Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale Image

Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale

By Alan Ng | September 15, 2022

For many of us, the memories of our past and the places we’ve been stand lying abandoned, decaying into oblivion. But what if you had the opportunity to bring those fond memories that you and thousands of others held for so many years back to life? Aaron Schillinger’s documentary, Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale, tells the story of a doctor, psychic, and amusement park enthusiast and their seemingly impossible journey to save the past.

For over 85 years, a pair of steamboats, the SS Columbia and the SS Ste Claire, carried the citizens of Detroit to the amusement park known as Boblo Island. Unfortunately, when the park shut down in 1993, the ships were abandoned and left to rust away. The film not only documents the history of these steamships but the efforts to save them from the scrapyard and restore them to their former glory.

Detroit was known as the Paris of America during the boom of Detroit’s auto industry. It quickly became an economic paradise. Long before there was Disneyland, Boblo Island was a summer destination for thousands, and the only way to get there was on the Columbia or Claire. As a publicity stunt, the boats would race one another, carrying cheering tourists and guests along for the ride.

Every subject in Boblo Boats has fond memories of the watery excursion to the island paradise. Many passengers met their spouses on dates and chance meetings while aboard. The steamships also have their place in history. In the 60s, the boats were essential to Supreme Court cases involving civil rights hero Sarah E. Ray, which would ultimately strike down the “Separate, but Equal” clauses of U.S. segregation laws of that time.

“…the SS Columbia and the SS Ste Claire, carried the citizens to of Detroit the amusement park known as Boblo Island.”

Today, the fond memories of a time gone by quickly turn to sadness as Boblo Island is now a shadow of what it once was. With only the “Space Needle” standing, the rest of the park consists of abandoned buildings enveloped by overgrown flora. The Columbia would ultimately be saved and find her home in New York City as a working historical museum along the Hudson River. Unfortunately, the Claire is not so lucky and is on the cusp of being torn apart for scrap.

In a last-ditch effort, Dr. Ron Kattoo purchased the Claire in 2007, and with the help and dedication of enthusiast Kevin Mayer, a great effort was made to bring her back to life. Joining the duo is psychic Gloria Davis, who spoke regularly with the boats. The rest of the documentary follows the trio’s attempts and countless roadblocks to not only find a home for Claire but also the money needed to restore her.

Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale is decidedly a nostalgic story, focusing on the heroic efforts to keep many peoples’ memories of these two grand vessels alive. Schillinger is never at a loss for people willing to talk about the Columbia or Claire. The documentary is full of historical images, family vacation videos, and countless interviews. The director also employs 2D stop-motion animation to illustrate some very human moments on both ships.

Schillinger brings the Columbia to life by casting Motown legend Martha Reeves as the voice of the mighty steamship. The ship’s voice-over reflects on her history and connection with its passengers. The story of the boat’s race to restoration is told as a thriller. The team races against time to find a home for Claire and the money to start the restorations, which feels intense and personal. Moments of Claire’s salvation are quickly dashed by bad news. Then tragedy strikes.

You’re probably like me and never heard of Boblo Island nor of the two ships which brought thousands to its amusement park docks. Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale beautifully brings to life that small haven of Americana that’s been long gone and living only in the memories of those who were there.

For screening information, visit the official website of Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale.

Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale (2022)

Directed: Aaron Schillinger

Written: Aaron Schillinger, Desiree Cooper, Jayil Pak

Starring: Martha Reeves, etc.

Movie score: 8/10

Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale Image

"…beautifully brings to life that small haven of Americana..."

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  1. Pam Parent says:

    Boblo Island is where our school in Essexville, MI went for a field trip, it was an amazing fun filled park and the boat ride was on of a kind for kids who live in the country.

  2. Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Story | Movie Menace – Wao Technology says:

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