Sugar Island, "The Black Boblo"

After I scored such a cheap deal on my little boat, I immediately began scanning Google Maps for potential missions I could employ it in. The Detroit River is absolutely speckled with a multitude of islands large and small, and all are within an easy drive of my house. Two that stood out were Sugar Island (MAP), and Stony Island (MAP). As you can see there look to be some interesting nautical ruins around Stony Island…maybe not as epic as the Arthur Kill boat graveyard, but worth investigating. Surprisingly, I could not find pictures of it anywhere online.


Sugar Island sits between Grosse Ile and Boblo Island, is only 30 acres in size, and was originally acquired from the Potawatomi people in 1776 by Alexander Macomb. Sugar Island apparently became popular as a "recreation" spot, probably because it is just about the only island in the Detroit River that actually has a sand beach (minuscule as it may be), a distinction which continues to make it a party spot for boaters to this day. According to a Free Press article however, "Soon, Downriver party hot spot Sugar Island will be off-limits to boaters"...
Boaters used to docking their boats and spreading their towels on the white, sandy beaches of Sugar Island, a 30-acre parcel in the lower Detroit River, will see a surprise there this summer: "No trespassing" signs.
The Detroit International Wildlife Refuge has bought the privately owned island just off Grosse Ile and plans to close it to the public, except for research and hunting, to put a stop to wild parties and traditional boat-burnings.
Figures. I was still down to try, though I was a little angry I had apparently missed out on boat burnings. Finally I managed to both wrangle the time to get the boat out, good weather, and two available comrades to form my crew. We put in at Elizabeth Park in the Trenton Channel, next to the bridge to Grosse Ile. My course led us downriver to the southern tip of Grosse Ile, by way of the small connecting channels within the island itself.

Here we are at the intersection:


It’s hard to tell, but Swan Island is at right, and Grosse Ile is at left. As you can see by the map, the astute boater can sneak through these narrow channels to avoid the potential for rougher waters and heavy wake in the main channels of the river, thus making for a more relaxed voyage (and allowing views into the backyards of the rich people who live on the islands).

Right around the same time I bought the boat, I read a very interesting article about Sugar Island by Patrick Livingston in the May 2012 Chronicle, the internal publication of the Michigan Historical Society. It has been uninhabited since the 1950s, when some black businessmen were going to set up the island as a "colored" amusement park in response to the racially segregated Boblo Island. Boblo only really allowed blacks on certain days of the month, called "colored" days.

Here is the bridge going from Grosse Ile to Swan Island:


We turned left, to follow the channel in toward the Grosse Ile Airport. According to Livingston's article,
John Clark, a fisheries and shipping operator, bought [Sugar Island] in 1851* and began running steamers to it for the public. His heirs built a dock, dance hall, and refreshment stand to expand the enterprise before selling it to the White Star Line in the early 1900s. White Star added ball diamonds, a nursery, and a roller coaster and included the park on the route of their famous steamers Greyhound and Tashmoo.
In the mid 1920s, unable to compete with nearby Bob-Lo Island, White Star sold the island to concentrate their amusement operations at Tashmoo Park on Harsen’s Island in the St. Clair River. When the new owner’s plans to develop residences on Sugar Island stalled, the dance hall remained in use for occasional moonlight excursions. But that ended dramatically one June evening in 1936 when the Tashmoo struck a submerged rock and sank at Amherstburg, Ontario. The island lay idle until late 1944, when African-American businessmen in Detroit formed the Sugar Island Amusement Corporation and purchased the island a few months later for $36,000. Billboard Magazine reported “the development of an exclusively colored park in this part of the country will provide an essential recreational outlet for Detroit’s 300,000 colored population and at the same time reduce racial friction.”
*Though this quote says the date of purchase was 1851, the c.1855 map of Wayne County shows it still under the ownership of “S. Macomb.”


