TR: A Walk Through Yesteryear: Boblo Island and Fort Malden (9/29/2012)

I have come to understand and learn a lot about my surroundings since moving to Michigan. I try to stay busy, visiting places throughout the Lansing metro area as well as the surrounding towns and cities. That kind of action is really never ending and something I may end up doing the rest of my life, and I’m perfectly OK with that right now. Most often, when I start to discuss somewhere, my wife knows something about it. She understands the geography and has an idea about the history of the towns around where we’re going. There’s anecdotes and whatnot. However, that knowledge has its limits. North of Saginaw is a total mystery. The “thumb” is somewhere we’ve only really explored by car on one occasion (in freezing temps during winter). And the other side of the Detroit River, in Canada? You can tell me about how Windsor is south of Detroit and I’ll keep on not believing you.

Crossing over the border on the Ambassador Bridge was actually pretty easy. To be honest, the state and Matty Moroun (the owner of the only private border crossing in America) have done a halfway decent job getting you onto the bridge from Detroit. It is everything else that is a mess about it. Crossing guards seemed bemused about our plans more than concerned. After all, we were just planning on hiking around a sorta decrepit sorta redeveloped amusement park from yore before learning about the War of 1812 and stuff. What was there to be shook about?

Boblo Island is a name that many enthusiasts have heard of but may not entirely know much about. The park was essentially *the* Detroit home park following the closing of Edgewater in 1981, and would change hands many times, hitting a high point under ownership by AAA with 750,000 visitors hitting the turnstiles in 1985. Later management was less capable and attendance collapsed by roughly two thirds by the closing of the park in 1993. I’ve heard many things about the park over the years, but without having ever been, and knowing few present people who had, I felt that there was a big hole in my knowledge of Michigan and the amusement parks of the state to fill.

Present day Boblo is marketed as a resort community of the future, and is still accessible as it has been for decades by Amherstburg ferry. The boat that current operates features space for cars used by residents (or by anyone willing to pay) as well as persons on foot. We left our car at a parking space and then coasted across for the price of $6. We walked on board joining a group of men in very nicely cut suits as well as people in period costume of late 18th century/early 19th century fighting garb, and learned that they (Masons) had rented out the restaurant, closing off any possibility of getting in there. We were also a little afraid that we’d end up finding a large chunk of the former amusement park closed off to us to explore. By the time we determined that we probably wanted off and a second try, it was too late. The ferry was already on its way over. I was handed a release to sign indicating that I knew I could cripple myself by visiting, signed it, and shrugged.

While everyone boarded private vehicles, we cut due left and due south towards the park. It is impossible to miss which direction you’re going in – the old double decker Skytower spire is still visible for miles around. Passing a statue intended to immortalize the park’s success for some 60 years leading into the 1940s, there’s few reminders immediately of the place’s past. There’s a condo complex with people parked on their balconies. There’s some generic homes. There’s what appears to be a significant area of well maintained park around it. And as you continue to walk south, you see the dance hall.

It is hard to entirely explain how big the dance hall is, or how if you knew nothing of where you were, how shocking this would be to see. Build to accommodate about 5000 people on the dance floor, you have to think about a minor league hockey/basketball arena to properly size it. Imagine that boarded up closed with windows to look into it sitting on an island near an upscale housing development and seemingly being untouched inside, and that’s the dance hall. Henry Ford bankrolled the construction of the building a century ago, and the end result of it is still stunning. The Boblo people have done a decent job locking up the building today and the pictures and videos from inside would be difficult to replicate today without blatant trespassing/danger seeking or help from the local security force.

Walking around it the long way, we ended up in the “back” of Boblo, over by a large picnic area, a small pool intended for resident use, and lots of empty space that once was occupied by the log flume. Further down towards the western coast of the island is the restaurant and a stand alone bathroom facility that ranked as one of the most disgusting we had used outside of Europe. As we looked south towards the park, the well trimmed grass began to give way to tall weeds, trees, and decrepit buildings. We also saw a single father with his kids – apparently he thought a trip to the abandoned amusement park would be a good way to spend his visitation weekend. Hey, it was different, I’m sure. My wife felt a lot better about our visiting of the grounds seeing them, assuming that if we were going to get arrested or detained, so would they. The father seemed dumbfounded by all of the decay. It was sobering – he had memories of the place as a living, breathing amusement park. Now it was this.

Skytower has signs requesting that trespassing not occur on it. You probably wouldn’t want to even if they weren’t there. I mean, hey, look, you know it is probably filled with mean mammals and bees and shit. Looking inside from outside is good enough to see how busted up the windows are and how completely jacked up the electronics are. It was purchased at auction for use at Elitch’s, but then something happened and it never came down. Instead, here it is 19 years later still standing sentinel, the one full original ride left. Besides it is a long field of tall weeds. With the proper amount of imagination, one can see the Sky Streak roller coaster standing there running due south, as it had until being dismantled and resurrected in Mexico. Less imagination is required to picture the antique cars in one’s mind. Much of the concrete base of the track is still present and the overpass can be walked through and over by anyone.

