Sunday, September 7, 2014

Bob-Lo Island - Another Fondly Remembered Detroit Tradition

Bob-Lo Island was a family amusement park fondly remembered by Detroiters of a certain age. The park was located at the mouth of the Detroit River on Bois Blanc Island in Canadian waters off Amherstburg, Ontario. The name Bob-Lo is an American corruption of the French name for the island meaning White Woods. The Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park operated from 1902-1991.

The park's signature attractions were the Nightmare, the Falling Star, the Wild Mouse, the Sky Streak, and the Screamer. The park also had a Ferris wheel, a children's zoo, a train, and a carousel.  The island had its own marina.


In 1913, Henry Ford was said to have financed the Dance Pavilion designed by John Scott. The 35,000 square feet of dance floor was the second largest in the world, holding 5,000 dancers at full capacity. For many years early on, this was the park's biggest money maker, charging five cents a dance per couple. Dance police were stationed on the dance floor. "The Turkey Trot, Bunny Hop, and Bear Dances were against the rules. Two Steps, Waltzes, and the Society Walk (Fox Trot) were allowed. Doing the Rag would get you kicked out," wrote Patrick Livingston, author of Summer Dreams: The Story of Bob-Lo Island (Wayne State University Press.)

The dance hall boasted the world's largest mechanical organ called an orchestrion, made in Germany. The contraption with 419 pipes and an automated percussion section was fourteen feet wide and sixteen feet high. It ran on electricity and worked like a player piano. The orchestrion is pictured on the second floor balcony on the right side of the vintage postcard above.

Bob-Lo Boat Columbia - 1903
What longtime Detroiters remember most fondly about Bob-Lo was the boat ride up and down the Detroit River. Ninety-seven year old Helen Robinson remembered going to Bob-Lo Island as a kid with a church group. A sudden squall came up from nowhere and the boat's crew had to lower the canvas flaps and lash them to the railings. Helen said that they all knelt down and prayed. The boat made it to the island, the sun broke through the clouds, and they enjoyed the rest of their day at the park. Adults remember the moonlight cruises to the island.

The Bob-Lo Excursion Company expanded an existing park and operated two excursion steamers out of Detroit and Wyandotte, Michigan. These Bob-Lo Boats were designed by Frank E. Kirby and built by the Toledo Ship Building Company. The Columbia was built in 1901 and went into service in 1902, while the Ste. Claire was built and went into service in 1910. 

Excursion steamers were built primarily for day trips. They were propeller driven, powered by a triple expansion reciprocating steam engine. The boats were 190 feet (58m) long and 50 feet (15m) wide and were said to hold 2,500 passengers. The Columbia and the Ste. Claire are the last two steamers of their type still afloat. The Columbia ran the original Bob-Lo run for eighty-one years, a record of service on a single run unequaled in United States maritime history.

In 1945, Bob-Lo Island Excursion Company made history rather than family memories. Sarah Elizabeth Ray took part in a company sponsored trip to Bob-Lo Island with twelve other female workers involved with the war effort. Ray was removed because she wasn't white. The State of Michigan filed a racial discrimination law suit against the company and won. The case was taken to the Michigan Supreme court and upheld.

The company policy excluded "so called 'zoot-suiters' and 'colored' because they were deemed rowdyish, rough, and boisterous." Their position was that they were operating a private concern in another country not subject to United States jurisdiction. The case was taken to the United States Supreme Court in 1948 where it upheld Michigan's anti-discrimination provisions on the grounds that the company's policy was a violation of United States Commerce Department regulations.


Another company tried to run the park after the Bob-Lo Island Excursion Company sold out in 1991, but the park closed permanently on September 30, 1993 and sold off its rides in 1994. The Columbia and the Ste. Claire have been moth-balled at the U.S. Steel docks in Ecorse, Michigan since 1991.

The Columbia is being restored to the tune of about $15,000,000 with the goal of being completed by September of 2015, to resume active service as a sightseeing attraction trolling the Hudson River in New York City. The Bob-Lo Boat was unceremoniously towed to Toledo, Ohio on Tuesday morning, September 16th, 2014 for a year of restoration.

S.S. Columbia in dry dock awaiting restoration - September 2014

Related links:

Photographs of the Bob-Lo Island amusement rides. http://boblosteamers.com/amusement.html

YouTube video of Bob-Lo boats moored on Detroit River outside of U.S. Steel (the old Great Lakes Steel) docks on December 1, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HUpQZ8P9Ro

Bob-Lo Island update, now becoming an upscale residential development. http://www.freep.com/article/20140706/NEWS05/307060053/boblo-island-memories-boat-development

The Bob-Lo Island Dance Hall Orchestrion: http://www.freep.com/article/20120218/ENT04/202180393/Former-Boblo-Island-music-machine-may-draw-up-to-36-2-5-million-at-auction