Boblo Island

Southwestern Ontario (Map)

Winter 2010.


"What's the worse that can happen? What else are we doing today? If we try to get on the ferry and they turn us around, it's no great loss, right?"

It was with that logic that Donnie & I drove south to Amherstburg, with our intentions to try to head over to Boblo Island. Going into it, we remembered a friend who had tried previously, who had been turned around as you're supposed to know one of the island's citizens from the new gated community.

Of course we didn't know anyone on the island, but we were going to try our luck anyway. Pulling up to the wharf, the ferry operator approached our car & we asked if the boat was going over to Boblo today. The operator peered at the two of us with great skepticism, as surely they know every single person who lives on the island (and subsequently uses the ferry).

"Why do you guys think you're going over there?" the ferry operator inquired. "Well you see, my friend is home from Newfoundland for the holidays and we wanted to go visit our other buddy. He lives over on the island," Donnie responded. "Oh, okay. Fair enough," the operator replied, "well, what's his I can give him a call to make sure he's knows you're coming?"

It was at this point that I thought the jig was up.

This is where Donnie really impressed me with his quick thinking, randomly trying one of our friend's names, one of our friends with a pretty common name: "Steven Smith".

"Stephen Smith?"

"Yeah, yep. Stephen."

"Oh, okay. I didn't think Stephen was there today. Let me call hi..."

"Do you have to call him? I mean, he's down from Newfoundland, we really want to surprise Stephen."

...and with that, the ferry operator begrudgingly skipped the phone call, we pulled onto the boat & the boat started moving.

Parked on the boat as we motored across the Detroit River, I so very wanted to snap a million pictures, but with the operator behind us, I wasn't about to retrieve further questions when we were so close to Boblo.

We were quickly onto the island as the crossing takes 5 minutes flat. Neither of us could believe our luck. I wouldn't think I could guess the name of a person in a 10 000 person town (without sounding like a phony bologna - er, "John", er, "Smith"?), yet D randomly happened upon the name of one of the 200 Boblo Islanders.

As for the history, for the few people who read this website who aren't from the area, Boblo Island is a 272 acre piece of land in the Detroit River. In the late 1800s, plans emerged to turn the island from a picnic & horse riding site, into an amusement park. The park opened in 1898 and was quite popular with some years taking in more than 1 million patrons. The park was serviced by two boats of 2500 person capacity, both with 2nd deck dance floors and 3rd deck beer gardens - which gives you some scope to the size of the park. These boats sailed from Detroit, carrying people from downtown, under the Ambassador Bridge & down the Detroit River to Boblo.

Many people from my age group went to this park in their youth. As I walked around with Donnie, I couldn't remember for sure, but I mentioned that I thought I had been to Boblo at least once - but when I returned home, my mom corrected me & apparently I went annually until the park's closing in 1993.

Anyway, nowadays my interest is piqued more so by historical buildings than cheesy carousels.

I was the most excited to see the Albert Kahn0-designed dance pavillion1. Created at Henry Ford's request, this palace had the largest dance floor in North America at the time of its construction, with space for 5000 dancers on the floor and spectators on the balcony. This capacity was only eventually topped by a pavilion built at Fort Erie's Crystal Beach Amusement Park.

0 - Kahn is one of my favourites simply because of how much he designed in Detroit & Windsor.
He may not be the flashiest, but it's incredible how much he is responsible for, in our border cities.

1 - I'm not 100% sure he designed it, because I can't find any record of him designing it in my Albert Kahn book.
Numerous internet sources said he designed the building, but I remain skeptical.

The large building is split in half nowadays, with a fake storefront on one end...

...and a Malden Township fire truck on the other!

There were various interesting oddities like old photos & a model of the island - but this fire fighting relic was something else!

I climbed the caboose & generally got in Donnie's way, while noticing that the back cab was lined with thin pieces of wood, similar to the wood you would make a lobster trap out of. With a wooden truck cab, I was very curious as to the advanced age of this beauty.

This was only the first building & I was already very impressed. The only other large spaces like this that I've explored have been dark arenas & theatres: this dance pavilion was unique in its size complimented with the giant windows.

If you really designed this A-Kahn, then thumbs up to you. I hope they continue to keep it maintained.

Leaving the dance pavilion & avoiding the snow sliding off the roof, I explored my first ever abandoned mini-golf course. After getting the "you're a weirdo" look from Don for being so excited by my first abandoned mini-golf course, we made our way over to the ferry docks.

I was confused that it said "Gibraltar" on the one side, but they must have landed over there in the park's final years. Along with the original sailings from downtown, they also added a Wyandotte sailing in the 1970s or 1980s - so it is possible that is what "Gibraltar" means.

(Gibraltar is a 4000 person town located about 16 km (10mi) south of Detroit.)

We made our way over to what looked like a stone church, confused as to why a place of worship was out here...

