Steamship Ste Clair

Docked at Riverside Marina 11,000 Freud on on the Detroit River

In the early Twentieth Century American cities, including Detroit, were dirty, polluted places.  Soft coal was the major source of energy, horses deposited manure on the streets and there were few or no controls upon what factories could emit from their smoke stacks or pour into local streams and rivers.  And there was no air conditioning that might provide relief from the scorching summer heat.  Workers were typically in hot factories, offices or stores for long hours and then returned to equally baking residences.

In many large cities that were located on lakes or other substantial bodies of water, a favorite way to gain a little freedom from the heat of summer was to board a boat for a cruise on cool water where there might be gentle zephyrs.  This boat is a National Historic Landmark because it is one of the best surviving examples of the types of vessels that were constructed to provide relaxation and cool air to urban residents in the era before cars and air conditioning.

Bois Blanc island is a small Canadian isle located just off shore from Amherstburg, Ontario eighteen miles south of Detroit near the point where the Detroit River enters Lake Erie.  It is about five kilometers long and one-half kilometer wide.  It should not be confused with the United States’ Bois Blanc Island which is in Lake Huron just off shore from Cheboygan, Michigan.  A ferry line that that operated on the Detroit River saw an opportunity to expand their business on Ontario's Bois Blanc island.  In the 1890s, they purchased much of Bois Blanc Island and built an amusement park.  They intended to capture revenue both from the fares of passengers and what those passengers spent while at the park that opened in 1898.  They named their park Bob-lo.  The park’s season ran from May to September.

Originally, they used their small boats to transport Detroiters to Bois Blanc island but their business was great, so they commissioned the building of two very large vessels.  They were designed by the most famous of Detroit’s naval architects: Frank Kirby.   The first of these was the Columbia built in 1902.  They were massive five-deck boats and each could carry up to 2,500 passengers.  Originally they were steam powered but later they were converted to oil.  Typically, the run began at the foot of Woodward in Detroit, stopped in Wyandotte for more passengers and then continued to Bob-lo park.  These boats ran frequently so patrons could spend just a little or quite a bit of time on Bois Blanc before returning to Detroit.  Many found it enjoyable to while away the evening dancing to orchestra music on Bois Blanc and then take a late evening boat back to Detroit. Henry Ford, in 1913, commissioned the building of a 50,000 square foot dance hall.  That building still stands.  In its day, it could welcome as many as five thousand dancers and guests.  Over the years, the owners added a great area of amusements for their patrons.  It became the forerunner of Disney’s parks.

The amusement park on Bois Blanc survived for 95 years.  After World War II, very many urban residents had cars so they could travel out of Detroit to cool off during the summers, perhaps at a lake in the North.  By the 1950s, room air conditioners were becoming common and, a little over a decade later, it became de rigor to expect that a new middle class residence would be built with air conditioning.  The appeal of a 36-mile round trip on the Detroit River waned and, on September 30, 1993 the amusement park was closed, never to reopen.  Much of the park was disassembled the next year.

Both the Ste. Claire and its sister ship, the Columbia, were designated National Historic Landmarks.  Preservationists wish to save the ships so neither has been cut down for scrap.  Efforts have been made to raise funds for the restoration of these ships but relatively little renovation has been accomplished.  After finishing its useful life, the Ste. Claire was tied up at the Nicolson dock in Detroit for some time and then later at piers in Ecorse, River Rouge and Toledo.  In 2015, she was towed to the River Rouge at the Dix bridge.   In the summer of 2016, the Detroit News reported that the owners of that River Rouge location have insisted that the ship be moved before winter. On January 9, 2017, two tug boats moved the aging Ste. Claire from its dock in the River Rouge to Riverside Marina in Detroit. This is located northeast of Belle Isle at 11,100 Freud. The website of the group seeking to preserve this ship is listed below.

The Bob-lo boats merit more than a mere footnote in the long struggle to overturn racial segregation in the United States.  Sarah Elizabeth Ray and her husband moved to Detroit from Tennessee during World War II.  She found a clerical job working, I believe, for an agency of the city’s government.  Her bosses, apparently, encouraged her to get some formal secretarial training so she enrolled in a training program.  She, and a dozen, classmates completed the training in June, 1945 and decided to celebrate by taking a trip to Bob-lo park.  At that time, the round trip fare was 85 cents.  She boarded, but quickly, the boat’s staff told her she had to get off since she was an African-American. All of her colleagues were white. She complied but immediately contacted the Detroit office of the very active National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

They immediately litigated the matter.  The state of Michigan passed a law in 1895 calling for equal racial opportunities in public conveyances and then the legislature revised it in 1937 upholding equal opportunities in public transit in the state.   Michigan law unambiguously prohibited racial discrimination by common carriers.  The case went to Recorder’s Court in Detroit.  The defendant argued that, as a private firm, it had the right to serve whatever customers it wished.  However, the judge found for the plaintiff.  The company was judged guilty of violating Michigan civil rights law and a fine of $25 was imposed.

The boat line and park had, for years, excluded blacks.  Indeed they told their employees at the island to scan those who got off the boat to make sure there were no colored persons.  During the World War II years, they realized that summer Mondays were slow days so they started the practices of allowing African-Americans to travel on the boats on selected Mondays only.  Fearing that the Recorder’s court verdict would allow many blacks to visit Bob-lo which might cut down on the white clientele, the firm appealed the verdict but the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the decision of Detroit's Recorders Court.   The firm probably realized that, during the World War II war years, young black and white men often fought with each other on Belle Island and that the bloodiest riot of the decade started on the MacArthur Bridge on June 20, 1943.

The boat line and park company had a strong desire to maintain the Jim Crow policies that divided white Detroit from black Detroit.  The firm sued in the federal courts to overturn the Detroit verdict and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court.  Future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall prepared arguments for the litigation.  The boat line argued that they provided international travel and thereby were not subject to the laws of Michigan nor the laws of the United States.  Marshall pointed out that this was a ruse since the Bob-lo company owned the boats; they sailed almost exclusively in United States waters to an island that was almost in total owned by the firm, albeit an island in Canada.  Once a person arrived on the island, he or she could only depart on a company owned   boat that returned them to the United States.    On February 2, 1948; the Supreme Court, in Bob-Lo Excursion Company v. Michigan, ruled that the laws of Michigan and the Commerce Clause of the federal constitution applied to the future National Historic Landmarks: the Ste. Claire and the Columbia.  This was one of about a dozen decisions that upheld civil rights for African-Americans as the NAACP and other organizations laid the foundation for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Naval architect:  Frank Kirby
Date of launch: May 7,  1910
Building site: Toledo
Use in 2017: National Historic Landmark awaiting restoration
Location in 2017: Riverside Marina on Detroit's east river front
For National Historic Landmark Documentation see:
Website describing history of Bob-lo park:
Website for the organization seeking to preserve this boat:
Supreme Court decision in Bob-lo v. Michigan:
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historical Sites: Not listed
National Registry of Historic Places:  Listed November 2, 1979
National Historic Landmark: Listed July 6, 1992
Photograph:  Ren Farley; March, 2016
Description prepared: January, 2017.

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