Boblo Island, Part 2: "Etiowiteendannenti"

CLICK to return to Part 1.

After crawling back up into the daylight, we made our way into the bulk of the amusement park to begin our hike.


Sadly, if you are expecting upcoming photos to include gratuitous shots of ivy-covered, falling-down roller coasters and decrepit rides in dramatic poses, you will be a little disappointed, as most of the rides were removed from the park long ago.

Here is that quintessential first view of Boblo Island as one exits the covered ferry dock...


Though a little more barren than you probably remember. If I am not mistaken, there used to be a map as well, hanging somewhere nearby.

Here was the bumper-cars pavilion, though it was probably a dance pavilion originally:


The name "Bob-Lo" is just an Anglicized corruption of the French words "bois blanc," which translate to "white wood," a reference to the birch forest that once dominated the island in the 1600s-1700s. The French reportedly had a mission established here in 1742. Incidentally, the native Wyandot people who inhabited this island before that called it "Etiowiteendannenti," which also means "white wood." Or maybe it means "Fuck, here comes a forest of white people." Whichever.

The first known European record of native civilization being on the island was made in 1718.


Boblo Island was later a staging point in the British invasion out of Fort Malden in the War of 1812 that resulted in the capture of Detroit. It did not become an amusement park until 1898. During WWI, the fact that the American-owned amusement park existed on the Canadian-held Boblo Island resulted in a special bill being passed to allow American soldiers to leave the states to visit the park while on liberty without fear of prosecution for desertion.

Boblo Island Amusement closed down in 1993, just a few years shy of reaching centenarian status. A webpage by the Detroit Historical Society tells a more complete picture of the island's history.


One thing that I love about this place is that all the permanent buildings were apparently built out of that beautiful Amherstburg limestone that is common to the region. Many of the oldest remaining buildings in Detroit and environs are hewn of it, and the graceful structures of Boblo Island were designed apparently in homage to that.


Best of all, they were also the structures that have been left alone--albeit under failed plans to redevelop the entire island as a resort community that have since gone by the wayside.


What is this, a church?


Nope, just a lowly public restroom.


Okay, is this a church?




Nope, apparently wrong again.


It was originally a coal-fired powerhouse, but by the redecoration of the interior it seems to have been reused as something else.


It actually reminded me very much of the Elberta Furnace.


Being as the big dance pavilion we saw earlier (seen in the first picture in part 1 of this series) was designed by Albert Kahn for Henry Ford in the same style as all these other structures I am tempted to assume Kahn in fact designed all of them, since they seem to be a matching set. Ford loved the Cottswold style of architecture, and these seem to have a similar flavor.


Note: My colleague Benjamin Gravel says that the pavilion was actually designed by John Scott & Company, not Albert Kahn, but is often misattributed to Kahn. Scott & Co. is best known for designing the Wayne County Building.

Anyway, the dance hall was the second largest in the world for a long time. We were not able to sneak into it as Navi and Donnie had, because there were people working in and near it at the time.


Nearby was yet another pavilion, which Navi refers to as the "Merry-go-round hall," also made of the same stone:


There was a way into it, but I found it to be very dark and uninteresting, so I didn't bother going very far in.


The outside looked cool enough:


Donnie told me that he actually ran into a guy during his last visit claiming to be the developer of the island community, and thought he was about to be busted for snooping around. On the contrary, he was fine with him exploring the former amusement park grounds, so long as he didn't take any pictures of snakes. Why would he make such an odd request, you ask? Because Boblo is allegedly the home of the endangered Fox Snake, and if word got out that an endangered species was living on the island, that might be a serious detriment to Mr. Developer's plans for getting rich. (Donnie's buddy Steve googled-up the guy's name on his phone while they were talking and confirmed he was in fact who he said he was).

Incidentally, my girlfriend managed to snap a few photos of this reclusive snake while we were near the docks.


