The Story of the Boblo Boats

Only two classic excursion steam ships from the turn of the 20th century remain in existence in the United States. They are the SS Ste Claire and SS Columbia, the sister ships designed by naval architects Frank E. Kirby and Louis O. Keil, also known as the Boblo boats. Construction of the Columbia was completed in Wyandotte, Michigan in 1902, making her the big sister, while little sister, the Ste Claire, was completed in Toledo, Ohio in 1910. The Columbia was considered a naval architectural breakthrough in terms of design. It featured a 1,200-horsepower triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine and it was the first steamboat in United States history that had an open-air ballroom due to an innovative girder system. The Ste Claire and a host of steamships built thereafter adopted similar designs.

When the two steamboats were in commission, they sailed down the Detroit River to Bois Blanc Island, better known as the amusement park island of Boblo. The 90-minute, 18-mile ride was complimented with music, dancing, arcade games and concessions. The boats served for 74 years together, with the Columbia holding the US maritime record of 89 years of service on a single run. In 1983, AAA Michigan bought both steamships and Boblo Island, running them until 1988 when they were sold to IBC International Broadcasting Co.

As competition from nearby Cedar Point increased, tourism to Boblo Island drastically declined. In 1991 the Columbia and Ste Claire ceased making their run. On September 30th 1993, the amusement park on Boblo Island closed and the boats were docked long term in Ecorse, Michigan. In the early 2000’s, the Columbia was rediscovered by art dealer Richard Anderson, who formed the SS Columbia Project, a non-profit dedicated to restoring the steamship and returning her to service, but now on the Hudson River in New York. In September 2014, the Columbia bid farewell to her sister ship and was towed to a shipyard in Toledo, the first leg of its journey to New York. The Ste Claire remains, her existence threatened due to losing her home in Ecorse. Now a small band of dreamers are all that stands between the scrapyard and a new life for Detroit’s last iconic steamship.