In June of 1945, a girl was shoved off of the Boblo Island ferry Columbia just prior to departure, because she was not white. The girl, Sarah Elizabeth Ray, was a "Rosie the Riveter" during the war, but she was excluded from the ferry because Bob-Lo Excursion Co. had a policy against "Zoot-suiters" and "coloreds." The ferry company claimed in the ensuing court case that it could exclude blacks because it was a private company operating in another country (Boblo Island is Canadian). Leading business owners from Detroit's African-American enclave, Paradise Valley, got together to open a “colored” amusement park on Sugar Island soon after the pushing incident on the Columbia.

Once up against the reedy banks of the airport, the channel would let us either go south toward our destination, or north for several hundred yards until it bogged down into marshy Frenchman Creek. We opted not to waste time, and go directly south. Looking back:


The attempt to turn Sugar Island into an amusement park for black people predictably had a rocky history. Continuing from Livingston's Chronicle article:
They announced plans to charter a boat for the upcoming season to depart from the foot of Joseph Campau. In addition to the existing dance hall, restaurant, and other structures, the corporation unveiled plans to erect a bingo parlor, concessions, and rides including a new roller coaster after the war ended. One-week stands were being booked for top flight bands including Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
But the reality of rebuilding a park that had been vacated for more than a decade overwhelmed the company’s ambitions. Hopes to attain passenger ships, for instance, proved overly optimistic at a time when wartime demands placed vessels, fuel, and crews at a premium price. It wasn’t until June 1946 that Zimmie Moore Hairston, president of the Sugar Island Amusement Corporation, announced the acquisition of the steamer Seabreeze.
In early August a ship christening was held in West Grand River Park, and plans were for a late summer opening--until Grosse Ile Township filed a lawsuit against Sugar Island Amusement. Grosse Ile's complaint was that Sugar Island had been zoned for residential purposes only. The township secured an injunction against the planned amusement park.
Elvin H. Wonzo, counsel for the Sugar Island group, responded that the township didn’t have a good case. He argued that not only had the company never been made aware of such zoning restrictions, but they felt that the “suit was merely for the purpose of weakening the efforts of the company to establish an outstanding recreational center for all people.”
That November, Sugar Island Amusement filed a motion to dismiss the township's injunction, on the grounds that the Michigan Legislature had revoked the authority of all townships to pass such zoning ordinances during 1930 to 1936. According to Livingston, since the township adopted Sugar Island’s designation for residential development in 1929 and amended it in 1936, the zoning ordinances were illegal and should have no bearing on Sugar Island Amusement’s development plans.
While battling in court, the Sugar Island Amusement Corporation would lose a major component to its park plans less than a month later. As the Grosse Ile Camera reported, the ferry Seabreeze sank at its mooring off Sugar Island on December 5. Settled in 18 feet of water, the ship was held upright by lines attached to the dock, with its pilot house and smokestack visible above the water. Only one of the steamer’s lifeboats was salvaged.
With no other media reporting the sinking or status of the vessel, a headline in the March 1947 edition of Billboard made a surprising announcement: “Sugar Island Spot Will Open May 30 in Detroit.” The article quoted Hairston, who acknowledged that difficulties of getting a practically new park in shape, plus transportation problems, caused a delay. The article further stated that the company “purchased its own ship and plans to run an excursion steamer from Detroit.” While noting pending deals to lease rides and concessions and to modernize the dance hall and include a bar, the article mentioned nothing about the Seabreeze or its sinking the previous winter.
Despite this initial success, Sugar Island Amusement's fortunes changed again. Livingston cites a June edition of Billboard that said plans were indefinitely on hold due to "a long series of legal and other difficulties." At the time of publication, the island was operating merely as a picnic grounds. 

