Frank Kirby's Great Lakes Legacy and the Bob-Lo Boats
Photo by John Duguay
By Kathy Warnes
The whistle of the Bob-Lo boat echoing down the Detroit River long before the sunshine bounced off its glistening white paint and elegant lines made the little girl feel like she was watching Mark Twain on a Mississippi River steamer. The magic in her childhood was that the Columbia and the Ste. Claire steamers, known to her as the Bob-Lo boats, traveled back and forth from Detroit to Bob-Lo Island, stopping along the way to pick up passengers in Ecorse and Wyandotte. She didn’t have to go to Mississippi before she could spell it to enjoy the magic of a river. She had her own river, the Detroit River, and in the Detroit River glittered her own island complete with carousel train, and Captain Bob-Lo who gave out coloring books and lap sittings to lucky kids. Three miles long and one-half a mile wide, Bob-Lo Island nestles like a tree studded jewel about eighteen miles down river from Detroit and a five-minute ferry ride from Amherstburg, Ontario.
The girl did not know that Frank E. Kirby, a naval architect, was also the architect of her summer magic. She savored the long slow trip down the river, watching the sun trail fingers through the water and wishing that she could do the same thing. Feeling like Christopher Columbus, the Bob-Lo’s boat’s namesake, she stood by the rail, focusing an imaginary telescope on the Canadian horizon. Here she was, discovering new worlds, exploring the river, and anticipating an equally magical time when the Bob-Lo boat docked at Bob-Lo Island. The Dodge’em cars and the Carousel sang siren songs to her. She hurried down the dock and raced to her day of rides and revelry.
Another child from another era, the boy Frank E. Kirby also loved ships, shipping and the Detroit River. Fearing that Frank’s passion might lure him into danger, his father Stephen warned him to keep away from the river during the boat races. The owners of two Great Lakes steamers exceptionally fast for their time arranged a race from Port Huron, Michigan, to Amhertsburg, Ontario, about an eighty-mile course. Despite his father’s warning, Frank slipped down to the Detroit River docks. He found a ship, hid in the hold and watched the race through a porthole.
In 1853, Captain Stephen Kirby and his family moved to Saginaw, Michigan, where he built ships, mills, a hotel, and dug a salt well. New York capitalist Jesse Hoyt who had connections in Saginaw, backed Stephen and his endeavors and over time, he began to appreciate the talents of his son Frank. In 1864, Hoyt persuaded fifteen-year-old Frank Kirby to study marine engineering at Cooper Institute in New York City. New York bustled with Civil War era shipbuilding and Frank Kirby got caught up in the excitement. At night he attended Cooper Union classes, but during the day he worked on engine drawings for the Allaire Works and later for the Morgan Iron Works who were the leading marine engine builders of the day.
After completing his studies and working in New York for six years, Frank returned to Detroit in 1870 to recover from an illness. He found that his father Stephen had just bought Gordon Campbell’s interest in the Campbell and Owen Shipyard in Detroit. In July of 1872, Stephen as shipyard manager, incorporated the firm as the Detroit Dry Dock Company with a capital of $300,000.
About this time Jesse Hoyt introduced Frank Kirby to Captain Eber Brock Ward. For 20 years, Captain Ward had controlled the largest fleet of lake steamers under single ownership and used his profits to build the Eureka Iron Works and the Wyandotte Rolling Mills in Wyandotte. The mills made rails for expanding Midwestern railroads an cast some of American’s earliest Bessemer steel in the early 1860’s.
For at least twenty years, vessels had been built on the Wyandotte site of the company’s plant. In 1852, Campbell & Company launched its first large vessel there. Ten years later Mr. Owen became a partner and in 1870, Captain S.R. Kirby took over the Campbell interest. In 1872 at Wyandotte, Eber Ward financed the first Great Lakes shipyard to especially build metal hulls and hired Frank Kirby and his brother, Fitzhugh, to operate the yard. The Merchant built at Buffalo in 1862 and the U.S. gunboat, Michigan, built in 1844, were the only other iron vessels on the Great Lakes at the time.
The Kirbys built the first metal hulls for the small passenger steamer Queen of the Lakes and the tugs E.B. Ward, Jr. and Sport. Sport featured the first steel hull on the Great Lakes. Within ten years, more metal-hulled ship tonnage was built in Great Lakes yards than in all other American yards, including the Detroit & Cleveland Steam Navigation Company. Then the combination of the financial panic of 1873 and the death of Captain Eber Ward in 1875 reduced shipyard production to fast yachts with composite hulls – wood planking on iron hull frames. By 1877, the Detroit Dry Dock Company had absorbed the smaller concerns and a small plant at Wyandotte, which Captain Eber Ward had operated for five years. Now the owner of the Detroit and Cleveland Steam Navigation Company controlled the Detroit Dry-dock Company.
