RECOLLECTIONS FROM DETROIT'S BABY BOOMER YEARS: 1939 -1980
Let's Twist Again!
Famous Boblo TV Ad, 1980s
All Aboard to Bob-Lo Island
From its humble beginnings as Native American farming land in the early 18th century to a British controlled army base during the War of 1812, Bob-Lo Island has been subject to the changes brought on by generations of families, private business owners, and companies wanting a piece of the beautiful 272-acre stretch of land on the southern region of the Detroit River. Contrary to popular belief, the island is actually a part of Canada rather than the United States. Bob-Lo, or “Bois Blanc” (French for ‘white wood’), was officially established as a recreational facility in 1898 after being purchased by the Detroit, Belle Isle, and Windsor Ferry Company the previous year. Unexpectedly, Bob-Lo Island Park would become a sacred part of Detroit and Essex County history and culture.
SS Ste Claire en route
Steamships such as the SS. Columbia and SS. Ste. Claire delivered visitors eager to enjoy its lush and peaceful, family friendly atmosphere. The park underwent a considerable amount of change throughout its existence, but was generally a top vacation destination for people of all ages. Its transition from a picnic ground to a celebrated and diverse amusement area vastly increased its popularity. Everything from pony rides, a carousel, skating rinks, dance halls, train rides, a zoo, and hundreds of other rides and attractions made their way in and out of the island throughout its 84-year run.
Aerial View Bob-Lo Island
A bird’s eye view of slipper shaped Bob-Lo Island, sometime after it was purchased by the Detroit Belle Isle and Windsor Ferry Company in 1897. In partnership with their boat rides to and from the island, the ferry company wanted to create a destination of rest, relaxation, and fun for the whole family. One of their ads in The Detroit News reads: “The land is high, the surroundings picturesque, and the air free from all city impurities”.
View of Boblo, 1950s
Landing Dock- early 1900s
Early Years: Bob-Lo Island’s southern dock teems with people ready to explore and enjoy the many activities the park has to offer, (circa early 1900s). Most passengers were brought to Bob-Lo by one of the many steamships owned by the island; Canadian guests, however, would often take a shorter boat ride over to the island, given that the distance was under 900 feet away from Amherstburg shores. In view are the Bob-Lo Café, far left, and the Souvenir Building; both remained on the island for the majority of the park’s existence.
Ready for the Crowds
A beautiful but rarely captured moment on Bob-Lo Island, featuring an empty dock and the calm blue waters of the Detroit River, early 1910s. Featured in the background is the island’s Dance Pavilion and lush greenery, later to be accompanied by more rides and attractions to accommodate the park’s growing audience.
Landing at Bob-Lo
One of the several round trips made by a ferry to the main Bob-Lo island dock from Detroit, 1920. Although liquor was forbidden at the family-oriented amusement park, the Bob-Lo dock was popular among rumrunners during the Prohibition era (1920-1933), who were eager to deliver their alcohol to Detroit consumers.
Bathing Beach, Bois Blanc Island.
A hand painted postcard depicting mainly women and children on the Bathing Beach, 1909. A playground and women’s restrooms were built just south of the beach, catering to visiting mothers and their children. Advertisements for the park often included large sections dedicated to the activities available for kids, particularly swimming, in order to draw families to the island during the hotter months.
Bathing Beach, 1890s
The Bob-Lo Island Bathing Beach, circa early 1900s. The bathing beach was one of the first areas of the park to be constructed for public use, in addition to a nearby tiled baseball diamond, bathhouse, and cycle track. Note the passing freight boat in the distance.
Crowds Arrive, circa 1915
A passenger of the SS Britannia sent this postcard home. According to HistoricDetroit.com: "Britannia’s history suggests that the attempt to build an all-purpose boat was a failure. Only four years after she was built, the company required a bigger steamer for Bob-Lo and built the Ste Claire. One suspects that Britannia was too big for the Belle Isle service and too small for Bob-Lo. In August 1961, Britannia, at the end of three careers, was sold to Duluth Iron & Metal Co. and scrapped at Duluth, Minn." In 1924, she was greatly altered for use on the cross-river ferry service.
S.S. Ste. Claire
The SS Ste. Claire in 1952, headed towards Bob-Lo Island from an Amherstburg dock. The infamous passenger steamboat launched during late spring in 1910 and remained in use until 1991. The Ste. Claire has since been deemed a National Historic Landmark, having been operated for 81 years on the Detroit River, alongside fellow steamboat, the SS. Columbia.
Crusing Along the Detroit River, 1920s
A view of the SS Put-In-Bay steamer on its way to Bob-Lo Island. In addition to passengers, Bob-Lo steamers carried a crew of about 110 employees for various tasks on the boat.
“The Café”: located just east of the island’s main docks, 1918. The island’s main restaurant was opened for business in early 1900s, and was successfully active throughout the history of park. Hungry guests would serve themselves at the café’s all-you-can-eat buffet that included fish from the Great Lakes and other delicious foods.
Fully Loaded, S.S, Columbia
Dance Hall Days
“Dance Pavilion, Outside:” Bob-Lo Island’s famous dance pavilion, likely at its full capacity of 12,000 people (including dancers), 1920s. The island’s dance pavilion, covering a huge 3300 square meters of land, was commissioned by Henry Ford in 1912 and completed in time for the following year’s island opening date. Steel and stone were used to construct the pavilion to ensure long lasting stability.
Nickel a Dance Romance, 1920s
Dance Pavilion Bob-Lo
“Interior of Dance Pavilion:” The unknown sender of this postcard writes, “We are having a fine time”, featuring an inside view of Bob-Lo Island’s popular dance pavilion, 1928. People up on the balconies were not charged admission for entrance; however, couples on the main dance floor paid a five-cent fee.