It is worth noting that this was going on in 1947, even when the legendary Idlewild was in its heyday as a place of black recreation. I suppose however that the long drive up north to Idlewild may have made it inaccessible to all but the wealthier blacks, and that a market for a haven closer to home would have certainly existed. For what it's worth I've been to Idlewild more than once, but I don't have any photos put together.
While the article did not mention the Seabreeze specifically, it did mention that the company was struggling with access to the island. The group attempted to provide transportation by its own boats, but found itself back in the courtroom when the company tried to secure parking for its patrons’ cars. As the article summed it up: “Situation is complicated by its proximity to Grosse Ile and privately owned Hickory Island where owners of swank summer homes have resented the park’s nearby location.”
On July 10, 1947, two weeks after the company dropped plans for the enterprise, the Circuit Court threw out Sugar Island Amusement Corporation’s suit against Grosse Ile Township, upholding the township’s “right to deny other than residential development.”
So basically, this Sugar Island colored amusement park idea was kiboshed by rich Grosse Ile whites who didn't want "the blacks" around their island paradise, and who plausibly had the Seabreeze sabotaged during the ensuing court case. They also could have been angry about the fact that Sugar Island most likely had served as their boating getaway spot, and the appearance of a black amusement park there would have spoiled their having its sandy beach all to themselves?


When we reached the last fork in the canal, I realized that the wider channel to the left had long ago filled in with marsh, forcing us to navigate around the western edge of Round Island (which is the heavily wooded mass to the right).

We were now in the backyard of the Ford Yacht Club as well…uninhabited Round Island is now to the left:


About halfway down, I noticed this old abandoned truck up in the bushes on the island:


We paused here to land and investigate the truck. I don’t know of any history to Round Island, and it looks never to have been inhabited as far as I know.


It was a Ford F100. I like the snow chains:


As a matter of fact there are no bridges connecting Round Island to Grosse Ile, so how or why this truck got here is a bit of a curious mystery.


While the Sugar Island court case was going on, the court case over the Sarah Elizabeth Ray pushing incident on the Columbia was still continuing as well. Surprisingly, both the Detroit recorder's court and Michigan State Supreme Court ruled against Bob-Lo's appeal to the civil suit, and Ray's case went up to the US Supreme Court. This is impressive, considering that the smoke from the catastrophic 1943 Riot--which essentially precipitated due to tensions over workplace integration in Detroit--could still be smelled in the air. In 1948 the US Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the lower courts in Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. Michigan, and Bob-Lo was forced to integrate.

Once Boblo Island's park was open to African-Americans, the need for a “colored” park diminished, and I presume that also helped seal the fate of Sugar Island. Worse yet, while these court cases were going on Sugar Island Amusement Co. was hit with yet another court case over the ferries Seabreeze and Edgewater, which they still owed $8,000 on, and were forced to let the island itself go at public auction in April, 1948. It was scooped up by the Dunbar and Sullivan Dredging Company, who purchased the island as an “act of goodwill” to the downriver community. Livingston explains,
Dunbar and Sullivan, long known for their river dredging work, announced plans to significantly expand Sugar Island using rocks and other spoils from their operations. They proposed to develop a “high class summer residence with accommodations for yachts” but gave up the plan when permission to quadruple the size of the island was denied by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The few buildings that existed at Sugar Island Amusement Park were burned one by one, culminating in the torching of the dance pavilion in 1954. There are allegedly still some traces left of it to see today; other than that, Sugar Island has mainly just been a place where boaters come to party. Nonetheless I was fairly psyched to check out this historical spot.
Sugar Island remained quiet until 1985, when William Herschler of Oak Park purchased the island from Dunbar and Sullivan for his home. He planned to build a 3,600 square foot house on the south end powered by solar and wind. But the residence never materialized, and the island has been used by boaters for picnicking and camping ever since. In 2011, Sugar Island was sold to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.
Today the Seabreeze still lies off the island’s south dock in 18 feet of water, with its boiler and engines intact. The remains of the pilothouse were shorn off by the swift current many years ago.