During the twenty-six years of the Detroit Dry Dock Company’s operation, it built 125 vessels with a 140,000 ton tonnage. In 1880, the company began constructing iron steamers and built many of the finest passenger boats on the Lakes. Its officers in 1898 were Hugh McMillan, president; Alexander McVittie, vice-president; Gilbert N. McMillan, secretary and treasurer and Frank E. Kirby, engineer.
For forty-six years, Frank E. Kirby designed all of the Detroit & Cleveland Steam Navigation Company’s passenger steamers, all side-wheelers and also those of the companion Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company. In 1880, the company introduced its first iron-hulled steamer, the City of Cleveland, one of the earliest American ships with feathering paddle wheels. In 1881, Frank Kirby designed the first metal-hulled 1,100-ton bulk freighter-Brunswick- valued at $150,000. The Brunswick was only a few months old when on the morning of November 12, 1881, while carrying coal from Buffalo to Duluth, she collided with the schooner Carlingford about 12 miles off Dunkirk, New York The Carlingford was loaded with wheat bound from Duluth to Buffalo when the Brunswick struck on her port side just opposite the foremast. The Carlingford sank head first in about 20 minutes. All but one of her crew escaped in the lifeboats.
The year 1884 proved successful for the Detroit & Cleveland Steam Navigation Company and Frank E. Kirby. At Wyandotte they launched the first large lake steamers with steel hulls, the package freighters Syracuse and Albany. Next came the Lansdowne, a 312-foot railroad car ferry, then the longest ship on the Great Lakes. With new cabin work, Lansdowne served as a restaurant on the Detroit waterfront for a short time, and then made daily runs between Detroit and Windsor for many years. Later in the 1880s, the ice breaking car ferry St. Ignace pioneered the bow propeller for improved icebreaking technique.
One of Frank Kirby’s last designs for the Detroit Dry Dock Company was the City of Erie, a side-wheel overnight freight and passenger steamer. Built in 1898 by the Detroit Dry Dock Company and launched in February 1898 for the Cleveland & Buffalo Transit Company, the City of Erie featured a 2,200-hp compound walking beam steam engine and six coal fired Scotch boilers. Along with her older sister ship, City of Buffalo, the City of Erie was built for the run between Cleveland, Ohio and Buffalo, New York.
The American Ship Building Company trust absorbed the Detroit Dry Dock Company in 1899, and Frank E. Kirby became an independent engineering consultant and produced some of his best work. In 1900, he designed the Tashmoo, a 300-foot St. Clair River side-wheel steamer, which featured his lower inclined compound engines (these replaced the commonly used walking beam engine).
In a manner of speaking Frank Kirby competed with himself when on June 4, 1901, the Tashmoo and the City of Erie raced from Cleveland, Ohio, to Erie, Pennsylvania, in a 100-mile race for a $1,000 prize. The steamers ran neck and neck until some adroit maneuvering in the City of Erie’s engine room pulled her ahead of the Tashmoo by 45 seconds.
Barely a year and three months later on September 15, 1902, the Detroit Free Press carried the story of another race between two Kirby steamers, this time the Frank E. Kirby and the Columbia. The Free Press account said that the steamer Kirby lay in wait for the Columbia and finally got what it had been looking for since the Columbia had been placed on the Bois Blanc Island route – a race! The day before had been the end of the Columbia’s season running to Bois Blanc Park and she was getting ready to go to winter quarters.
The people on board the Columbia said that she was taken unawares, that she had 100 tons of water in her ballast tanks, and that they did not know there was to be a race until they saw the Kirby swing out from her dock and speed after them. With a phenomenal burst of speed, the Columbia won the race. The crew of the Kirby claimed that they had gained on the Columbia until they had to stop for an upbound steamer and the dredges on the Lime Kilns. When the Kirby passed the Columbia at the Amherstburg wharf, the Columbia’s crew waved brooms and ropes and shouted for them to pull down their pennant “Flyer of the Lakes.”
When the Frank E. Kirby returned to Put-in-Bay, the mate announced that the crew was prepared to wager two month’s salary on a second opportunity to beat the Columbia in another race. 
