Well folks, as you may have noticed, my blogging has been spotty over the last week or so. The fast approaching holidays have made it tougher than usual to find the few minutes necessary to act as your tour guide through nautical postal history. Alas, I have decided to pull 365 Boats into port until Monday, January 3. I leave you here with the steamer City of Detroit III. At the time of its construction, 1911, it was the largest paddle steamer operating in the Great Lakes. It ferried passengers mainly to and from Detroit and Buffalo with a stop in Cleveland along the way. Sadly, the City of Detroit III was dismantled and sold for scrap in 1956. A fitting metaphor for the city itself. Sigh.
Two boats had the biggest hold on my imagination as a kid. The first was the ferry to Mackinac (pronounced mack-in-aw) Island—365 Boats will visit Mackinac sometime in the new year I hope. The second was the boat to Boblo. Boblo, officially named Bois Blanc Island, is an island in the Detroit River on the Canadian side of the maritime border. The island is 2.5 miles long and .5 miles wide. In 1796 Fort Amhertsburg was built there to guard passage along the Detroit River once Detroit had been turned over from the French to the Americans. Little else happened on the island until an amusement park was built in 1898 to service the growing populations of Detroit and Windsor, Canada. I remember some of the rides, most notably, The Nightmare, an indoor roller coaster all in the dark (my friend Joey and I once rode The Nightmare 20+ times in row until Joey couldn't take it anymore and puked outside in the line. Good times!), but what I remember most about Boblo is the ferry ride to the island. For 85 years the SS Ste. Claire ferried passengers to and from Detroit:
Stepping aboard always seemed like a really big deal, and also a little scary. The possibility of shipwreck was almost too exciting to bear. And upon disembarking the possibilities were endless:
As if Detroit didn't have enough bad news in the 90's, Boblo shut down following the summer of 1993. For the next decade and a half the abandoned island began to look like the rest of the city, worn down and forgotten about. Recently things have changed for Boblo. The Canadians are converting the island into a planned vacation resort. You can watch short videos of what the island is going to look like here. Make sure to click on the third video. It shows photo stills of the island's past with a pretty great Motown soundtrack in the background.
Belle Isle is a 982 acre island park that sits smack dab in the middle of the Detroit River. It's the largest island park in the country and at 982 acres it's larger than Central Park in New York City. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. To reach Belle Isle you drive (nobody walks or bikes in Detroit, it's considered blasphemous) over the scenic MacArthur Bridge:Unlike most locations in Detroit, Belle Isle is still in use today. When I was in college I used to attend a weekend pickup soccer game on Belle Isle that resembled a UN summit—Poles, Czechs, Russians, Africans, Lebanese, Mexicans, and of course white kids from the suburbs, all playing together. It was a far cry from Belle Isle's sordid past. Notice anything creepy about the picture below? Look hard. Yep, only white people.
Detroit was way ahead of the rest of the country when it came racial tension. Throughout the early twentieth century Belle Isle was unofficially considered a whites-only resort. On June 20, 1943, two decades before Watts, a race riot broke out on Belle Isle. The riot lasted for three days, killing 43 and wounding 433. Federal troops were brought in to quell the violence. It was no small event so it's peculiar that it seems to have been lost from popular history. Most likely it's because the narrative of the riot doesn't jibe with that of other more well known riots from the latter half of the century—Watts and Detroit in the sixties, L.A. in the nineties. We typically frame those riots as a rising up of the oppressed black minority. The Belle Isle riots were something much much uglier—the white majority instigating violence to create a sense of terror. Ugly stuff. No wonder we'd rather forget.
This week we're on a postcard tour through early 20th century Detroit. Detroit is (in the humble opinion of your tour guide) the most interesting city in America—the city you have to understand if you want to understand the story of this country in the last 100 years. Detroit today is like a time capsule. More than half of its population (over 2 million at its peak) skedaddled to the suburbs over the last 40 years. As a result, things look pretty much the same as they did 50 years ago, or even 100 years ago. Things are a little dusty, sure, and a tad weathered. But the building and sidewalks, boat docks and warehouses are mostly still there, empty, just waiting for people to come back.
So this week we're coming back to Detroit. We arrive via the Steamer Greater Detroit. The SGD was the largest steamship operating in the Great Lakes in its day. It ran overnight passenger service to and from Buffalo, NY.