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Stateside Podcast: A Detroit ferry tale

Bolbo boats rotting
Marsh Historical Collection
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Longtime Detroiters might remember the magic of Boblo Island Amusement Park. Before its gates closed in 1993, the park was home to a sprawling dance hall, a towering Ferris wheel, and a handful of roller coasters.

To get to the island, you had to take one of the Boblo boats — mighty steamships with four decks of passengers. The park and the boats are relics of a time when Detroit was one of the industrial capitals of the country.

Now, Bois Blanc Island — commonly known (and pronounced) as Boblo Island — has a community of private homes and condominiums. A private ferry takes homeowners back and forth to the island.

But there are people determined to preserve the history of Boblo. A new film directed by Aaron Schillinger called Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale documents the history of the island and a current effort to restore the Boblo boats.

“Many people feel like the boats represent a better time in our nation's history when Detroit was a proud city — the ‘Paris of the Midwest’ that employed, you know, millions of people,” said Schillinger. “And then you can kind of see the story of Boblo Island paralleling the story of Detroit. … People left the city, and then Boblo Island shut down.”

Sarah Elizabeth Ray
Detroit News Photographer
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Sarah Elizabeth Ray

The film also details the story of Sarah Elizabeth Ray, a young Detroit woman who was kicked off of one of the Boblo boats in 1945 because she was Black. She reported what happened to the NAACP and her case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she was victorious. For a while, Ray's story seemed lost to time, and many of the Detroiters who rode the Boblo boats growing up had no idea of its historical significance.

“I went [to Boblo Island] so much,” said City of Detroit historian Jamon Jordan. “I can't believe that I didn't know … that this woman paved the way for me to get on that boat. Knowing that, creates a whole other level of the historical importance of those boats.”

Despite challenges to restore the boats — including a devastating fire in 2018 — both Jamon Jordan and Aaron Schillinger think that the boats stand a fighting chance.

“I know that at some point, maybe even in 2023, people who went to Boblo will be able to come on board the boat,” said Schillinger. “People who never knew this history about this wonderful amusement park will be able to learn about it on the Boblo Boat Ste. Clair in the Detroit River.”

Find a screening of Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale here.

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Music in this episode is by Blue Dot Sessions.

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Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Radio from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Radio in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the Summer of 2020.