by David L. Newman
hot summer day, a few dollars in your pocket and the urge for fun
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
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 areas non-French residents called the island Bob-Lo, since
they couldnt pronounce Bois Blanc properly. This name stuck
for years and was officially accepted by the owners and area residents
The islands 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 Rankins 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 islands next owner was the Detroit, Belle Isle and Windsor
Ferry Company. In 1898 the Bob-Lo Excursion Company was born.
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 Columbias
first trip was July 8, 1902; the Ste. Claires 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
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.
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.
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 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
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
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
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 ships 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.
activities include monetary donations and the sale of the ships
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,
dont 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!
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