Take me to the river

Jan 15, 2003 at 12:00 am

In Ecorse, where smokestacks rise above your head and the Detroit River runs just past your outstretched fingers, there floats an unusual sight. It appears suddenly, at the foot of a street named after a steel plant, as if a ghost barge has arisen from the murky depths of an industrial canal.

But your eyes don’t deceive you. Sitting there silently, awaiting an uncertain fate and held afloat not by memories but surprisingly sound timber, it’s the steamer Columbia. This once-proud transporter of Detroiters from their daily lives to the fantasy island we fondly recall as Bob-Lo has sat dormant for just over a decade, yet it might steam down the river once again. And if it does, it will be a testament to the power of nostalgia, a resource that’s commonly denigrated as random and useless.

The story begins at the turn of the 20th century in the mind of noted naval architect Frank E. Kirby. He was commissioned to design a mere boat, but the steamer Columbia and its sister ship, the St. Claire (built in 1910) were destined to become stars in the screenplay of Detroit’s history.

The Columbia entered service on July 8, 1902, after being constructed in the Wyandotte yard of the Detroit Ship Building Company at a cost of $745,000. It was built to carry 2,566 passengers on three decks, and measured 216 feet long. Its triple-expansion steam engine could generate up to 1,217 horsepower, propelling the ship at up to 16 mph.

Every summer, Detroiters anxiously awaited the day trip to Bob-Lo, the Downriver island amusement park situated midstream and just north of where the river empties into Lake Erie. For many, the boat ride itself was just as exciting as the roller coasters and carousel.

The 18-mile journey from the foot of Woodward to the Bob-Lo dock lasted about 90 minutes, and there were many diversions along the way: music, dancing, food, drink, souvenirs and, of course, sightseeing. In addition, the sounds emanating from the boat created a distinctive symphony: the throaty stack whistle, the bellowing burst of steam released when passing a vessel, and most exciting of all, the whistle salutes exchanged by the captains of the Columbia and St. Claire when the ships passed each other.

Perhaps the most seductive and memorable sounds aboard the Columbia emanated from the ship’s bands. For many years, drummer Joe Vitale and his orchestra entertained the masses, and evening moonlight cruisers were serenaded with dance music from Frank Gilbo and his “Rhythm on the River.”

It seems that every Detroiter of a certain age has special memories of the boats, but I’ve found none that tops the Stachura family’s tale. For many years, Mrs. Isabel Stachura volunteered for the Polish Women’s Alliance; despite her advanced pregnancy, July 8, 1923, seemed no different from any other day. She spent the day at the dock selling tickets for the group’s annual cruise to Bob-Lo, and decided that her own little jaunt to and from the island wouldn’t hurt anything. She was quoted in the July 6, 1956, Detroit Times as saying, “I felt so good, I even wanted my husband to dance with me — and he can’t dance.”

By the time they made it to Bob-Lo, however, she began to feel the onset of labor, but hoped to make it back to Detroit in time to deliver. Instead, just opposite the Great Lakes Steel Plant, first officer Charles Anderson assisted in the birth of her daughter, who he requested be named after the Columbia in honor of the unusual circumstances. Sure enough, Caroline Columbia Stachura Kaschuk went on to celebrate every birthday aboard the Columbia.

As the rest of Detroit struggled through the Great Depression, so did Bob-Lo. In April 1933, it was announced that the Bob-Lo boats would be docked off Windsor for the season for economic reasons. By 1939, however, they had resumed service. That summer, the Columbia made an all-day sail to Port Huron’s Blue Water Bridge and back each Sunday.

Many habitués of the Columbia probably remember Captain Lynwood “Red” Beattie who took the helm in 1946, and steered up and down the river until his retirement in 1986. He might have wondered just how long he would keep his job after the liquidation of the Bob-Lo Excursion Company was announced in 1948, following the close of a season that celebrated Bob-Lo’s 50th anniversary as an amusement destination.

For the island’s golden jubilee, Friday, June 18, 1948, had been designated “Bob-Lo Day.” Mayor Eugene Van Antwerp and both Canadian and American celebrities traveled from City Hall to the foot of Woodward by horse-drawn carriage. There, Mayor Van Antwerp handed his ticket to Charles E. Park, superintendent of the island. This small exchange was staged as a re-enactment of an 1898 visit to Bob-Lo that Van Antwerp had made with the Detroit newsboys, at which time he had also handed his ticket to Parks. Fifty years later, it seems they had both moved up the ranks a bit. To spice up the celebration, the Detroit Historical Society and friends dressed in elegant “Gay ’90s” apparel for the ride to the island.

Not six months later, the stockholders of the Bob-Lo Excursion Company, citing increased operating costs and labor demands, voted to liquidate. The Bob-Lo boats were to be sold (asking price: $550,000) or otherwise disposed of. During this uncertain period, Windsor Mayor Arthur J. Reaume pushed for the Canadian government to name Bob-Lo Island a Canadian national park, as the island had always remained Canadian property. When the T. H. Browning Steamship Company bought the Excursion Company in 1949, Detroit breathed a sigh of relief. In fact, the mayor and City Council drew up a resolution thanking Browning on behalf of the city.

At the time, the Columbia and St. Claire carried approximately 300,000 passengers a season. That number continued to increase, with 600,000 passengers boarding the two ships in the 1961 season. Visits peaked in 1963, and then began the long slow decline. The Columbia was named to the National Register of Historic Places on Nov. 2, 1979, was decommissioned on Sept. 2, 1991, and was named a National Landmark on July 6, 1992, a year before the island closed.

The ship is considered particularly significant because it, along with the St. Claire, is one of the last pair of classic excursion steamers in the country. The vessels are also the only two essentially unaltered ships designed by Kirby that survive. The Columbia has the added significance of its unaltered propulsion machinery, and of being the oldest passenger steamer in the United States, excepting those properly classified as ferries.

The St. Claire now resides in Toledo, having been purchased by an ex-Detroiter with deep pockets from the Steamer Columbia Foundation — the organization that still holds title to the Columbia. The St. Claire has been partially restored and its future looks bright. As for the Columbia, a stubborn and enthusiastic group of Detroiters has recently formed a new nonprofit organization, the Friends of the Bob-Lo Boat Columbia, with the intention of restoring the ship.

In an effort to get the deed to the boat, the Friends of the Bob-Lo Boat Columbia petitioned the National Trust for Historic Preservation last month. However, the trust is considering foreclosing on a loan to the Steamer Columbia Foundation and transfering the deed to an interested New York group .

Although the “good old days” have left Bob-Lo Island — its recent incarnation is as a development site for luxury homes — the Detroit River endures as the city’s greatest natural resource. It would be quite a testament to Detroit’s tenacity if the Columbia, after a decade of abandonment, again allowed our residents much-needed access to its wonders. There are few visual imprints in my mind as strong as that of the sight of three decks of happy day-trippers aboard a passing Bob-Lo boat, and it seems rather tragic that it now floats eerily isolated and alone. Let’s hope the story doesn’t end here.

Visit www.steamercolumbia.org for frequent updates, to donate time or money to the cause, or to share your memories of the Columbia on the Friends of the Bob-Lo Boat Columbia’s Web site.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh’s monthly Back in the Day investigates Detroit’s living history for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]