A bridge for the little Model-T cars that you used to be able to drive on a track all around the island:


Here's part of the track:


The bizarre, incessant slapping sound of long steel cables in the wind meant that we had found the Boblo Sky Tower:


Okay, here is your gratuitous (and inevitably rebloggable) shot of forlorn overgrown theme park stiles...add sepiatone and gaudy watermark to suit your individual taste:


I wanted to climb the mast, using what appeared to be steel rungs built onto the outside of it, but I would be totally visible to the island staffers who were constantly buzzing around on golf carts.


Unfortunately, this is about as much as there is to be seen in the way of old Boblo rides. The Sky Tower was reportedly going to be sold off to an investor like the other rides had been, but the deal fell through.


We decided to make our way to the south end of the island, where we would find the lighthouse and the old British blockhouse. The weather was heavenly.


There was a lot of eerily blank land, where the park had obviously been scraped clean. One of the bigger roller-coasters used to run through this area.


Finally we reached the decapitated tower of the c.1836 Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse:


The lighthouse was built to guide mariners heading upbound into the mouth of the Detroit River from Lake Erie as shipping traffic increased in the 1820s, and warned of the dangerous shoals in the area. It was one of the earliest lights on Lake Erie, built by the British colonial government of "Upper Canada," and was an example of an "Imperial Tower," though the construction contract was awarded to one John Cook of Detroit. An Imperial Tower was a standardized type of lighthouse that was funded by the British Empire's Board of Trade.


In that photo, you can see the long sandy spit of the island's southern extreme as it juts down toward Lake Erie. Two other range lighthouses were built on the north end of the island, but they had already been dismantled by 1908.

The small, log-hewn blockhouse was nearby here as well:


If you are a scholar of Great Lakes history, you may recall a rather tumultuous event that occurred around the same time this light was lit--the "Patriot War," which was part of what the Canadians refer to as the "Rebellions of 1837-38." In essence, it was part of Canada's revolt against British colonial rule. Michigan had just come out of the "Toledo War" with Ohio in 1835, became a state in 1837, had as recently as the War of 1812 been held under British rule, and American military presence in the area was in the process of being stepped up. As a result of the additional cross-border military tensions from the Patriot War, construction of Fort Wayne in southwest Detroit would be underway by 1841, and the state capitol of Michigan would be relocated further from the border with British Canada to Lansing, by 1845.

The Patriot War is a somewhat forgotten chapter in our local history, one that gets even less attention than other "forgotten" wars such as the War of 1812. The U.S. had no direct *official* involvement in hostilities against Britain, but American sympathizers definitely entered the fray to aid the cause of an Ontario free from British rule. The U.S. was actually (on paper, at least) aligned with Britain against the rebels in this war, to uphold treaties enforcing the neutrality between the two powers, though I have heard there were instances where they supported the rebellions. Getting the hated British presence out of the region seemed to be in everyone's interest, especially those of Irish descent.


These "Patriots," as they dubbed themselves, aimed to capture the Ontario peninsula containing Windsor from the British and make it an American holding. The Patriots were based in Michigan, and organized into "secret" detachments known as "Hunter's Lodges"...which is eerily similar sounding to the old fianna of medieval Ireland. According to a Michigan.gov link, they met at Fort Gratiot in Port Huron, Mount Clemens, the Eagle Tavern in Detroit, and Gibraltar.

After the American Revolution the British fell back from Michigan in 1796 to Ontario, and beefed up defenses at Fort Malden in Amherstburg, which included two blockhouses here on Boblo Island. The first lightkeepers of Bois Blanc Island Light were Captain Hackett and his wife, who took up residence in 1836, and farmed nearby to supplement their livelihood. However, on January 8, 1838, a band of 60 "Patriots" aboard the schooner Ann landed here and forced the evacuation of the British regulars who manned the blockhouses on the island, as well as the Hacketts. The Patriots planned to sack Fort Malden but the Ann ran aground during the attack and they were captured. The Hacketts eventually returned to find their house plundered and their livestock butchered, though they continued to man the light until 1870. Subsequent generations of the Hackett family kept the light burning until 1927 when it was automated.


