If you are of a certain age the mere mention of Boblo Island Amusement Park will certainly bring back fond memories and endless summer afternoons spent in the middle of the Detroit River.
If you are of a certain age, the mere mention of Boblo Island Amusement Park will certainly bring back fond memories and endless summer afternoons spent in the middle of the Detroit River.
For almost 100 years, the island was only accessible by classic steam-powered riverboats. The S.S. St. Claire, built in 1910, and the S.S. Columbia, built in 1902, brought passengers from downtown Detroit, from the foot of Woodward Avenue, to the island. Each boat could bring up to 2,500 visitors at a time. Smaller ferries brought visitors from nearby Amherstburg and Gibraltar, Mich.
But for me and many other residents of Chatham-Kent, the 80-minute boat ride down the Detroit River was the favourite mode of transportation. Sadly, the boats stopped running in 1991 and were placed into storage in a side channel. In 2008, after I had seen the broken-down carcass of the S.S. St. Claire, it tragically caught fire and was destroyed.
Upon arriving on the island – which is only a half-mile wide and no longer that three miles – attractions included rides such as the Nightmare, the Wild Mouse, the Screamer, the ever-popular Swan Boats and the Tilt A Whirl, as well as a Ferris wheel, a zoo and the “must-ride” popular “Scootaboats”.
Boblo Island was often referred to as “the Coney Island of Michigan,” but it was always Canadian owned.
The dance hall on the island was a sight to behold. It was financed by Henry Ford (who loved to dance!) and, when it was constructed, it was reputed to be the second-largest dance hall in the world, capable of holding 5,000 dancers.
It also featured one the world’s largest orchestrions, a self-playing orchestra machine that featured 419 pipes and its very own percussion section.
There were also big band nights, which drew huge multiracial crowds of young people during the 1920s.
Yet, as one might expect, the island, located at the southern end of the Detroit River before it enters Lake Erie, had a long history before it was envisioned as a popular amusement park.
The native Wyandot called the island “Etiowiteendannenti,” and the early French called it “Bois Blanc.” Both names refer to the “white wood” appearance lent by the birch and poplar trees that line the banks.
The earliest historical reference, from 1778, describes 70 Indigenous families peacefully farming the fertile lands.
By 1742, a French mission “among the Hurons” was established.
After 1796, the British controlled the island, and it was the staging point for the first local action in the War of 1812.
It was said that at one time the combined native forces led by Chief Tecumseh lived on the island with more than 10,000 warriors, women and children.
Following the war, British forces garrisoned at Fort Malden in Amherstburg across from Bois Blanc and strengthened their position by building three blockhouses on the island. One of these survived to become a souvenir stand for the amusement park.
The British also built a lighthouse in 1837. It operated until destroyed by vandals in 1954.
During the mid-19th century, the island was sold in parcels to several private owners who built cottages, stables and trails.
When opened as an entertainment destination in 1898 by the Detroit, Belle Isle and Windsor Ferry Company, Boblo Island was a picnic spot with beaches, athletic fields, bicycle tracks and a stunning 1878 Mangels-Illions carousel that was sold almost a century later for more than a million dollars.
Over the subsequent years, Boblo grew into a unique island amusement park and eventually covered 270 acres.
Today, the island is home to not only the sad and lonely ruins of the once-popular amusement park but also a series of multimillion-dollar homes on its shores.
However, I like to think that on certain warm, humid summer nights, if one listens carefully enough, you can hear the sound of a boat whistle far off in the distance, the joyous sounds of children’s laughter, sense the romance of young couples stealing a kiss or two on the massive dance floor and, just maybe, the far-off beat of war drums from the island’s earliest days.
The Gilberts are award-winning historians with a passion for telling the stories of C-K’s fascinating past.