...but it was just the washrooms.

Quite the building to house the lavatories! I still wondered if it was originally a church, but couldn't find anything about an old church on the island. There is another washroom we missed though, and the other washroom is made out of similar stone, so it is likely that this building has always been a washroom.

The coal-fired powerhouse was cut from the same stone (har har) as well.

It was nice to see that the powerhouse was maintained a little better than the washrooms.

I have no idea why there is track lighting inside though.

In this same little cluster of buildings, there was also a bumper car area, a leftover zoo building & a restaurant.

Unfortunately, there weren't any bumper cars left behind & the restaurant was ruined inside. With the exposed wood beams and interesting shape, it would be nice to see the restaurant getting some love as well, although I guess I should be happy that some moron hasn't come along & burnt it down yet.

The two of us made our way over to the Merry-go-round hall & it was looking like we might finally get stopped from going inside one of the buildings. We continued to creep around the outside...until...


Gunfire?!? I looked over at Donnie & he told me to calm down, that it was just dudes out duck hunting on the Detroit River.

Anyway, the building eventually kept us out & I remain confused as to the purpose of a Merry-go-round hall. The building later became a theatre, indoor skating rink & even had one of the small amusement park rides moved inside in the later years.

The island is very linear and we continued towards the southern point. As we neared the end, the two of us spotted this structure & wondered: it looked old in it's construction & it had to be important (or else why wouldn't they have just burnt this pile of wood long ago?).

It ends up that this is the remains of 1 of the 3 Bois Blanc Island Blockhouses (the island used to called Bois Blanc). After the British evacuated Fort Detroit in 1796, they established a new fort across the river at Amherstburg. After an attack on Amherstburg by William Mackenzie supporters in 1837, a new military house & three blockhouses were constructed on Boblo Island.

The blockhouse seems to be an Ontario Historical Place with its own plaque, but I don't know if that means anyone is responsible for maintenance. A picture from 2005 shows that it was in a lot better shape then, just 5 years ago.

Besides the Albert Kahn Dance Pavilion, I was also just a little excited about the 1836 lighthouse on the island.

Built by the Government of Upper Canada, the lighthouse was only the 3rd one constructed on Lake Erie, since the Welland Canal only brought an increase in shipping to this corridor in 1829.

The location was chosen because it marks an important passageway through the Detroit River, where ships need to follow the thin area between Boblo Island & Amherstburg, avoiding the numerous shoals in the area.

This Imperial Tower is 18 feet in diameter at the bottom & 40 feet tall. Of course it used to have a lantern, but there was a fire in 1954 which destroyed the lantern room. It also used to have a doorway & a fanlight window, but after Parks Canada restored those features, they were destroyed by vandals & Parks Canada had enough, permanently bricking up the entranceway.

(Parks Canada came into ownership of the lighthouse after the Coast Guard transferred it as a National Historic Site in 1961, on the basis of it being a site where American Patriots attacked Upper Canada and forced the lightkeeper to leave the island in 1837.)

It was pretty incredible to be winding down our day at the lighthouse. It was still overcast, but the horizon showed hues of pink & yellow behind the stone beacon.

Although we still had one item left on the docket - the Sky Tower!

(Donnie's Picture)

Of course there used to be a lot more to Boblo, including a handful of rollercoasters, but they were auctioned off & moved to other parks in Maryland, B.C., Texas & Mexico.

The only reason the Sky Tower is still here, is because it was auctioned off & there was a successful bidder found, but the sale fell through when the bidder decided to buy a new observation tower instead of relocating the Boblo Island Sky Tower.

I know I would love to go up to the top of this nowadays, but I wonder if my terrified childhood self was up for it? The view from 3 stories up was nice enough, and I envy those that remember peering from the top.

The two of us finished up by driving around the private homes, eager to see how impressive they really were.

Maybe it is because we compare everything to the truly ridiculous homes in Russell Woods & Grosse Pointe, but we were really not all that impressed. For all you hear about private Boblo, it seemed like they would have bigger abodes.

I'd be the hermit living in the modest home, which looks like it has been around a bit longer than the McMansions.

I was a bit concerned with the ferry operator asking about our visit to the island, but thankfully there was a new ferry operator who paid no attention to us upon return.

As for the future, the reason there are private homes on the island now is because of a developer. This developer had a grand vision for the island with golf courses & mansions everywhere...but he did mention that the two "old churches" and the dance pavilion would be saved.

Unfortunately for him, the recession has slowed his development & things don't seem to be moving at such a breakneck pace anymore.

Fantastic old pictures of Boblo can be found in the facebook group.



1 - Detroit News - Bob-Lo, island of the white wood

2 - Boblo Island Parts I & II - International Metropolis

3 - Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse National Historic Site of Canada - Parks Canada

4- Boblo Island - Coaster Buzz

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