As a result of the Boblo Island invasion by the Patriots, the original two blockhouses on Boblo Island were replaced in 1839 by three new ones, one of which is seen here. There was also a piquet house surrounded by a palisade, and these fortifications were garrisoned by the British at least until 1859. The blockhouse shown above was in ruins when my buddy Navi visited, but was recently restored by a local Ontario teacher.

Other actions that occurred during the Patriot War included an attempt at seizing Fort Gratiot in late 1837, a foiled Patriot plot to capture the U.S. Arsenal at Dearborn, the Battle of Peelee Island, and the Battle of Windsor in 1839. Patriot bivouacs were established on Sugar Island and Fighting Island in the Detroit River. Prior to the invasion of Boblo Island in 1838, the Patriot force raided the Detroit jail where 450 muskets were captured. The arms had allegedly been stored there "to keep them from falling into the hands of the patriots," according to the c.1890 book The Patriot War, by Robert B. Ross. The same book also implies that the current U.S. Marshal at Detroit surreptitiously allowed 200 more muskets to be "captured"--wink, wink--and fall into Patriot hands.

Though some more "excitement" continued to occur afterward, the Battle of Windsor basically signaled the end of the Patriot War. By 1839, over 100 captured Patriots had been sentenced in Montreal and sent to British imperial prison camps in Tasmania. Hostilities were formally closed with the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.


We made our way past the lighthouse and down the sandy spit to the very southern point of the island. This beautiful spot is actually designated by Essex County as the White Sands Conservation Area. Instantly upon stepping onto it, I felt like I was transported to northern Michigan...gone was the muddy, scrubby feel of southern Michigan, replaced by pure sandy dunes and crisp alpine air. It was magical.

Here you can see both the Sky Tower and the lighthouse in the distance behind us:




certainly didn't remember anything like this from any of my visits to Boblo as a child! Wow...


After a long walk, we finally came to land's end and beheld the mouth of Lake Erie...Fermi II nuclear plant in Monroe, Michigan is visible to the right:


The cool winds blowing in off the lake were absolutely heavenly, and we sat here for a long time enjoying the solitude. The Detroit River Light is seen to the left:


On our return trip to the ferry docks, I spied what my girlfriend believed was the track for a small choo-choo train for little kids to ride, though I don't personally remember anything like that:


Closer to the shore, I spotted a large old spool of underwater cabling, that possibly supplied the electrical link to the mainland in modern times, likely putting the old stone powerhouse we saw earlier out of commission:


With that we had arrived back near our ferry, and our island adventure was at an end.

References:
http://brnation.net/lifestyle_2010_12_zavanaisland.html
http://www.freep.com/article/20140706/NEWS05/307060053/boblo-island-memories-boat-development
Great Lakes Lighthouses Encylopedia, by Larry & Patricia Wright, pg. 131-132.
http://www.michigan.gov/dmva/0,4569,7-126-2360_3003_3009-16956--,00.html
The Patriot War, by Robert B. Ross, 1890, pg. 14 & 19-20.

3 comments:

  1. There was another small building in the vicinity of the groundskeepers building and the Dodgem Cars that looked like a smaller version of the Dance Hall. When I worked there, it was the roller rink and was run by an old thin black gentleman named "Smitty", the gentlest of people you would ever want to meet. Seems to me he was Detroiter but lived in Amherstburg during the summer months. As he was old then, I can only assume he has long since passed away. RIP "Smitty".

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  2. Doris A. (Macy) GuffeyMarch 22, 2015 at 10:31 AM

    "Smitty's" dance partner was a little old white curly (permed) haired woman, I don't remember her name.
    As 12 year old summer residents, we skated there for free whenever we went. After skating we would be tired and Mrs.Hamilton who worked the ticket booth at the train ride would tell the conductor, "when you get to the north end be sure to slow down so the girls can jump off safely!"
    There were only 6 private lots that were not owned by the Browning brothers. I was a very lucky child as my parents rented the old "Owl" cottage for 35 plus years!

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  3. There was a train that went around the perimeter of the amusement park. It was a C.P. Huntington train built by Chance Rides out of Witchita, Kansas. Adults and children could ride. Chance built quite a few of these trains for parks, zoos, etc. and many are still operating today.

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