Roller Skating Rink
Bob-Lo’s roller skating rink, circa 1940s. Previously the island’s Amusement Building, the rink was installed after a proposed plan to improve the park’s overall quality in 1939.
Hand Tinted Postcard, Dance Hall
A painted rendition of the inside of the island’s famous dance pavilion, designed by architects Albert Kahn and John Scott, early 1920s.
The Amusement Building, early 1900s. Although the structure was meant to house the carousel, it was used for guests to book parties, entertainment, and business meetings.
Bob-Lo Park’s first souvenir building, 1910. This structure was previously one of three protective blockhouses built on the island by British forces during the war of 1812.
Bob-Lo Golf Course
“Bob-lo Golf Course” Two men enjoy a sunny afternoon on the island’s nine-hole golf course, 1920s. A 1926 Bob-Lo island golf advertisement states that while husbands and fathers played golf in the heat of the day, their families could enjoy themselves at the island’s Bathing Beach.
Bob-Lo Park’s Dodge’em filled to capacity in 1920. The 17-car ride proved to be a great success during its earlier years at the park, being the one of the most profitable rides during the mid 1920s seasons. A steel and stone structure was built to house the cars in 1928, measuring at 100x28 feet.
“Merry Go Round” Four children wait for their turn on Bob-Lo Island’s carousel, 1919. The ride, featuring 48 hand-carved animals, was opened for the 1906 season after receiving its steam organ from Germany. A nearby powerhouse was built to help illuminate the ride, allowing for visitors to use to carousel in both the day and evening hours.
The Aeroplane ride during its prime, 1940s.
Tumble Bug, 1935
The popular Tumble Bug entertaining a cart-full of passengers, 1935.
Two young girls pose alongside several ponies available for guest rides, late 1930s. Pony rides were offered as one of the main attractions for children.
Splash Ride "Log Flume"
“Log Flume” Excited riders embrace the splash of Bob-Lo Park’s log Flume ride, 1970s. Before its opening in 1972, the safety of the Log Flume and other coasters were tested using sandbags as a replacement for people. Once it was deemed secure for human use, Lorenzo Browning, one of the park’s owners at the time, was the first to ride.
Adrenaline-loving riders wait in line at Bob-Lo’s infamous rollercoaster, the Sky Streek, mid 1970s. Replacing the wooden rollercoaster, the Thunderbolt, the Sky Streek was operated from its debut in 1973 to the park’s closing in 1993. It currently operates under the name “El Cascabel”, or The Rattlesnake, at a Mexican amusement park.
Sky Streek, photo by Thomas Haggerty
Tilt A Whirl: The Bug
“The Bug” Guests both young and old riding the Tumble Bug, 1970s. The Bug (the ride’s nickname) was ready for use in the 1930 season, to widespread acclaim and popularity, despite the poor economic condition of nearby communities being affected by the oncoming Great Depression.
“The Comet” Hoards of guests surround and watch as Bob-Lo’s ‘The Comet”, soars through the air, 1950s. Also known as the “Flying Scooters” or “Flying Dutchmen”, the Comet included a lever on the inside of each cart that allowed passengers to elevate and descend throughout the duration of the ride.
Bob-Lo Park, 1970s
Popular midway rides such as the Ferris Wheel, Moon Rocket, and Tilt-A-Whirl are featured together, 1970s.
Bob-Lo park’s popular Pirate ride in flight, 1970s.
From Bobloboat.com: "Joe Short, known fondly to thousands of kids and their parents as Capt. Bob-Lo, plied the Detroit River between Detroit and Canada aboard the Bob-Lo cruise boats Columbia and St. Claire. A diminutive clown, just 4 feet 1 inch tall, Joe entertained both children and adults. He had been hired in 1952 by the Browning's away from the Ringling Brothers Circus. He captivated children with adventurous tales and sugary knock-knock jokes until his retirement on March 9, 1974, at the age of 90." photo by Kim Roney
SS St Claire and Captain Boblo
Mascots” A collection of some of Bob-Lo’s beloved mascots, including Bobbie the Bear (right) and Louie the Lion, 1980s. During the park’s final years between 1990-1993, costumed characters from hit TV show, The Simpsons, including Homer and Bart, joined the furry mascots in greeting guests arriving to Bob-Lo.
Antique Car Ride
Four guests riding on the Antique Car Ride, as seen in a 1980 Bob-Lo Island Park brochure. The car ride, along with several other roller coasters, a fun house, and a zoo, was built under the ownership of the Browning family, who bought the park in 1949.
St Andrew's Day
The Plymouth Kiltie Band performing in front of guests on the Ferris wheel, 1950s. The St. Andrew’s Society of Detroit had sponsored yearly events for Bob-Lo Island Park since its earliest days, starting in the early 1900s. Their most popular sponsored event, the Scottish Games, would take place yearly on the island, bringing in up to 10,000 patrons.
The Super Satellite Jet Ride
The Super Satellite Jet Ride in full swing for night-owl visitors, 1960s. The ride, built in Germany and designed by architect Kaspar Klaus, was introduced to the park in the 1957 summer season in addition to another German-made ride, The Wilde Maus. A clipping from the Detroit Free Press during the same year claimed, “there’s nothing like [these rides] in all the Americas”.
Crisp blue skies envelope the Galaxie, a concession ride that had a short-lived run in the park. After about ten years, it was demolished in 1986, and the $300,000 ride was replaced with an outdoor skating rink that utilized the coaster’s original concrete foundation.