By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News
Bob-Lo Island was originally called Bois Blanc, “island of the white wood,” so named by the French, for the birch and beech trees which covered the island. It is approximately three miles long and 1/2 mile wide, and is 18 miles downriver from downtown Detroit — just a five minute ferry ride from Amherstburg, Ontario.
French priests established a Catholic mission on the island for the Huron Indians in the early 1700s. Thousands of Indians, from all tribes, camped on the island following the establishment of Fort Malden, a British military post in Amherstburg, in 1796. They came to trade furs with the British.
The island was for a while the headquarters of Tecumseh, the famous Shawnee leader, who was aiding the British. He used it as a base to make forays on the American mainland during the war of 1812.
In the 1830s three blockhouses were built at the outer perimeter of Fort Malden, after the Canadian uprising against the British called the Patriot War, in which the Canadians were aided by Americans. The uprising caused the British to realize how unprotected their border with the United States was.
During the American Civil War, the island became a stop on the underground railway for escaping slaves, on their way to Canada.
Col. Arthur Rankin, M.P., bought 225 acres on the island from the Canadian government for $40 in the mid 19th century. The remaining14 acres were held on a life lease by Capt. James Hackett, lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse was built in 1837.
In 1869, Rankin sold the island to his son, Arthur McKee Rankin, who, going by the name of McKee Rankin, was a star of the New York theatre, and one of the fashionable people. He built himself an elaborate estate on Bois Blanc, stocked the grounds with deer, wild turkey, and elk, built extensive stables, and played the bounteous host to his New York friends, the same set that held court at Delmonico’s. Bois Blanc was on the map! Unfortunately, McKee’s stage career dried up as he aged, and his grandiosity and hospitality bankrupted him.
The island was sold to partners Col. John Atkinson and James A. Randall. Randall built a house on the site of one of the British army blockhouses. His son, Tom Davey Randall went out duck hunting one night and disappeared in a sudden squall. When he failed to return and his body wasn’t found, James Randall hired spiritualists and spent the winter on the island participating in seances in hopes of finding his son. The body was found the next spring when the ice melted. James Randall died in Detroit in 1911.
The heirs of Col. Atkinson sold the island to what was then the Detroit, Belle Isle and Windsor Ferry Company. In 1898, the Bob-Lo Excursion Line was born. Bob-Lo was the best the non-French locals could do with the pronunciation of Bois Blanc, and it stuck and became official in 1949.
A limerick appeared in The Detroit News in 1900:
A maiden once said to her Pa,
“Oh Pa, can I go to Bah Blah?”
Her father said “No!
You can’t go to Bob-Lo,
the place is too terribly far!”
The first steamer that went to the island carrying picnickers was called The Promise. In 1959, Mrs. Martha Walpola, who had been on the maiden voyage and many successive ones, reminisced:
“Back on the first trip . . . I had to wear my new white dimity dress and stand beside my folks. My father wore a black coat and stiff white collar. My mother had on her best dress. We would stand and watch the dancers do the ‘It’s a Bear’. The bouncers were there to watch and see that none of the dancing ladies showed their legs.”
In 1902 and 1910 the steamers Columbia and Ste. Claire were built. They could hold over 2,500 passengers each. There was a dance floor on the second deck and a beer garden on the third. They carried as many as 800,000 visitors to the island yearly in the island’s heyday in the 60s and 70s.
The initial attractions of the island were mostly simple: a day on the river and a picnic in the park-like setting of the island. There was a carousel, and Henry Ford had a dance hall designed and built by Albert Kahn, which in 1903 was billed as the world’s second largest.
Though Americans were providing much of the capital and most of the visitors to the island, it remained (and still is) a Canadian island. During World War I, U.S. officials made an exception, just for Bob-Lo, to the rule that draft-age men could not leave the country, deciding that it would be a hardship to young Michigan men to be forbidden to enjoy the island during the summer months.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the steamers stopped their Bob-Lo excursions. The ships resumed operations in 1935.
In 1949, bankruptcy threatened, and the Mayor of Windsor wanted the island for a national park, but Americans stepped in again and the island and boats were bought by the Browning family of Grosse Pointe, owners of a steamship line.
The Brownings transformed the island into an amusement park, building rides, roller coasters, and a funhouse. There was a ferris wheel, a dance hall, and an antique car exhibit. They brought in 300 exotic animals for a zoo, the first of which was a giraffe, “Socrates II.” When seven baboons escaped for two days in 1972, one had to be coaxed out of the funhouse. A mini railroad was built for rides around the island.
In 1961, the island landing dock was replaced with the deck of the freighter Queenston, sunk in place. In 1973, the Thunder Bolt roller coaster, one of the largest in the country, was built of steel. Thrill seekers could ride the flume — a log which carried riders down a water slide. In 1975, the original 48-horse carousel from 1878 was restored and put back into operation.
A great part of the romance of the island lay in getting there on the Bob-Lo Boat. It took just over an hour and there were moonlight cruises as well as daytime ferries to the island. Bands on the second deck dance floor changed with the times, from Mrs. Walpola’s turn of the century music (think Harold Hill) to the Big Bands of the 1940s to the Latin Counts of the 80s.
Joe Short was Captain Bob-Lo, a diminutive clown who entertained the children on board. He had been hired by the Brownings away from the Ringling Brothers Circus and worked the boat until 1974, when he retired at age 90. He died the following year.
The boarding dock in Detroit was initially at the foot of Woodward, was moved to behind Cobo Hall, and eventually out of downtown to Gibraltal in 1991.
After the Brownings sold the island in 1979, it had various owners, including IBC, the owner of the Ice Capades and Harlem Globetrotters. AAA Michigan also held the island briefly. In the 1980s rowdiness on the boats and on the island caused diminishing crowds. Canadian police and immigration authorities spent a day at Bob-Lo rounding up members of the Outlaws motorcycle gang in 1987. The innocence of earlier times was ebbing away.
The carousel was sold off piece by piece at auction in 1990, with a $34,000 high bid for a deer and $21,500 for a horse by the famous carousel carver Marcus Illions. They were replaced by plastic replicas.
In 1994 the rides were sold off, and in January 1996, the Columbia and the Ste. Claire were auctioned. An era had ended, and families that had enjoyed the island for generations turned to more modern, more spectacular parks such as Cedar Point.
Detroiters lost more than an amusement park, or a picnic ground when Bob-Lo closed. They lost a piece of their history and a window back to a simpler time.