Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Bob-Lo Island

Bois Blanc Island, former site of the Bob-Lo Island amusement park, is located at southern end of the Detroit River before it enters Lake Erie, and is about one-half mile wide and three miles long. The native Wyandot called the island "Etiowiteendannenti.” Both the Wyandot and French names refer to the “white wood” appearance lent by the birch and poplar trees that line the banks.

The earliest historical reference, from 1718, describes 70 Native American families peacefully farming the fertile land. By 1742, a French mission “among the Hurons” was established. Bois Blanc has been part of Canada since 1787. After 1796, British interests controlled the island and it was the staging point for the first local action in the War of 1812. A combined force of British and Native American soldiers in canoes surprised and overpowered an American vessel en route to Detroit. Soon after this, the British obtained the surrender of the American fort in Detroit without a shot being fired.

Following the war, British forces garrisoned at Fort Malden in Amherstburg, across the river from Bois Blanc, and strengthened their position by building three blockhouses on the island. One of these survived to become a souvenir stand for the amusement park. The British also built a lighthouse in 1836 which operated until 1959. Parts of that tower still stand. In 1958 the island was the site of joint Canadian-American war games, addressing a “hostile force presence” with amphibious units from around the Great Lakes.

During the mid-19th century, the island was sold in parcels to several private owners who built cottages, stables, and trails. The middle section of the island was developed as a park. Private cottages and government property remained at the north and south ends of the island.

Bob-Lo Park (Sometimes seen as “Boblo”) was established as an entertainment destination in 1898 by the Detroit, Belle Isle and Windsor Ferry Company. In the beginning it was a picnic spot with beaches, athletic fields, bicycle tracks, and a stunning Mangels-Illions carousel. Over the years it grew into a unique island amusement park, with a midway and dozens of rides. The dance pavilion built in 1913 was the largest in North America until 1925. During the 1920s and 1930s, swimming contests were held that went from Belle Isle to Bob-Lo, covering 24 miles. The best time was 8 hours and 42 minutes turned in by 17-year old Dorothy de Caussin and 15-year old Ida Mutnick, both of Detroit. The park was closed for the 1933-1934 seasons due to the Great Depression. Several Detroit organizations held annual picnics on the island. Each year the largest gathering was sponsored by the St. Andrew’s Society of Detroit, which would often draw more than 10,000 visitors to their Scottish Games.

Millions of Americans and Canadians share memories of riding the Swan Boats or the train that circled the park. For more excitement there was the Whip, Wild Mouse, Tilt-a-Whirl, and Dodge’em Cars. For many people the best ride of the day was on the “Bob-Lo Boat” that took visitors to the island. Departing from the foot of Woodward Avenue, where Hart Plaza is now, the Columbia and Ste. Claire offered their own form of entertainment.

After coming aboard, visitors could look down from the main deck into the engine room, where powerful shafts and cams slowly warmed up. With a blast of the big steam whistle, lines were cast off, and the 20-mile voyage began, taking about 80 minutes.

In the years leading up to its closure, many of the rides were sold to satisfy debts. The 1878 Mangels-Illions Carousel’s 44 horses, two goats, and two deer were sold for more than $1 million. Many of the other rides are still entertaining guests at parks in Texas, Maryland, British Columbia, and Mexico. The classic boats stopped running in 1991 and the amusement park was shuttered after the 1993 season. The island is now a residential community.



Bob-Lo Postcard, 1920

Bob-Lo Postcard, 1920

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