Documentary follows the restoration of historic Boblo boat

‘Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale’ is now showing in select Michigan theaters and is slated for streaming at the end of the October.

Boblo Boats Movie playing on the big screen

'Boblo Boats' documentary playing on the big screen.

Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale is a documentary film told from the perspective of one of the steamboats that used to take passengers to the Detroit-area theme park, Boblo Island.

“I thought it would be magical to have the narration from the perspective of SS Columbia, the Boblo boat herself,” says the film’s director Aaron Schillinger. “Because for so many people this was a magical childhood experience.”

Boblo Island was a theme park located on a Canadian Island in the Detroit River across from Amherstburg, Ontario that was visited by generations of Detroiters and Canadians. After more than 100 years of being a leisure destination, in 1993, the park land was sold to a developer to build homes, and the amusement park was shut down.

In the film, the SS Columbia’s voice is narrated by Motown legend Martha Reeves. But the story itself centers around the restoration of the other iconic Boblo Boat, the SS Ste. Claire, who the Columbia refers to as her sister, “Claire.”

Boblo Boats Director Aaron Schillinger holds Sarah Elizabeth Ray puppet.
Boblo Boats Director Aaron Schillinger holds a puppet of Sarah E. Ray from the documentary film. Ray helped desegregate Boblo.

While the film centers around a cast of characters rooting for the Ste. Claire — including the doctor who owns it, a volunteer who has a miniature Boblo theme park in his home, and a psychic who one of the boats talks to — the film also highlights Boblo history.

For example, it dives into the story of Sarah Elizabeth Ray, the “Rosa Parks of Boblo.” Ray, an African American woman, was kicked off the boat in 1945 for riding it with white passengers. She fought her removal, it went all the way up to the US Supreme Court and she won.

The film won the Hometown Talent Award in the 2021 Freep Film Festival. It’s currently showing in select theatres in Michigan and will play at the Henry Ford Museum starting on Friday, Oct. 14.  Schillinger says the documentary will be available for streaming at the end of the month. Details will be posted on the film’s website.

Schillinger says the movie is also being prepared for distribution on PBS using funds from Baldwin House Senior Living and American House Dearborn.

Photos by Laura Herberg/WDET.

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  • Laura Herberg
    Laura Herberg is a Reporter for 101.9 WDET, telling the stories about people inhabiting the Detroit region and the issues that affect us here.