New Michigan ‘Ferry Tale’ Rekindles the Magic of Boblo Island

The poster of Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale.

By Isaac Constans

December 13, 2022

Many Michiganders fondly remember their trips to Boblo Island amusement park. So what happened to the ferries themselves? A new film tells us.

DETROIT—Any Michigander of a certain vintage won’t forget their giddiness en route to Boblo Island amusement park, a carefree ferry ride from Detroit’s metropolis to a land that seemed a world away.

Not only do those who went before the park shut down in 1993 still remember it fondly; they’re eager to regale you with recollections of the sights, smells, and sounds too. For evidence: The ‘Gander simply had to pose the question on Facebook, and in no time, a wave of childhood nostalgia washed in.

“I remember thinking how cool it was to be let off the boat and be free to roam the park,” wrote Heidi Huntley.

“The cruise over was smooth, relaxing and the music was current. A memory never forgotten,” wrote Karen Thomas Roback.

Interestingly, for all the adrenaline that a rollercoaster may rile up in a child, the iconic ferry ride to the island seemed to rest as deep in the memories of our readers as the amusement park rides themselves. 

Indeed, “The best part was the boat ride,” wrote Hope Steinke Hughes. “I never had money, so I couldn’t go on rides or buy anything.”

One comment on The ‘Gander’s post.

Almost 30 years after financial woes and the decline of urban amusement parks shut down Boblo Island, the ferries still survive—bearing the title of the oldest remaining passenger steamboats in America. But their journey has been perilous ever since they took their last passengers to the park.

Now, the boats’ journeys and the memories they held are available to watch in unprecedented detail thanks to a newly released film, “Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale.”

The film is being shown now in local theaters across Southeast Michigan, on DVD, and through online streaming. And it’s won critical acclaim, including the Freep Film Festival’s Hometown Talent Award.

Sure to evoke nostalgia for high times of childhood, the movie is delivered by a director who’d never been on the Falling Star or Sky Tower—or even the ferries themselves prior to the movie. In fact, director Aaron Schillinger is a Virginia transplant who stumbled upon the story by accident. 

After hearing a story about a psychic who could supposedly telecommunicate with the steamboats, Schillinger took the plunge into his first full-length documentary—coming to Michigan every summer to film, and eventually moving to metro Detroit during the six-year span in which the project was made.

“I’m a documentary filmmaker, so my ears just perked up,” Schillinger said. 

Boblo Boats is an immersion into tradition and history, told by the ferries themselves. The Ste. Claire and Columbia were vehicles for integration and economic prosperity, and the fortunes of the steamboats largely ebbed and flowed with those of Detroit—where the Boblo ferry terminal sign fades, but survives. 

For Boblo veterans, the movie is sure to offer a cruise of memories, with constant eddies of unique Boblo experiences sure to trigger “oh yeah!” callbacks with friends and family. 

“It was a trip with Blue Birds (elementary age) and my best friend Doris and I were having so much fun we missed the boat back,” wrote Andi Anderson on Facebook. 

A collection of Facebook memories about Boblo Island.

Even if you’ve never been, the story of the present Boblo ferries—and the people who have kept them afloat all this time—is enough to keep you on the hook. Together, the Columbia and the Ste. Claire are the oldest surviving passenger steamboats in the country. But that survival is fragile, the film reminds us.

Boblo Boats follows several characters who are all inseparably tethered to Boblo, and who try to preserve and recreate their memories through the restoration of one of the Boblo ferries, the Ste. Claire.

The psychic, Gloria Davis, is one. At one point, she even lays out tarot cards—predicting that she “does not see scrapping” in the boat’s future. A wealthy doctor who owns the Ste. Claire is another main character. Another is a super-fan who fights tooth and nail to keep the Boblo Island memories alive.

“When I turned 18, the first thing that I did was went down to the boat dock and applied for a job,” Kevin Mayer, a Boblo superfan and one of the key figures in the Ste. Claire’s restoration, said in the movie. “Even now, when you go on that ship, all your problems seem to go away.”

But even with the colorful casting, the Ste. Claire steamboat is the main character of the film, having fallen on tough times in recent years. Her sister, the Columbia, tells the first-person part of the journey (yes, from the boat’s perspective), through the mellifluous voice of Motown legend Martha Reeves. 

Throughout the film, a question of ownership is raised—the boats, each with private owners, are subject to the whims and financial decisions of their owners, even as a coalition of volunteers and historians seek to restore and preserve the boats for the public interest, and their memories.

“People fell in love on the boat,” Schillinger said. “They got married on the boat. They had their first kiss or they got their heart broken on the boat. It’s just hundreds and hundreds of memories for people coming of age.” 

The magic of Boblo is largely forgotten by the theme and amusement parks of today. As most Disney World and Cedar Point venues are supposed to attract a crowd that can pay for VIP access, Boblo was an urban amusement park, comparatively affordable and available to everyone. Many remember the ferries as melting pots where they interacted with people of different stripes for the first time in their life.

A central message of Boblo Boats is that it wasn’t always that way, however. In fact, the ferries were once the site of a Supreme Court decision that contributed to the fall of the separate but equal doctrine.

After being escorted off a Boblo ferry due to her race, Sarah E. Ray brought her case all the way to the US Supreme Court, which upheld a decision to fine the Bob-Lo Excursion Company $25 for violation of the Michigan Civil Rights Act. Some scholars view Ray’s case as a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education. Boblo Boats brings to detail a fresh understanding of Ray’s life using stop-motion animation, and Schillinger is now further exploring her legacy.

Stop-motion animation used to portray Sarah Elizabeth Ray in Boblo Boats.

“It felt like a really loving tribute to this woman whose story had kind of been forgotten,” Schillinger said. “[Stop-motion animation] also gave the film kind of like a magical feeling that I was trying to capture with the voiceover. And so we sprinkled that animation style throughout the film.”

The film’s tone ebbs and flows with the fortunes and misfortunes of the Ste. Claire over the six-year period during which it was filmed. Tying the rebirth of the steamboats with the revival of Detroit, the story is a stark reminder that “comeback” is not always a straightforward path. 

At best, it beckons a question of whether we can ever truly bring back the past and whether reinvention is a lost cause. At the story’s saddest moment, Reeves, the Motown legend, reminds viewers that “this isn’t that kind of fairy tale.”

How to See the Film 

People interested in seeing the movie have several options: they can watch the movie online, order the DVD, or see it in person. Those who would like to purchase the film digitally or order the DVD can do so at this link. Enter the code GANDER10 for a 10% discount. There are several showings of the film scheduled for the holiday season and winter 2023. Showtimes for the film can be found here


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