were building; I’d recruited volunteers, who remembered her from active days, to restore and guide tours on her as a nonprofit venture.”
Challenge: dislodge the Kee from her Red Dock berth, then across also silted-in Kal Lake out to the federally-dredged channel where its banks narrow back into a river, meant dredging a channel deep enough to accommodate the big boat’s draft.
To accomplish this, Peterson piped out lake dredge spoils and deposited them on unused land he owned next to Blue Star Highway, prompting neighbor complaints about what they called “the Peterson Volcano.” A flurry of Douglas ordinance violations, lawsuits and countersuits ensued.
Some have noted Douglas’s subsequent bike trail reconfiguration past that property may have been more easily handled via an easement to build it separately on Peterson’s planted-over land now beside it, but such accord wouldn’t happen. Not after that.
Horn told Hayden he wanted the Reiss out of Kal Lake by fall 2011 but could wait until dredging was complete and the Kee hauled out, then the Reiss through pass through that same channel to Lakes Michigan, Macatawa or eventually points beyond.
The big boat was indeed tugged away, backwards and listing, behind powerful King Co. tugboats, June 12, 2012, a spectacle many here still remember. We scrambled around Kal Lake to see the grand ship’s passage out through mist in a somber rain.
“The coal-powered steam engine in the tug remains in working shape,” Horn told Hayden in October 2011. “The boat will have its name changed back to the Q.A. Gillmore.”
Renovators’ interest in the Reiss since has waned and berthed near the Red Dock she’s remained.
Peterson died Aug. 11, 2020 at age 93. His 500-plus-slip Tower Marina and has changed hands since from his son Matt Peterson to Safe Harbor Marinas, a national consortium that has kept Tower/Safe Harbor as the area’s largest nautical service haven.
“Per the Michigan Marina and Boatyard Storage Lien Act MCL 570.371-9,” last week’s Holland Sentinel notice read, “the following watercraft and trailer(s) are to be auctioned Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023 at 10 a.m. At SHM Tower Marine, 216 St. Peters Dr., Douglas, MI 49406. CASH ONLY!!
“• 1913 71’ Tugboat Mfg. by: The Great Lakes Towing Co “Q.A. Gillmore” or “Reiss,” HIN: 24 DOC #: 211152 Northeastern Maritime Historical Foundation, Inc. Steve Horn.
“THE ABOVE LISTED ABANDON (sic) WATERCRAFT WILL BE SOLD ‘AS IS’ AND MUST BE REMOVED FROM THE PROPERTY.”
Want her before she’s scrap? Now’s the time to act.