When was the last time you sailed down the Detroit River to Bob-Lo Island, to summertime?
Before July 30, 2011, my last visit to Bob-Lo had been in June of 1968. On that trip, my companions on the Bob-Lo Excursion Line steamer were other ninth graders from Livonia’s Holmes Junior High. We were participating in a totally sanctioned, transportation-provided-by-the-school-district “Ninth-Grade Skip Day.” We would have boarded either the Ste. Claire or the Columbia, but no cellphone cameras documented that embarkation and carrying a Kodak Instamatic simply would not have been cool. On that visit, the very air between the Wild Mouse and the Whip was fraught with hormones dancing to a Top Ten soundtrack which included “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” and “Grazing in the Grass.”
Over four decades, later, on July 30, 2011, I spent an afternoon on Bob-Lo . . .
To get to Bob-Lo Island in the 21st century, you take a ferry from Amherstburg, Ontario, instead of from the old dock on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. The ferry leaves every 20 minutes from a dock next to the “Bob-Lo Discovery Centre.” The ride takes about 5 or 10 minutes, instead of the hour it used to take when one departed on the other side of the border.
From the U.S. (departing from Detroit) your route to the ferry would look like this:
The ferry boat captain had to take the Detroit River’s strong current into consideration in maneuvering the ferry boat to the dock.
Officially, Bob-Lo Island is now billed as a “Marina Resort Community,“ but Bob-Lo currently exhibits the most profound split personality of any island–perhaps any place–I’ve ever been. Which may not be surprising, given that it’s been many things—camp for European explorers, fortress, picnic spot, dance venue, amusement park, retreat—to many people over the centuries beginning with four Algonquin and Iroquoian tribes: the Ojibwa (Chippewa), Ottawa, Potawatomi and the Wyandot (Huron)–one source claims the original name of the island was Etiowiteedannenti, a name bestowed by the Wyandot–and followed by:
- The French
- The Jesuits
- The British
- Slaves (traveling the Underground Railroad)
- American tourists
The first recorded passage to the island, which was named Bois Blanc (“White Woods”), by the French dates from 1670. I learned this and most of what I know about the history of Bob-Lo Island from 1670 – 2006 in the book Summer Dreams: The Story of Bob-Lo Island by Patrick Livingston (published in 2008 by the Wayne State University Press in Detroit as a part of their Great Lakes Books series):
How does Bob-Lo Island appear today, Saturday, July 30, 2011? When you disembark from the ferry, you find yourself adjacent to a private very well-to-do residential area. To the north of the road leading from the ferry dock is a subdivision of mini-mansions and duplexes, with an emphasis on stone and heavy on Victorian-style turrets. The subdivision consists of a loop of a street containing a court within the loop. On the south side of the road leading from the ferry dock is a five-story condominium:
Between the river and the condominium is a trail which heads south along the island’s perimeter and allows a walker or bicyclist to view a number of historical structures, including the Sailor’s Monument, which still graces the eastern shore of the island:
The commemorative plaque affixed to the Sailor’s Monument reads:
“Dedicated to 134 years of American-Canadian friendship across 4500 miles of unfortified border, protected only by the mutual respect and understanding one nation holds for the other.
Presented in the name of the border cities of Detroit, Windsor, and Amherstburg.
Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Bob-Lo Excursion Company and the 50 years of Canadian-American use of Bob-Lo Island as an International recreation area
June 18, 1898 – June 18, 1948″
By golf cart or bike or on foot are the only ways to navigate the crushed limestone trails that cover the remainder of the island, but for the residential area (the only place where cars are allowed). The folks from the residential areas use golf carts to get to the community pool in the center of the island, just a stone’s throw from the almost hundred-year-old, still standing Dance Pavilion:
And here is where things get interesting. Scattered over the rest of the island, there are still a number of structures left from other eras—midst overgrown grass, downed limbs from trees, and more than a few other surprises:
At the south end of the island, two pieces of history, although damaged, still stand:
- The south blockhouse, built in 1838 (Update: See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/17/historic-boblo-island-blo_n_1098807.html); at one time, there were a total of four blockhouses built by the British on the island:
- The Bois Blanc Lighthouse built in 1836; its lamp room was destroyed in 1954 when vandals started a fire.
In the portion of the island that was once the amusement park–“Bob-Lo” as the babyboomers knew it–a number of structures still stand:
- The Carousel Building, built in 1905 to house the first amusement ride on Bob-Lo Island, served as a convention hall and later, the roller-skating rink (beginning with the 1940 season) before ending up as a theater. Today it is overgrown:
- The Powerhouse, which looks like small limestone chapel, that provided electricity to the Carousel:
- The Dance Pavilion – a 35,000 feet steel and limestone building designed by Albert Kahn and John Scott and completed in 1913.
