“Boblo Boats” is a documentary narrated by a ship
The Lighthouse International Film Society will screen the documentary “Boblo Boats” at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 27 at the Long Beach Island Arts and Sciences Foundation in Loveladies.
Hundreds of amusement parks across the United States are gone, victims of economic downturns – especially the Great Depression – fires, incidents, larger competitors and development.
For example, this writer fondly remembers visiting Savin Rock in West New Haven, Connecticut as a young child whenever we visited my grandmother in the early 1960s. a mile long halfway, with roller coasters that I could never ride because I wasn’t “that tall”, waterfalls, bumper cars, mechanical boat ponds, amusement rides, arcade games and a nearby beach. The days always ended at the Jimmies of Savin Rock restaurant, renowned for the best fried clams in southern Maine and its famous “split hot dogs”. It’s not for nothing that “The Rock” was known as “Connecticut’s Coney Island”. Alas, it closed in 1966, supplanted by a residential development, which could bring in money all year round instead of being seasonal.
There are nearly two dozen defunct amusement parks in New Jersey. Readers may remember some of them fondly, such as Bertrand Island on Lake Hopatcong (closed in 1983), Hunt’s Pier in Wildwood (1985), Kid’s World in Long Branch (1987), Asbury Park’s Palace Amusements (1988) and the state’s largest until Six Flags Great Adventure, Palisades amusement park in Bergen County (1971). Why did Palisades close? Like Savin Rock, the rides have been replaced by a high-rise apartment complex.
The Boblo Island amusement park, which operated from 1898 to 1993, has been nicknamed “Detroit’s Coney Island”, which shows two things: that Coney Island was indeed the “playground of the world” before the arrival of Disney and had many imitators, and that BIAP was big. Indeed, it was so vast that in its early days it had a small railway to move visitors around. Boblo Island had the second largest dance hall in the world, funded by Henry Ford. There was also, of course, a roller coaster, a falling log flume, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and even a zoo. A popular attraction was its “Scootaboats”, an on-water alternative to bumper cars.
But the park was not located in Detroit; it wasn’t even in the United States. It was located on Bois Blanc Island, Ontario, and for more than 85 years residents of Detroit and its suburbs reached it on two propeller-driven tour steamers, the SS Ste. Clear and the S.S. Columbia, which can hold 2,500 passengers each. Getting there, 18 miles away, was half the fun when they went to the amusement park.
At least it was fun for white people – but not for black people for many years, as you’ll see later.
After the amusement park closed, a number of plans were drawn up for the site – including residential development, of course – but financial mistakes abounded and nothing of substance replaced it. As for the two ships, the Ste. Clear was engulfed in a fire while moored on the Detroit River in 2018. The ship’s historic mahogany woodwork and upper decks were destroyed, but as co-owner Ron Kattop said, “Yes, she has 110 years old, but it is well built and it has survived.” Some still hope to restore it. During this time, the Colombia is moored in Buffalo, NY, where rehabilitation work is already underway.
Laura Herberg, a reporter for Detroit’s public radio station WDET, had this to say about the film: “‘Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale’ is a documentary film told from the perspective of one of the steamboats that took passengers to the Detroit-area theme park, Boblo Island.
“‘I thought it would be magical to have the storytelling from the perspective of the SS Columbia, the Boblo boat itself,” says film director Aaron Schillinger, “because for so many people, it was a magical childhood experience.
“In the movie, the S.S. Columbia the voice is narrated by Motown legend Martha Reeves. But the story itself centers on the restoration of the other iconic Boblo boat, the SS Ste. Clearwhich Colombia refers to his sister, “Claire”.
“While the film centers around a cast of characters rooted for the Ste. Clear – including the doctor who owns it, a volunteer who has a miniature Boblo theme park in his home, and a psychic who one of the boats talks to – the film also sheds light on Boblo’s story.
“For example, it delves into the story of Sarah Elizabeth Ray, the ‘Rosa Parks of Boblo.’ Ray, an African-American woman, was expelled from the boat in 1945 for riding it with white passengers. She fought against her expulsion, went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States and she won.
The boats were no longer isolated. Yet will any of them ever return to the Great Lakes or the Detroit River?
Director Schillinger will participate in a video Q&A after the screening at LBIF.
Tickets can be purchased online at lighthouseff.com for $10 or at the door for $12.