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Long Live Boblo

by David L. Newman

A hot summer day, a few dollars in your pocket and the urge for fun was once
a recipe for a trip to Bob-Lo Island, a Canadian island with a strong American accent. Who could forget the Wild Mouse roller coaster, the Dodge-em cars – or Captain Bob-Lo putting his hat on some lucky kid?

Eighteen miles southwest of Windsor, Bob-Lo was originally named Bois Blanc by the French, due to the birch and beech trees that once covered the approximately half-mile wide by three-mile long island.

The area’s non-French residents called the island Bob-Lo, since they couldn’t pronounce Bois Blanc properly. This name stuck for years and was officially accepted by the owners and area residents in 1949.

The island’s written history starts in the 1700s when French Catholic priests set up a mission for the Huron Indians residing in the area. During the War of 1812, the great Shawnee Indian Chief, Tecumseh, set up his headquarters there. Three block houses were constructed on the island in the 1830s and Bois Blanc was a stepping stone for runaway slaves during the American Civil War.

A lighthouse was built in 1839 on the southern side of the island to guide ships into the narrow straights behind Bois Blanc. In the 1850s, Colonel Arthur Rankin purchased the island from the government for $40.00. He purchased 225 acres, but could not buy the remaining 14, as they were leased for life to the lighthouse keeper, Captain James Hackett. [see also, Shore Acres, p.7]

In 1869 the island was sold to Rankin’s son, Arthur Mckee Rankin, a well-known stage actor in New York. He built an elaborate home and held grand parties there. Rankin also stocked the island with deer, elk and wild turkey.

The island was later sold to Colonel John Atkinson and James A. Randall, who built a home on the site of one of the block houses. The island’s next owner was the Detroit, Belle Isle and Windsor Ferry Company. In 1898 the Bob-Lo Excursion Company was born.

The Bob-Lo Steamers

The first steamer to carry passengers to the island was the ferry Promise. Frank E. Kirby designed the next two steamers: the Columbia, built in 1902, and the Ste. Claire, built in 1910. The Columbia’s first trip was July 8, 1902; the Ste. Claire’s launching was May 7, 1910 and her first trip was later that year. The Ste. Claire was named after Lake St. Clair and St. Clair River, which in turn reflect the fact that the explorer Robert de La Salle paddled through the two waterways during the feast of Ste. Claire. The Columbia, named after Christopher Columbus, is celebrating her 100th birthday this year. She is the oldest steamer in the USA, with the exception of vessels classed as ferries.

Both steamers are propeller driven, as were all North American steamers. The Ste. Claire is 197 feet long, 65 feet wide and 14 feet deep. Her tonnage is 870 grt and 507 nrt. The engine is a triple expansion steam with 1083 horsepower. She can carry 2500 people.

The Columbia and the Ste. Clair, which served 81 years on a single run – a record unequalled in U.S. Maritime history – are the last of the classic excursion steamers in the U.S.


U.S. Military Invade Bob-Lo

The first attractions to the island were quite simple. There was the trip to the island, picnicking and a carousel. Henry Ford had famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn design and build the stone pavilion.

During World War I, U.S. military personnel were not to leave the country when on leave in Michigan. The military officials, however, made an exception for Bob-Lo, deeming it a hardship not to let military men relax there with their ladies.


Captain Bob-Lo


Getting to the island from the Canadian side was easy. A small ferry called the Papoose carried passengers to Bois Blanc from Amherstburg. From the American side you boarded at the foot of Woodward Ave., later the Cobo Hall area, then lastly the Gibraltar area.

Once on the Columbia or Ste. Claire, you could take in the beautiful view of the shorelines on both sides for the trip, which lasted over an hour.

For the children there was Captain Bob-Lo! He was a small man appropriately named Joe Short, who amused the children as a clown for the Ringling Brothers Circus. In this 1960 photo (at left) he has a good grip on the arm of a little girl who happens to be my girlfriend, Joan. Her brother, Robert is to his right . Captain Bob-Lo would hand out colouring books and small items to amuse the kids on the trips. He always wore an oversized hat, binoculars and carried a sceptre. Joe worked on the ships until he retired, at 90 years of age. He passed away the following year.


