Historic Boblo boat S.S. Columbia leaves Detroit for good

The S.S. Columbia, the iconic Boblo boat that created happy memories for hundreds of thousands of school children and tourists for nearly a century, has been hauled away from the edge of the River Rouge waterfront in Detroit to start a new life in Toledo, Ohio.

It will take 5-9 years to restore the boat at a price of $10 million

The S.S. Columbia, the iconic Boblo boat that created happy memories for hundreds of thousands of school children and tourists for nearly a century, has been hauled away from the edge of the River Rouge waterfront in Detroit to start a new life in Toledo, Ohio.

A restoration project will begin on the boat, one of the oldest surviving passenger steam vessels in the United States. It was built in 1902 by American naval architect Frank Kirby.

“I’m grateful that she is going to have a new life," said Gloria Davis, who first rode the boat as a six-year-old girl in 1936.
"She's a floating time machine and it's a miracle and testament to her construction and her spirit that she's still here."

Rust has taken over and paint is rolling off the 112 year old steamboat. (SS Columbia Project)

The Columbia is now owned by a not-for-profit group, the S.S. Columbia Project, that will continue restoration work estimated at five to nine years, at a cost of $10 million — funds donated or raised by organizers of the project.

The the ship was designed to carry 3,200 passengers on five decks. It was originally adorned with mahogany panelling, etched and leaded glass, gilded mouldings, a grand staircase and an open-air ballroom.

"It is now in a shipyard right in the dry dock," said Liz McEnaney the project's executive director. "The water is being pumped out of the dry dock [Wednesday] so, by the end of the day the boat will be out of the water and work is going to commence on the hull."

Even though the SS Columbia was taken out of service in 1991, it had been kept afloat for more than two decades by a group of Detroit based volunteers, maritime engineers, historical preservationists who watched over the boat, said McEnaney.

The current condition of one of the five interior decks on the SS Columbia built in 1902. (SS Columbia Project )

 
"SS Columbia is the last of her generation,” said  Andrew Whitman, a Great Lakes maritime historian. “And if anything is worth saving in terms of our heritage in the Great Lakes region, it’s her. Sending Columbia to New York is a bittersweet triumph because she could not be saved here in Detroit.”

The ship, along with her sister S.S. Ste. Clair, had their moment of fame when they were chosen to appear as props in the 2013 filming of the movie Transformers 4.

In Toledo the S.S. Columbia steamboat will be readied for a journey next year up the St. Lawrence and then down the Atlantic Coast to New York, where it will come to rest on the Hudson River for the rest of her restoration.

"There are spots where there is a lot of rusting, spots where some wood panelling is missing, there are spots where you may not be wanting to walk on the deck right now, but overall this boat has held up remarkably well," said McEnaney. "The bones are there so it's just a matter of doing the necessary work."

The Ste. Clair, meanwhile, is owned by a Michigan doctor who wants it restored.