Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale
Boblo Island, one of America’s earliest amusement parks, sparked the imaginations of Detroiters and Ontarians for more than 85 years. Passengers by the thousands reached the island by way of two sister steamships, SS Columbia and Ste Claire. In 1993 Boblo Island tragically shut down, and the boats were left to ruin. Mirroring Detroit’s decline and resurgence, two teams of people doggedly attempt the restoration of these iconic vessels as the city stands in the midst of a grass roots renaissance.
SS Columbia is presently owned by a New York-based nonprofit endowed with grants and employing experienced nautical preservationists. They are resurrecting Columbia into a traveling museum and event space in Buffalo, leaving Ste. Claire as Detroit’s last vestige of Boblo Island. Claire’s fate rests in the hands of an unlikely band of heroes: a doctor, a psychic, and an amusement park enthusiast.
The documentary walks an aesthetic and narrative tightrope, accommodating rosy memories of Boblo Island without neglecting the whitewashed history of segregation in America’s early amusement parks. The film pays homage to the forgotten civil rights hero Sarah E. Ray who forced the integration of Boblo Island in 1945. Although her story has previously been omitted from Detroit history, it was part of the NAACP’s road to the seminal Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ended the separate but equal doctrine in 1954. Due to the filmmakers’ efforts, her former home was recently chosen by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as
one of the ’11 Most Endangered’ Historic sites in America. The film also unearths the buried tale of Sugar Island, a former amusement park directly neighboring Boblo Island. It was purchased in 1945 by African Americans to be a “park for their own race” in retaliation against Boblo’s segregationist policies.