As soon as we rounded the lee of Hickory Island, we could immediately see the impressive cliffs of Sugar Island (such as they are) come into view.

I had not expected there to be any "cliffs" anywhere along the silty Detroit River, though I have read that the Army once considered the south end of Grosse Ile as a potential location for constructing Fort Wayne during the Patriot War, because the banks there were said to have rose “to 20 feet in height” in those days. Not only that, but the old fieldstone Church of the Sacred Heart near there also stands on the spot where according to tradition, Cadillac and his men camped while debating the best location of Fort Pontchartrain, before finally deciding on present-day Detroit. Or, thus spake Clarence Burton in his History of Wayne County, at least.

The uninhabited marshes of Celeron Island were also in view off our starboard beam, marking just about the beginning of Lake Erie. We were now on final approach to Sugar Island:


I had to open up the throttle most of the way to counter the Detroit River's sharp current here as it spewed out into the yawning mouth of Lake Erie. Soon we got a good look at the ruined concrete piers of the old Sugar Island docks:


They mark the outermost extent of the large commodious dock that would have served ferry passengers, as well as the final resting place of that same ferry, the Seabreeze. I was surprised to see in the distance that it appeared there were several boats at anchor off the beach of Sugar Island, and there were many people there barbecuing and playing volleyball…? Perhaps Sugar Island was not as off-limits as the recent reports made it sound?

I made the snap decision to first do a full circle of the island before choosing a place to land. I had not planned on there being people here; I had planned on having to make a stealth landing to avoid the eyes of authorities, but nonetheless I wanted a good 360-degree idea of what was going on here before making a move. We got a nice closer-up view of the "cliffs":


What is that, sand? The banks here looked to be about ten feet tall. Sloop made a few more casts.


I could see we were coming up to the major pinch-point, and soon I had to open the throttle full-blast in order to fight the current through the “Eye of the Needle” so to speak.

As we slowly made headway up the backside of the island, we noticed that the banks were still quite steep, and that despite warning signs posted that this island was now a wildlife refuge and thus off-limits, some people had even erected little ladders hidden back in little coves where one could make a stealth landing and climb up onto the island. Knowing that there were already people on the beach, I decided we should join them there.


We landed and jumped right up in the woods to start combing the island for any ruins, or anything of interest.


It was quite the jungle in here, and the trails were overgrown—what few there were.


I ended up getting separated from the other two, and soon found myself at the opposite shore of the island again looking down into the river from on top of those tall sand banks. I turned back to look for my comrades, and came across a massive old oak tree, one of the biggest I had seen in a long time—possibly ever:




There were in fact quite a few monstrous elder trees on this island, probably about 200 years old. I wonder if these trees were here when Oliver Hazard Perry sailed up this way after the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813? Hell it might even be old enough to have seen the last time the Detroit Lions won a championship.


I assumed that the old pavilion would probably be located somewhere near the center of the island here, but this small cement pad was all I could find:


We continued searching for any evidence of former structures, but came up empty-handed.


…Except for this hunting stand:


Finally tiring of this search, and in need of beer replenishment from the cooler in my boat, we headed back to the beach. There, we found some actual ruins:


These must have been the footings where the old ferry dock started from.


It was now definitely time to get back on the water and on the way to Stony Island.


But first I wanted a closer look at the outer piers of the ferry dock, and to see if we could see the wreck of the Seabreeze below us. The water was actually clearer than one would expect.


The plume of white steam on the horizon is from the Fermi II nuclear plant in Monroe. Here, the opposite shoreline is Grosse Ile:


As I was drifting carefully over the site of the Seabreeze wreck, Sloop was considerate enough to smack the side of my boat with his fist when I wasn’t looking, causing me to freak out and swerve thinking we were about to get stuck on a submerged hazard.

F$#%in knucklehead. At any rate, we could not see anything below that looked like a ship.


