Floating Paradise

Bob-Lo Island operated longer than any Detroit-area amusement park, but high costs, red tape, and changing tastes led to its demise.
SS Columbia
Icons of Bob-Lo Island amusement park near Amherstburg, Canada included the Sky Streak roller coaster and the SS Columbia steamship. // Photo courtesy of the Detroit Public Library

In 1957, the Wild Mouse and Satellite Jets arrived on Bob-Lo Island, making the biggest impact on customers since draft beer was first served on the boats from Detroit. Bob-Lo had always been a picnic destination with dancing opportunities, and sailing downriver offered city dwellers a mini-vacation to a leafy Canadian isle. 

“These rides represented a significant shift from the quiet, passive recreation park to a 20th century amusement park,” writes Patrick Livingston in his tome, Summer Dreams: The Story of Bob-Lo Island. 

Detroit, Windsor, and Belle Isle Ferry Co. started developing Bois Blanc Island in 1898 as a way of maximizing the utility of its fleet, and it soon bought up 242 acres. An early Detroit Tiger who couldn’t master the French “Bois Blanc” coined the Bob-Lo name. Sailing from the Bates Street dock, just west of today’s Renaissance Center, took 90 minutes and cost 35 cents. Entering service in 1902, the 216-foot steamer SS Columbia offered a 5,600-square-foot dance floor; a companion vessel, SS Ste. Claire, followed in 1910. 

The Ferry Co. also built a dancing pavilion on the island, but president Walter Campbell discouraged “midnight owls” by refusing to install electric lights. An ad boasted, “No liquor, no improper conduct.”  

Trends were already changing before World War I, when a new dance hall was built. Couples now paid five cents, and a dance cop broke up turkey trots and other outrageous steps. “A lot of people go to Bois Blanc who don’t like to dance, don’t believe in dancing, and don’t like to see it,” Campbell said after a judge upheld the company’s right to squelch a ragtime outburst. 

Bob-Lo Island Coaster
Photo courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society

The popular carousel and Whip rides were added around this time, and attendance surpassed 430,000 in 1920. Six tennis courts were added to the island’s amenities, as well as a nine-hole golf course. The name Bois Blanc disappeared from ads, which now claimed, “Bob-Lo’s beautiful cafeteria serves the finest fish dinners you ever ate.” By decade’s end, the Dodgems bumper cars were the largest revenue source on the island, accounting for nearly 7 percent of the total financial intake. 

Prohibition’s repeal and Campbell’s death left the door open to get a beer license for the boats, but although the park thrived during World War II, it nearly closed in 1949. The Browning Steamship Co. bought the property soon after from Bob-Lo Excursion Co. — successor to the Ferry Co. — for $549,000. The Joe Vitale Orchestra was hired to play and entertain guests on both boats, more rides and attractions were offered, and attendance surged above 600,000 by 1963. 

Despite its popularity, Bob-Lo had no answer for Cedar Point’s Blue Streak roller coaster, which debuted in 1969. Even with one-price tickets a bargain at $8, Bob-Lo attendance fell in the late 1970s, while the creation of Hart Plaza meant the Columbia and Ste. Claire were forced to dock away from downtown. Around the same time, it was determined that operating the boats consumed 45 percent of gross revenue, while a “deterioration of the social climate” required extra  security, combined with added red tape from the two nations. Browning sold Bob-Lo in 1979. 

In a series of ownership changes, Bob-Lo enjoyed some measure of resurgence under the hand of the Automobile Club of Michigan, which paid $6.5 million for the island in 1983. After five years, AAA accepted a huge, unsolicited offer from International Broadcasting Corp., but IBC later said it had overpaid and filed for bankruptcy. A final investor group tried to keep the park going, but met big setbacks. 

Recently, the decommissioned Columbia underwent a restoration and is scheduled to steam up and down the Hudson River from a dock in Buffalo this summer, while the Ste. Claire is rotting away on the Rouge River near the Ford Rouge Plant. The island has seen some residential construction, but nearly a century of orchestral strains, squealing patrons, and occasional frothy toasts have all but faded from memory.