If you are from Southern Ontario or have family who lived in the area, there’s a good chance that you know about Bob-Lo Island. However, for others, learning about this small island on the Detroit River might offer new and interesting insights into the region’s history.
Historically, Bob-Lo Island (officially known as Bois Blanc Island) served as an important strategic and navigational point in the area where the Detroit River reaches Lake Erie. Set across from Fort Malden and the town of Amherstburg, Ont., it was known as a crossing point, meeting place, and important military site. Before Europeans arrived, it was home to the Three Fires Confederacy First Nations, comprised of the Ojibway, Odawa, and Potawatomie peoples, who inhabited the region. The island played a prominent role during the War of 1812 and was the site of activities during the Rebellion of 1838. It also acted as a crossing point on the Underground Railroad.
Many current and former residents and visitors will also recall Bob-Lo Island for being home to an amusement park that operated from 1898 until its closure in 1993. Ask those who grew up in the area, and it seems many have stories about summer days spent at the Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park. Those who experienced the park may recall a favourite ride or seeing the iconic Bob-Lo Boats travelling the river carrying visitors from Detroit to the island. It’s clear that the park left a lasting impression, although not always a positive one; segregation and racism are a part of the history as well. After the Bob-Lo steamship company denied passage to Sarah Elizabeth Ray, a Black secretarial graduate (and future civil rights activist) planning to go to the island with her classmates, Ray filed a criminal complaint alongside the NAACP. The courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled in her favour, which became a significant precedent for future civil rights cases.
Evidence of Bob-Lo’s past can still be found on the island today. The Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse and Blockhouse National Historic Site of Canada have been designated as federal heritage sites, and the blockhouse underwent restorations by the island’s private owner in 2010. The dance hall from the amusement park days also remains.
Today, Bob-Lo Island is privately owned and is being developed into a residential community. The island is accessible via a short ferry ride from Amherstburg, but it’s currently only open to residents and guests. There’s a marina, wooded areas, beaches and the historical sites, which makes Bob-Lo Island an appealing destination. If the island reopens to the public, which seems to be the plan, it will become a fun day trip location once again.