I'm feeling very nostalgic this week for some reason...perhaps it is the start of summer. It's a time of hot, humid days, reminding me of playing the backyard under the oak trees with my brother.
Jennifer Blevins is right there with me. You may recall Jennifer, our Cali girl who is still fond of this here region. She's back again, and this time she is asking you to remember something near and dear to her: the Bob-Lo boat.
Do you remember? What is your favorite Detroit memory?
Falling in Love with Bob-Lo
By Jennifer Blevins
I've never really liked the “oldies,” so I've always thought it was strange that I should get Chubby Checker's “Let's Twist Again” stuck in my head. It wasn't until recently, when I was talking about writing this, that I realized why that one particular sixties hit had been lingering—it was the theme song from the Bob-Lo Island commercial during the eighties. If you're like me and have somehow forgotten those images, I urge you to look up ‘Bob-Lo Island' on YouTube. When pictures of the Screamer and Falling Star appear, I promise it will all come rushing back.
Some of my greatest childhood memories are of trips to Bob-Lo Island; snow cones and soft pretzels, a ride on the Rotor (What, the floor drops out?) and going home with one of those little plastic key-chain thingys that had our picture in it. Just the rides over on the Bob-Lo boats were a big part of the fun in and of themselves too. I have vivid memories of dancing to “P.Y.T.” full of anticipation of getting a glimpse of the Bob-Lo Bear and taking a ride on The Scrambler.
I'm fairly certain it was during one of rides over that I fell in love Michael Jackson. We had leg warmers and stone washed jeans; “The Dark Crystal” and “Eddy and the Cruisers”; “99 Luftballons” and “We Got the Beat”; Fruit Roll-Ups and Jell-O Pudding Pops (read: high-fructose corn syrup); the Buick Regal Grand National and the AMC Eagle. It was the 1980's and, for me, Bob-Lo Island was right there in the middle of it all.
Of course, not everyone remembers Bob-Lo from summer vacations. For my father-in- law, Larry Sams, it was a summer of employment. Larry had the unique experience of working the midnight shift as a deckhand on the SS Columbia for one season in 1967. Guys who worked on the boats also lived on them for the entire three to four months. I recently asked him what he remembered and his most vivid recollection is of the food: “They fed you like kings,” he said. He told me that in addition to the $2.50 an hour the workers were paid, they were fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner and had 24-hour access to a fully stocked refrigerator.
Sams also recalls one occasion when he was eating a meal in the galley with Captain Bob-Lo, a diminutive man (appropriately named Joe Short) who worked on the boats until 1974. Larry describes sitting at the Detroit Dock where the passing boats were making the boat rock. But Captain Bob-Lo thought it was Larry pushing the table and yelled at him to stop. Larry recalls, “I just sat there cracking up because I knew the boat was rocking from the passing boats.” He remembers Captain Bob-Lo as “always smoking that big ole' cigar.” Larry can also recall spending three days docked in Windsor as the Columbia crew waited for the Detroit riots to end.
Bob-Lo's history is long and interesting, and unbeknownst to me when I first started researching this, one we share with Canada—Bob-Lo Island is Canadian land. The island was first established by French priests as a Catholic mission for the Hurons in the early 1700's and was given the name Bois Blanc (meaning “white woods”) because of the abundance of white birches in the area. It only became “Bob-Lo” when people couldn't figure out how to pronounce the name. The park first opened for business in 1898 after the Detroit, Belle Isle, and Windsor Ferry Company bought it in 1897. It changed hands several times over the years; the last two owners were The American Automobile Association (AAA) and IBC (who also owned the Harlem Globetrotters and the Ice Capades). For anyone interested in reading more about the history, there is a great book titled, “Bob-Lo: An Island in Troubled Waters,” by Annessa Carlisle.
Of course, with the rising popularity of what many consider to be the greatest amusement park in the world, Cedar Point, just two hours south, it's no wonder that Bob-Lo had a hard time competing for business. Bob-Lo Island closed down for good in 1993 and today is home of Bob-Lo Island: A Marine Community. The web site touts it as a, “272-acre private island playground in its natural setting provides you the freedom to explore and discover the endless possibilities of enjoying good old fashion fun.” I wonder if the men who opened the park in 1898 could have ever envisioned their “fun” park one day turning into a “fun” private, luxury resort-like community?” It seems like kind of a flat ending for a place with such a storied past.
While the island itself has gone through a total transformation from its days as a theme park, the boats seem to be finding a way to endure. The SS Ste. Claire is currently docked at the US Steel dock in Ecorse and is undergoing restoration with the non-profit group, the Ste. Claire Restoration Project. The SS Columbia is in the hands of another non-profit group, the SS Columbia Project, where stabilization is well under way. Once the restoration is complete, the Columbia will service the Hudson River in New York.
I spoke with the organization's president, Richard Anderson, and he was very happy to tell me that despite the fact that people know the boat will not be returning to Detroit, they have been generous in their donations. He said several supporters from Michigan have commented that now they have a reason to come to New York. Next month, the SS Columbia Project is holding a fundraiser that coincides with the 4th annual reunion for former SS Ste. Claire and SS Columbia crew members and Bob-Lo Island workers. You can visit the reunion site for details on the event.
It's great to find that the memory of this place really does live on, not just for me, but for a lot of people. Bob-Lo Island will always have a special place in my heart—right there alongside “Let's Twist Again.”