There’s an assortment of significant buildings south of the antiques. The smallest edifice is a former church, converted multiple times during Boblo’s life as an amusement park into things such as a queue exit, power station, and souvenir shop. Across a weathered path lies the park’s theater. Inside, the building could seat 1500. Like the other buildings, it is well boarded up to prevent people from entering, though weather and vegetation seems to be hellbent on reclaiming it if people don’t vandalize it into annihilation. Sitting just east of the theater is the park’s bumper car pavilion, now bereft of cars and bumping, but still with many parts of the controls, the metal floor, the grid ceiling that provided current, queue lines, and an E-Stop button. While much of Detroit’s abandoned buildings have been stripped clean by scrappers, Boblo’s buildings are generally well preserved in this respect. You can see copper wiring sticking out of things still. Being an island did the place no benefit in terms of getting people there, but it did keep people from taking it apart even when they wanted to. Of all the things we walked around, the bumper car floor felt the sketchiest – maybe it should have been scrapped. Someone will break through it one day. It may take a few years, but it will happen as it slowly corrodes.

After the bumper cars, we walked due east and to the docks and park main entrance. No wood buildings seem to remain, and the fountains are dry and filled with rubble. Those walking to the dock are met with decayed wood beams stacked up and numbered along with a large portion of tree. Passing by this, you follow the path millions of tourists once did to the docks where steam boats carrying thousands once parked. As fouled up as it might be, it seems like with just some fresh paint and some weed pulling, it could be back in action tomorrow, if there were only a boat capable of parking there or something on the island that the general public would really deem worth seeing.

We did some more wandering around, though we mostly rehashed things we saw before and took second looks. I had hoped to walk south to the historic lighthouse and fort buildings, but with the re-enactment going on, I was fairly certain that was where the bulk of the action would be on the island. Another time, I suppose. Aside from the major buildings on site, there’s also a significant number of former bathrooms that are still standing. One we really found impressive was out by the dance hall, and had brass lion faces looking over the door way. We also found the old mini golf course and a second electric car ride (with third rail intact) before returning to the ferry.

At the time that we were on Boblo, there was little for us to do as first time visitors ever but to gawk, stare, and take ruin porn photography. In fact, it only really began to dawn on us as we tried to go to bed later that night how we felt about Boblo and what it in turn reflected about us. Lots of parks have closed, and most of them have been replaced with something. Usually it is commercial real estate or housing. Those are things we as a society value. I sure wish Frandor Shopping Center still had a Kiddieland with a wild mouse instead of a Panera and World Market, but that’s what it has and that’s that. There’s something tangible there. Whalom was lost to condos. Hey, people live there, create new memories, on and on things go.

Boblo doesn’t have that closure. It was never really replaced with residential housing or a golf course or a freeway or something. It was closed and redeveloped in land title only. It would be better or easier to accept that it closed if there was something in its place. Anything. But there isn’t, and with different management, maybe it could have survived. Meredith states that she was surprised it lasted as long as it did – long boat rides from  Detroit are attractive in concept, but given the proximity of the suburbs to roads like I-75 and US-23 to take them towards Cedar Point, Boblo would have had to spend money to keep up. It would have needed re-imagining. Many things that would have needed to be different weren’t.

The present development is much the same in terms of needing to be different and simply not getting there. Plans are to turn the classic buildings like the dance hall into gyms and indoor pools. Wonderful idea, really, but it has to actually be done. In the meantime, people buy $250K homes (really not that expensive) that have rather substantial issues with convenience with the shoreline. Oh, and while there’s lots of hiking paths, they’re around a decrepit abandoned amusement park. It was creepy enough at 12 noon. What about at 11:45PM on a golf cart in the middle of winter? The sense we have is that what is there will be there a long, long time. Much of it is built out of stone, steel, and concrete and you’d need to jackhammer it out of existence. There’s not enough money to tear it down, and not enough to fix it, and there’s zero to make it what it was. Boblo is a bizarre and very sad feeling place at its core.

Less sad and just a very short distance from the docks in Amherstburg is Fort Malden National Historic Site. The site was once home to Fort Amherstburg, which played a role in the War of 1812 and the Upper Canadian Rebellion, and today is a cheap ($3.90 admission) museum complex that the majority of which can be seen for absolutely nothing. The main museum itself is comprised of two floors, though only one was available for viewing on the day we visited, and there’s a a lot of artifacts and historical bits from the war there. Out back, people in period costume fire smooth bore rifles for show and give quick descriptive talks about life at the fort and things of that nature. There’s not a ton to it, but it is cool to see. The free portion of the museum includes the riverfront walking area, where we had a delightful bench sit watching freighters and cigarette boats go by.

Returning to America was a much longer process – our trunk was searched and while traffic was not outrageous, it existed on the city streets of Windsor before being dumped out unceremoniously in one of the lousier areas of Detroit. Our GPS was set on Buddy’s Pizza in Dearborn as our conclusion for the day – few better ways to end a day of sightseeing than with Buddy’s.

I still can’t get over the presence of Canada’s border and what is on the other side. I still don’t understand the geography. And yet, I feel compelled to return – to see what I know not of. Scenic drives along Lake Huron, visits to Point Pelee, and towns even Tripadvisor seems to know nothing of. I feel almost overwhelmed simply thinking about it after a brief foray over the border. It almost feels like I’m trying to describe something as culturally foreign as Kazakhstan.


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