An Amusement Park is Born

In 1949, bankruptcy threatened the island park. Windsor Mayor Arthur John Reaume wanted the island to be designated a National Park.The Browning family, however, stepped in and bought the property and the steamships.

The Brownings transformed the island into an amusement park.They built roller coasters, rides, a ferris wheel, a fun house, a dance hall and an antique car exhibit.The zoo held 300 exotic animals – in 1972, seven baboons escaped their pens and roamed free. The last one was finally captured after being coaxed out of the fun house. The miniature railroad that went around the island was built in the 1960s.

In 1961 the dock area was upgraded.The freighter Queenston was stripped and sunk in place as a dock.

In 1972, three people were arrested for causing a disturbance on one of the ships. They ran around yelling, “the ship was sinking!” Twenty-three people were injured in the melee.

In 1973 the Thunder Bolt roller coaster was constructed.Built of steel, it thrilled the crowds that lined up to ride it.The next addition was a log flume. In 1978 the 100-year-old carousel was restored and returned to active service.


Island for Sale

The Brownings sold the island in 1979. Several owners followed, including IBC (owners of the Harlem Globetrotters and Ice Capades) and AAA Michigan.
In 1987, U.S. Immigration people and Ontario officials spent all day on the island, rounding up members of the Outlaws, a motorcycle club.


End of an Era

In 1990 the old carousel, whose figures were made by famous carousel maker Marcus Illions, was auctioned off. The top price paid was for a deer – $34,000 U.S. Next was a horse that went for $21,500 U.S.

Labour Day 1991 – the last ferry ride, the final bag of cotton candy. Bob-Lo Island closes. In 1992 the two steamships were named as national monuments. So ended a long and illustrious era for Windsor and Detroit residents. All that remains are snapshots, souvenirs and memories.

Or is that all?

I am involved in fundraising for the restoration of the Ste. Claire. She is currently in storage in Toledo, Ohio – ironically, the same shipyard where she was born. She has been covered in plastic to prevent damage from the elements. The current owners, John and Diane, purchased the ship and want to restore her to glory again. To date, they have financed the refurbishing of the Ste. Claire with their own money. Restoration and government funds are being sought for help underwriting the costly revival.

To date, the hull has been fully repaired and repainted. It took two weeks just to scrape the zebra mussels off the ship. The Ste. Claire recently passed U.S. Coast Guard inspection, good for the next five years. She was poorly looked after by previous “historic minded” individuals and companies. The ship is structurally sound, but much woodwork will be required. The engine has been completely dismantled and packed in oil, but can easily be put back together, according to the previous ship’s engineer. The brass railing where children used to swing around the corner on is still there, as are the stained glass windows at the top of the stairs. Most of the wood moulding is intact too.

Unfortunately, most all the paint has peeled off or is in very poor condition – the ship needs a full sandblast. A realistic time frame for the ship to be seaworthy is about five years. The more funding we get, the sooner we sail again! The new owners plan to employ the ship for banquets, parties, weddings – sailing up and down the river again on cruises.

Fundraising activities include monetary donations and the sale of the ship’s red life vests. While the vests cannot be used for boating, they are a fantastic souvenir of the great Ste. Claire. I have sold them to restaurants that have a nautical theme, private individuals, Great Lakes ship collectors and souvenir hunters looking for an unusual item from the island. The price: 100 dollars Canadian. This includes transporting them here from Toledo. They are in good condition, don’t smell and are a great way to say, “I helped save the Bob-Lo boat.” There is a limited supply, so if you would like to purchase one or wish to donate to this worthy cause, I can be contacted through The Walkerville Times or by e.mail at lacumo@cogeco.ca.

On a personal note, I currently have a growing collection of Bob-Lo memorabilia. I collect these to preserve them, and to hopefully display it all. If readers have anything old or new from the island and would like to contribute it to my collection (either by donation or for sale), please contact me. Family photos, wooden or plastic souvenirs and toys, postcards, pennants, you name it, I would like to display it. I have some items for sale also. Names of people donating or in pictures would be listed.

LONG LIVE BOB-LO ISLAND!

SOURCES


Detroit News, Rearview Mirror:, http://detnews.com/history/boblo/boblo.htm
Bill Marentette, newspaper articles & experiences.
National Historic Landmarks of Michigan, via internet
Restoring the Ste-Claire: www.bobloboat.com


 

 

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