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Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale

A new documentary tells the story of the riverboats that brought generations of park patrons to Boblo Island
Author: Matthew St. Amand
Photographer: Trevor Booth
2 years ago
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For residents of Essex County of a certain age, the sound of a river boat horn bellowing on the Detroit River means only one thing: the Boblo boat. Although it’s been 29 years since the beloved local amusement park closed for good, the memory of summer days there, among the rides and games, runs deep on both sides of the Detroit River.

Filmmaker Aaron Schillinger’s wonderful documentary “Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale” recounts the rich history of the amusement park and the boats that brought patrons from the Detroit area to its shore.

Interestingly enough, Aaron is not one of these nostalgic locals. In fact, he never visited Boblo during its heyday.

“After finishing my film studies at New York University, I started as a fiction filmmaker, making narrative short movies,” Aaron explains. “Then I got into doing videos for non-profit companies. I found that I loved interviewing people and collecting real stories.”

Aaron was commissioned by the SS Columbia restoration project to document the progress made on the hull for the financial backers. By then, Columbia was on its journey to a new life as an excursion boat on New York’s Hudson River.

“So, I went out to the dry dock in Toledo, Ohio, where I saw Columbia,” Aaron says. “It was in such bad shape, I asked: ‘Why not build another boat?’” He laughs. “I’m not a boat person. I didn’t know the history.”

He goes on: “Then someone told me: ‘Columbia used to take people to an island amusement park near Detroit.’ Then I heard about the sister ship, the Ste. Claire—how three thousand people rode on the boat, back in the day… hearing about the memories people had about this boat.”

Aaron learned that Columbia was one of the oldest passenger excursion boats in North America. Someone connected to the restoration project then told him: “You know there’s a lady who talks to the boat, right?”

“No, I didn’t,” Aaron says.

His fascination with Columbia increased when Aaron met psychic Gloria Davis.

“I heard about the time Gloria called Columbia’s caretaker in the middle of the night and said: ‘You have to check on her! Something is wrong!’”

As it turned out, Columbia had a leak.

It wasn’t long before Aaron realized that a full-length documentary should be made about Columbia and the Ste. Claire. For the next seven years, he worked on the film, meticulously gathering archival photographs and film footage of the boats and amusement park, interviewing people whose lives were deeply entwined with both.

“When you enter the Boblo cult, the people involved with saving these boats, you get to know everyone in the group,” Aaron says. “Gloria was always on the phone connecting people. She knew everything that was happening with Columbia.”

As for Columbia’s sister ship, Ste. Claire, she was purchased in 2007 by Dr. Ron Kattoo, a Henry Ford Hospital ICU physician, for $250,000. The film also follows his team’s extensive efforts to restore the boat. As if that undertaking weren’t daunting enough, Aaron notes: “People want the boats restored to different eras. Some want the 1902 configuration. Others want the 1970s version of the boat.”

Whenever a non-fiction work delves back into the past, reality has a way of asserting itself, bringing with it uncomfortable details we often would prefer to forget.

“The film is not just a montage of happy memories,” Aaron says. “Sometimes people expect that, but I wanted to peel back the nostalgia to examine the history of segregation. I also question the healthiness of some of this nostalgia. I love the happy memories, but it’s an uneasy balance. There is a lot of sadness.”

The documentary includes the story of Detroit resident Sarah E. Ray, who was denied passage on the Columbia in 1945 because of her skin colour. She fought back and was represented by NAACP lawyer, and future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. She won her case.

There is also no speaking about Boblo Island Amusement Park without talking about its demise. Among the people who play a major role in the documentary is Kevin, General Manager of the effort behind the restoration of the Ste. Claire. Since 1989, Kevin has collected miniature amusement park rides, and built a loose replica of Boblo Island in his home.

“It’s not the exact layout of Boblo Island,” Kevin says in the documentary. “That’s probably because I have about twice as many rides as Boblo Island.”

He shares a photograph of himself and his mother on the Boblo boat when Kevin estimates he was about six months old.

“And when I turned eighteen, the first thing I did was go down to the boat dock and apply for a job,” Kevin remembers. He still has his uniform from that time, and it seems to almost still fit him.

“I worked at the concession stand across from the bandstand area, or the DJ booth,” he says. “We worked eighteen hour days, every other day.”

You have to love the Boblo boat to do that.

Aaron took his project to the next level by enlisting the talents of legendary Motown singer, Martha Reeves, to narrate his film. The narration is a fantastic work of magical realism.

“Working with Martha Reeves was fun,” he says. When Aaron revealed to her that she would narrate the documentary from the perspective of Columbia, Reeves replied: “‘Nah, I’m not doing that. I’m not going to be an old boat!’ But I worked really hard on the script, and won Martha over,” Aaron recalls. “She had fun with it.”

The result is a rich, nostalgic historical document that is entertaining at every turn. It tells the story of the two river boats that brought tens of thousands of patrons to Boblo Island over the course of the park’s 85 years.

One thing becomes very clear, early on: bringing the past into the present is no easy task. Interviews with citizens on both sides of the border, as well as former employees, demonstrates how beloved Boblo Island was, and what place it still holds in many people’s hearts. A recent Facebook post about the documentary garnered hundreds of “Likes” and more than 2,200 Shares. This is a story that resonates with people in this area.

As for himself, Aaron fell in love with Detroit during the making of the film and now calls the Motor City home. Two of the many things that surprised him during the making of his movie include:

“The fact that even though it’s been thirty years, some people walk around as though Boblo still exists, the park and the boats,” Aaron says. “So much time has passed, but some people are still there, back when Boblo was around.”

He is also surprised by the tenacity and determination of the people trying to save the boats.

“So many times during filming, I heard the expression: ‘A boat is a hole in the water you pour money into,’” he says. “Whenever it seems like the preservationists should just give up, they just keep going. Nothing stops them.”

The first screening of the film takes place in Detroit on September 16. To stay on top of screening dates in Windsor, visit the documentary’s website www.bobloboatsfilm.com.

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