That time Detroit had an Amusement Park Island

The now abandoned Detroit dock for Boblo Island (Thomas Hawk|Flickr)
The now abandoned Detroit dock for Boblo Island (Thomas Hawk|Flickr)

Most Detroiters born before the late 80s, including my own mother and her family, have very fond memories of a place known as Boblo Island Amusement Park.

Boblo Island Amusement Park was an amusement park that ran from 1898 until it closed on September 30, 1993. The park was located on Bois Blanc Island, Ontario, Canada; just above the mouth of the Detroit River. Over the years it became a popular destination for people on both sides of the River.  In the beginning it was a picnic spot, with beaches, athletic fields, bicycle tracks, and a stunning Mangels-Illions carousel. Over the years it grew into a unique island amusement park, with a midway and dozens of rides.

Boblo Island in 1926 (Southwestern Ontario Digital Archive)

Boblo Island in 1926 (Southwestern Ontario Digital Archive)

For more than 85 years, the park was serviced by the SS St. Clair and the SS Columbia ferry boats. The Boblo Island Amusement Park was famous for those two steamers, the “Bob-Lo Boats,” which went between Detroit and the island. They could hold over 2,500 passengers each.

SS Columbia en route to Boblo Island (Southwestern Ontario Digital Archive)

For many people the best ride of the day was on the “Bob-Lo Boat” that took visitors to the island. Departing from the foot of Woodward, where Hart Plaza is now, the Columbia and St. Claire offered their own form of entertainment.

After coming aboard, visitors could look down from the main deck into the engine room, where powerful shafts and cams slowly warmed up. Passengers often rushed upstairs to secure prime rail-side seats and await departure. The smell of hot dogs and popcorn mixed with dockside odours. With a blast of the big steam whistle, lines were cast off, and the voyage began.

The now abandoned Boblo Island Docking Area

The song “Celebration” will ALWAYS remind me of Boblo!! That, and Grandma Flynn riding the pirate ship at 80 years old.

The twenty mile voyage took about eighty minutes, and wound down the river past quiet marshlands and cottages lining the shore. Fresh breezes, lively music, and anticipation made the time fly by. Finally passengers were greeted by the Island itself. A complex of rides and entertainment such as the Whip, Wild Mouse, Tilt-a-Whirl, and Dodge’em Cars. Then after a long day of island fun, the ride home was a relaxing mix of memories, corny souvenirs, and great sunsets. The classic boats stopped running in 1991 and the amusement park was shuttered after the 1993 season.In the years leading up to its closure, many of the rides were sold to satisfy debts. Boblo, however, lives on in the hearts of anyone who grew up in the Metro area and remembers the golden era of small amusement parks.

Detroit Metro Times

Detroit Metro Times

Some personal family memories of my relatives include:

” When we approached the island, we would meet up with our family again just in time to see the bears dancing to “Celebration”. All of our family would proceed to the picnic area and that would be our home base for the day. We could then go to the rides and check back every so often. The double ferris wheel was one of the first rides I can remember going on. There was a fun house that had a slanted room, it was very hard to get to the other side. At the end of the adventure you chose one of two doors. One door was a twirly slide and the other was winding stairs. The pirate ship was fun because the whole family would line up and go on at the same time. Bumper cars were used to meet boys (as we got older of course). The roller-coasters were used to experiment with no hands and riding in the front car. The log ride was a refreshing treat after baking in the sun all day. The falling star came later but was one of the best rides they could have had. The boat ride home was always fun because they had music and a dance floor.”
-Hollie Masterson

Hollie and I went on the witches wheel 11 times in a row while the rest of the group waited in line for the tilt a whirl. Then, Billy took the ride operators hat on the rotor and didn’t give it back to him and he wouldn’t let anyone off the Crazy ride! Learned the hustle on the boat ride back!!! The song “Celebration” will ALWAYS remind me of Boblo!! That, and Grandma Flynn riding the pirate ship at 80 years old.”
-Rhonda Nagle

The rides may be gone, but it is still possible to visit Boblo Island. There is a ferry that runs from Amherstberg, ON every day on the hour and the island is still an excellent place to take a day trip to go exploring and hiking. Maybe one day as Detroit continues its resurgence, we will see a revival of the theme park on the island that entertained generations of people for almost a century.

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