Unfortunately, despite a private-property-no-trespassing sign . . .
. . . the building is not secure, given that one-quarter of a large window in the front is broken in, metal strips hanging from its frame. Peering through the broken glass, one can see water covering portions of the floor.
Wild grapevine has made it to the second floor balcony of the gallery.
One can’t imagine a happy centennial celebration for this historic building . . .
- Or for the Lavatory building next to it, built to match the other stone buildings on the island.
Poison ivy now grows in the ring of mature trees in front of the Lavatory building, where I imagine the men in hats retiring for a smoke while they await their dates in flapper attire to emerge from “The Ladies Room.”
- The 375-foot Sky Tower, rusting and visible from the Powerhouse and most of the island, as well as from other locations on the river like Grosse Ile:
- And a few other buildings, like the open one that may have housed the dodg’em cars built in 1928, and another with more shattered windows, the Souvenir building:
- The terminal building:
Obscured in a small wooded area between the Dance Pavilion and the Terminal are the remains of the minature golf course:
Consider this: I did not see another person during my entire afternoon exploration of the historic sites on the island, except for three young teenage girls I observed leaving the Resort’s community pool and making their way down to the river alone, to the channel between Bob-Lo and Amherstburg, where, nestled next to the Terminal, is a very small sand beach where they swam. Between my concerns for the submerged rocks of the river and the mortar of history I was climbing over, I thought, what a wonderful place this island would be to explore if you were a kid or teenager and what a nightmare it poses for parents or grandparents of those explorers! I can only imagine the dangers of the dilapidated buildings, to say nothing of concerns about strangers. Although I had $8.00 in Canadian currency in hand to pay the ferry toll, I rode the ferry without being charged and with no questions asked. Of more concern than strangers arriving by ferry would be the boats that pull up and anchor around the island on summer days.
Particularly down at White Sands beach below the Lighthouse (http://www.flickr.com/photos/33535417@N05/4112593095/), where two boats were anchored during my visit to the south end of the island with a large group of partying young people. Livingstone writes that the white sand beach was created in 1957 when a vein of sand in the mouth of the river was dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as they deepend “the Amherstburg Channel to St. Lawrence Seaway standards, opening the Great Lakes to the world.”
Boater can also dock at the “Boblo Wharf” on the west side of the island, to eat at the Bob-Lo Island Beach House Restaurant.
Visiters to the marina can visit the small gallery of photographs and paintings of water scenes or rent bikes to explore the island (although what appeared to be the bike rental building was closed on this July Saturday, so perhaps not).
The biggest surprise during my visit to Bob-Lo came from a different sort of stranger than the type I’d been envisioning when I was watching the girls swim in the river. When I was riding my bike on a trail that runs through the middle of the island, I came upon a T-intersection buried amidst tall, tall grass, with the Carousel Building on my left and the Powerhouse on my right. Suddenly, without any warning, there was a relatively large mammal in the middle of the trail, directly in the line of my front bike tire. Having trotted out into the intersection, clearly not expecting anyone to be on the trail, the animal froze and then turned and shot back up the path, between the tall vegetation on each side, its hind legs trying to gain purchase on the crushed limestone. The juvenile coyote was gone in another blink of the eye.
The Bobl-Lo Island of today? A retreat for the wealthy, amidst dilapidated remnants of history and ghosts of the past, with nature ever encroaching.
The first thing I did when I got back home was to search for a Bob-Lo Historical Society on the Internet. Unfortunately, my search came up empty. There appears to be no such organization, which may not be so surprising. The existence of such an organization would certainly be complicated by the facts that 1) Bob-Lo is a Canadian island with an overbearing American past, and 2) today Bob-Lo primarily serves as a retreat for the wealthy, who I can imagine would not want people coming to visit the historical remains there, any more than they would want hunters (although if they own a cat or a small dog, the latter might be welcome if they could take care of the coyote population).
Other islands I’ve visited have their own historical societies or have joined with other nearby islands to form a historical society: Johnson Island Preservation Society, Lake Erie Islands Historical Society, St. Clair Flats Historical Society, Beaver Island Historical Society, the Grosse Ile Historical Society, and Friends of Bell Isle (now a part of the new Belle Isle Conservancy). Each historical society serves as a bead on a rosary linking current and future generations to the past, acts as a tool to support prayers of keeping the memories alive, keeps a link to the human roots of a distinctive place that has meant many things to many people over the years.
In this respect, today, Bob-Lo Island appears a bead broken off from the strand, adrift in more than just the Detroi River, its historic integrity drowned in the current of a sequence of ill-fated development schemes.