Bob Lo Island revisited

I recently took a nostalgic trip back in time... I traveled to BobLo, a Canadian island in the Detroit River that holds a special place in my heart.

BobLo was once an amusement park, and I have fond memories of summer days spent there when I was a child, a teen, and a young adult.

I loved BobLo and, like many Detroit and Southern Ontario residents, I was saddened in the early 1990s when the amusement park closed and the rides were dismantled. A few years later when I heard that the island was being developed as a private community of luxury homes I was outraged. How could this be? BobLo belonged to all of us!

I thought I'd never step foot on that beloved place again, but I recently discovered there is a car ferry that runs to the island from Amherstberg, Ontario. I was thrilled to learn that visitors are allowed to go onto the island and roam around! So, I gathered up a group of fellow photographers and we spent the day there exploring, and seeing what was left to be seen.

Boblo Dock
This is how I remember the dock on the island. There were ferry boats that crossed the river to Canada, and big steam ships, the Columbia and the Ste. Claire, that came down the river from Detroit. Canadians used one side of this dock, Americans the other.

One of the best things about Boblo was the hour long boat ride to get there. There was music and dancing on the second floor of the boats - polkas and pop songs when I was a kid, disco in the 70s.

When I think of those boats I mostly hear them - the loud, deep bass of their whistles, the engines churning, the water whooshing by, the wind, seagulls, and so many happy voices. The boat ride was great, and then you were there. Boblo! It was so much fun to walk down that long, covered dock with the anticipation of the day's amusements ahead.

This is how the dock looks now:

I got a little teary-eyed when I walked down to the end of the dock, I was feeling nostalgic, and also sad for the way this place, so fond in so many people's memories, is just rotting away.

We went to Boblo at least once a year when I was a kid and a teenager. My favorite rides were the tilt-a-whirl, the scrambler, and the round-up. I preferred the the spinny rides to the roller-coasters. I hated the wild mouse and the bug, but I would go on the Sky Streak if I was feeling brave.

It's strange that I don't have any family photos of our trips to Boblo in the 60s and 70s. The camera was probably left at home so it wouldn't have to be carried around. I also think the camera wasn't taken along because going to Boblo wasn't like going somewhere on vacation, it was just Boblo, beloved yes, but somewhat taken for granted. Who knew that images of the amusement park we all knew so well would one day be so cherished.

Boblo was originally called Bois Blanc by the French - named for the white birch trees that covered the island. Boblo was the best that non-French could do with the pronunciation and the name stuck.

Boblo has a long history. French priests established a mission for Huron Indians on the island in the early 17oos. Blockhouses were built by the British in the 1830s. And the island was a stop on the underground railway for escaping slaves on their way to Canada during the Civil War.

In 1898 the Bob-Lo excursion line was born. The first steamer that took visitors to the island was called The Promise. The Columbia was built in 1902 and the Ste. Claire was built in 1910.

The early attractions were simple: a day on the river and a picnic on the island. There was a carousel, and a dance hall which was built in 1903. The dance hall still stands. Here's an old postcard image of what it once looked like:

And here is what it looks like now:

During its last years as an amusement park, the owners of Boblo turned the front half of this historic building into a food court and built an indoor roller-coaster in the rest of it. The outside is in pretty good shape, but the interior is in ruins. I've seen some heartbreaking photos of it online.

Most of what's left on the island is wildly overgrown and uncared for. Though I must say I was surprised at how much is still there at all. Here is the old restroom building:

And here is me inside the old restroom building:

The island was transformed into an amusement park in the 1950s. In 1961 the deck of a freighter was sunk into place to serve as a boat landing. This unique feature of the island is still there. It's covered with colorful rust, which I was happy to photograph.

Here's the old Dodgem car building

And here is part of what's left of the miniature golf course:

I took a photo of my sons playing mini golf on Boblo in 1993.
That summer was the last year of the amusement park's existence.

I'm glad that Boblo was a part of my sons' lives, too. We made several trips to the island when they were boys and I'm glad I bothered to take the camera along.

I took this photo of the island from the dock in 1986

Here i am with Jerry on the Sky Tower in '86.

The Sky Tower is still on the island and can be seen from miles away. It's a strange relic.

This is a photo of one of my sons (I don't know which) on the "Flying Dutchman" in 1993. As this ride spun around you could control the "sail" in front to make yourself sail outward and in. An incredibly simple ride, but one I loved when I was a kid. I wonder where the cars to this ride ended up when the park was dismantled and sold off piece by piece?

It was wonderful fun to spend time on Boblo Island again. What a shame the amusement park couldn't have been saved. Though it most certainly lives on in the memories of the millions who spent happy times there.

Thanks to Hear and Their at Flickr for vintage photos of Boblo