We now made a northerly course for Stony Island at full speed. It was getting to be lunchtime and I was ready for that barbeque. Across the Livingstone Channel I could see the tall spire of Boblo Island’s rusting “Sky Tower” peaking up from the abandoned amusement park, a ride that I vaguely remembered going on as a kid:


The Detroit skyline behind Stony Island, our next destination:


CLICK to continue to Stony Island


References:
http://www.loc.gov/resource/g4113w.la000363a/

4 comments:

  1. In the early 1980s, I was in the Indian Guides with my son. A group of dads and boys toured Sugar Island in the early spring, when vegetation had hardly started growing and the mosquito population was low. We saw the concrete steps that the article mentioned. We presumed that they were the approach for a large building because there was a large rectangular area with trees much smaller than other areas. Possibly a metal roof further deterred growth also.

    We found a large metal casting that was about 12 in. square and maybe 18 inches tall. We presumed that it was from an amusement ride.

    The dads and boys enjoy the exploring even with the knowledge that the Detroit skyline was visible from the north end of Sugar Island.

    Chuck Risch

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    Replies
    1. I too made an excursion to Sugar Island with my Indian Guide tribe, but it was in the mid 1970's. As a kid, I thought it was interesting, but no one shared with us any of the history, so I had no idea what the ruins were.

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  2. Loved your article and sharing your adventure. I was so fortunate to grow up across from the ferry docks on Sugar Island. Often when the water is low the hull of the Seabreeze shows herself. My mother's Mariner Girl Scout Troop had many adventures camping on the sound end of the island where a beautiful clearing made the perfect campsite. It has long been gone, a function of the swift current on the Detroit River. I easily remember the the ruins from the dance floor and several other buildings. A very large cable ran from our nextdoor neighbor's home to Sugar. I was told the old farm house, now torn down, provided the electricity needed to power the park. Sugar Island came alive at night during the mid 70's when fishermen found easy access to the smelt run. I did venture over one night and it was one big party. Thanks for all the historical data you provided in your article, some I didn't know. For a quicker trip to Sugar, you might want to put in at Smith's livery on Elba or Hoover's right across from Sugar. Thanks again for the trip down memory lane.

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your article. It was a walk down memory lane, as many of the locations you have described were the stomping grounds of my youth.

    My family's home was located on the river side of E. River Rd., directly across from the remains of Sugar Island's ferry dock. The Grosse Ile side of the ferry service, where the ferry docked and cars parked, was located on our front yard, and the dock pilings that remain were in the water off our beachfront.

    As teens, my friends and I would meet and party on our beach, and then boat over and beach our boats on Sugar to build bon-fires and continue the partying late into the night. We used to swim from the north end of Big Hickory island across the swift river channel to land on the southern tip of Sugar. We also hunted that island for squirrels, rabbit and duck.

    I have more information for you about Round Island, if you're interested. I spent a lot of time on that island with my father and a group of his friends, who built and maintained a hunting club on the southeast tip. It had a club house, an outhouse, a dock, and a skeet shooting range. In those days the club owners maintained a cable barge that made the crossing from the Ford Yacht Club parking lot over to the island, which explains how that rusted out truck got onto the island. Round Island Club members would load the barge with supplies on Fridays and hand crank the barge over to the island. Supplies would be loaded on the truck and transported on a poorly maintained road to the clubhouse. As members came in they were responsible to drive the truck back to the barge landing for use by later arriving members. Due to my lesser seniority I was usually assigned to drive the truck back to the barge landing and hoof it back to the clubhouse. I learned to drive a stick in that old truck when I was only 10, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to accept the assignment. We also frequently took our 21' aluminacraft around from from Grosse Ile yacht Club and docked it at the Round Island dock. Many fond memories duck hunting out in the lake just south of RI, and returning for a meal, cards, and other hunt club mischief.

    Feel free to contact me if you want more detail. Thanks for teasing my memories!

    Geoff Walker
    678-296-5233
    geoffrywalker51@gmail.com

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