Bob-Lo blow

Last week, Metro Times’ historical column, “Back in the Day,” told the story of a beloved Detroit icon, the Bob-Lo steamer Columbia. After a decade of inertia, the boat recently wound up in the midst of a power struggle over its ownership and future.

The Steamer Columbia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that held title to the boat since its 1991 decommissioning, defaulted on a $45,000 loan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2002. Learning of this foreclosure and the inaction that allowed this loan to balloon to $61,000 after penalties and interest, a new group dedicated to the Columbia’s preservation, Friends of the Bob-Lo Boat Columbia, coalesced.

The Friends intended to restore the ship so that journeys down the Detroit River could be enjoyed by future generations of Detroiters. They crafted an ambitious plan that initially focused on the stabilization of the Columbia and the repayment of the trust’s loan. They petitioned the trust to allow Detroit a second chance to take on the important responsibility of the stewardship of a hometown legend.

Unfortunately, citing uncertainty over the Friends’ capacity to manage the high costs associated with long-term rehabilitation of a National Landmark, the trust disclosed after press time last week that it had decided to transfer the Columbia’s title to an as-yet-unnamed New York-based maritime preservation group.

Friends of the Columbia have not given up hope; there are plans for a fresh mustering of forces. A new Web site dedicated to this effort,, has just been established. Check there for updates to this ongoing saga.

All of this drama raises interesting questions about the nature of preservation. Is history truly being served when the vessel of memories is towed 600 miles from its home waters? Are decks and boards or bricks and mortar what truly constitute preservation — or is it the tangible impact these objects have had on a people and a place over time? Will the Columbia remain a Bob-Lo boat if it is steaming down the Hudson River?

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