Another steamer that Frank E. Kirby designed for the Detroit & Cleveland Steam Navigation Company, the City of Alpena, had a narrow escape when bound from Cheboygan to Alpena on Lake Huron during a dense fog. A flash of lighting revealed the City of Alpena and an unknown vessel steaming directly toward each other, only a few hundred feet apart. The boats were running under check and the passengers said that a collision was narrowly averted with the boats passing only a few feet apart. When the passengers safely embarked at Alpena, they praised the crew for saving their lives.
Around 1900, Frank E. Kirby collaborated with the Russians to create ice crushing car ferries for the Baltic Sea. After deciding to build these vessels, the Russian government sent a commission to America to get ideas. When the commission members reached Detroit, they stopped at the business offices of Frank Kirby, the man they had traveled from Russia to visit. Frank Kirby set to work and turned out sets of plans for powerful ice crushers. He modeled the icebreakers after the Detroit-built icebreaking ferries operating in the Straits of Mackinac.
During his “golden” years, Frank E. Kirby created many other steamers. Collaborating with J.W. Millard of New York City, he designed the largest steamers for the Hudson River Day Line, including the Washington Irving (1913), Hendrick Hudson (1906) and Robert Fulton (1909). In 1903 Kirby produced Tionesta, the model of the modern engines-aft Lake Superior propeller passenger steamer. Her 1905 sister ship, Juanita, survived at Chicago as a restaurant but was drastically overhauled in 1941 and became the Lake Michigan ferry Milwaukee Clipper.
In 1924, Frank Kirby’s 546-foot Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company sisters Greater Detroit and Greater Buffalo earned the largest side-wheeler title on the Great Lakes. Each steamer had berths equaling the peacetime Queen Mary.
One of the stories passed down about Frank Kirby illustrates his inquiring, mechanical mind. When people from all over America and around the world came to consult with him about shipbuilding, Frank would request and receive a healthy fee for a two hour consultation. When he had finished talking about shipbuilding, Frank would spend another two hours discussing and explaining such important questions as why a baker put a certain twist to his rolls. Frank was interested in the twist question because he considered it a technical matter and anything with an engineering angle captured his attention.
Frank E. Kirby died in New York on August 25, 1929, fortunately not living to experience the Depression that would idle so many of his steamers. All of the great ships that Frank Kirby had designed had be scrapped or retired by the end of the 1950s, except the two that carried his legacy into the 21st century.
Frank E. Kirby designed the Columbia, built in Wyandotte and Detroit in 1902, and the Ste. Claire, built in Toledo and launched on May 7, 1910, entering service later that year. The Ste. Clair was named after Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River, underscoring the influence of explorer Robert de La Salle who padded through the lake and river during the feast of Ste. Clair. The Columbia, named after Christopher Columbus, celebrated her 100th birthday in 2002. She is the oldest steamer in the United States with the exception of ships classed as ferries.
Like all North American steamers, the Columbia and Ste. Claire are propeller driven. The Ste. Claire is 197 feet long, 65 feet wide and 14 feet deep. Her tonnage is 870 gft and 507 nrt, and her engine is triple expansion steam with 1083 horsepower. She can carry 2,500 people and she served 81 years on a single run – a record unequalled in U.S. maritime history. Built in Wyandotte and Detroit in 1902, the Columbia is the older of the two Bob-Lo boats. She is 216 feet long overall, and was last licensed to carry 2,500 people. She has been designated a National Historical Landmark, the government’s premier designation for historical resources. Both steamers need restoration and efforts are being made to save them and put them back on the Detroit River.
The history of the Columbia and Ste. Claire are intertwined with an island in the Detroit River that generations of twentieth century people know as Bob-Lo Island. In the early 1700s, French priests established a Catholic mission on the island for the Huron Indians and the French christened the island Bois Blanc after the beech trees which covered the island, the “island of the white wood.” English tongues could not pronounce Bois Blanc correctly, so they corrupted the name to Bob-Lo until in 1949, the island became officially known as Bob-Lo Island. Bois Blanc, three miles long and one-half mile wide, is located about eighteen miles Downriver from downtown Detroit and is a five-minute ferry ride from Amherstburg, Ontario. In 1796, the British established a military post at Fort Malden in Amherstburg, and thousands of Indians from all tribes, journeying to trade furs with the British, camped on the island. For a time, Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader, aided the British in the War of 1812, made Bois Blanc his headquarters and used it as a base to attack the American mainland.
In 1839, a lighthouse was built on the southern side of Bois Blanc to guide ships into the narrow straits behind it. Captain James Hackett was hired as lighthouse keeper and owned fourteen acres of the island on a lifetime lease. In the 1850s, Colonel Arthur Rankin, M.P., bought the remaining 225 acres of the island from the Canadian government for $40.00.During the Civil War, escaping slaves used Bois Blanc Island as a station stop on the Underground Railroad route to Canada. They landed on the beach and rested for a few hours or a few days before continuing their journey to Amherstburg and a new life of freedom in Canada.
In 1869, Colonel Rankin sold Bois Blanc to his son, Arthur McKee Rankin who starred in the New York theatre and belonged to New York’s fashionable set. He built himself an elaborate estate on the island, stocked the grounds with deer, wild turkey, and elk, built extensive stables and treated his New York friends to Bois Blanc hospitality. Eventually his state career ended and he was forced to sell the island to partners Colonel John Atkinson and James A. Randall. Colonel Atkinson’s heirs sold the island to what then was the Detroit, Belle Isle and Windsor Ferry Company. In 1898, the Bob-Lo Excursion Line was created and the island developed as a resort. At the onset, the attraction of Bob-Lo was a day on the Detroit River and a picnic in the pastoral beauty of the Island. Henry Ford commissioned Albert Kahan to design a dance hall, which in 1903 was billed as the worlds second largest. A carousel provided music and rides.
Beeson’s Marine Directory of the Northern Lakes featured many Bob-Lo Park advertisements, as this 1914 ad touting the Great Dance Pavilion”
Bob-Lo (Bois Blanc Island) a beautiful pleasure resort situated 18 miles from Detroit at the mouth of the Detroit River at the junction of Lake Erie, owned by the Detroit & Windsor Ferry Company is the largest and has the best equipment of any of the excursion parks on the Great Lakes. Among the features are the stone and steel dancing pavilion having over 20,000 square feet of floor, amusement building…bathing beach, baseball diamond and athletic fields. No liquors are permitted. The 1915 Beeson’s Directory presented some of the history of Bob-Lo Park and its attractions. It said:
This beautiful park is situated nineteen miles below Detroit opposite Amherstburg, Ontario, and near the mouth of the River where it flows into Lake Erie. The island’s history is given as the first landing place of the great explorer LaSalle in 1679, at which time he arrived in the little sailing boat Griffen of about 60 tons capacity. Father Hennepin who was with La Salle, vividly pictures the beautiful river scenery, its attractive shores, a place abounding in game, fish an vegetation and peopled with members of the Huron and Wyandotte tribes of Indians. Recent excavations on the island have unearthed relics of the Indian village that flourished there two and a quarter centuries ago. Today the commodious and rapid steamers of the Detroit and Windsor Ferry Company who own this island have spent half a million dollars in improving it..
The boat ride to Bob-Lo contributed greatly to the island’s mystique. The boarding dock in Detroit started out at the foot of Woodward, but moved to behind Cobo Hall. The Bob-Lo boat also stopped at Downriver communities like Ecorse, Wyandotte and Trenton. The boarding dock eventually moved to Gibraltar in 1991. It took just over an hour to voyage to Bob-Lo Island, but Captain Bob-Lo and many bands and other entertainers made the voyage seem as brief as a toot of the Bob-Lo boat whistle. The bands on the second deck dance floor changed with the times – from Mrs. Walpola’s turn of the century music to the 1940s big bands to the Latin Counts of the 1980s. The Brownings hired Captain Bob-Lo, alias Joe Short, from the Ringling Brothers Circus to entertain the children on the Bob-Lo cruise and he did just that between 1953 and 1973. He always wore an oversized hat, binoculars and handed out coloring books and small toys to the children on the trips. Captain Bob-Lo worked on the Bob-Lo boat until 1974 when he retired at age 90. He died in 1975, still singing the praises of Bob-Lo. There were also moonlight cruises on the Bob-Lo boats. To teenagers and older romantics, the combination of the soft summer breezes, moonlight on the river, and that special person next to you made an unforgettable experience. Often the Bob-Lo boat would just travel down the river to Bob-Lo Island, arrive there about 10:00 p.m. and turn around, but that was enough for a memorable evening.
The American government made an unprecedented exception for draft-age men during World War I. The law said that draft age men could not leave the country (Bob-Lo is a Canadian island) but officials decided that it would be too much of a hardship for young Michigan men to be forbidden to go to Bob-Lo with their sweethearts during the summer. The Great Depression of the 1930s stopped the national economy in its tracks and the Bob-Lo excursions as well. Then Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 inauguration brought new hope and the New Deal and returning prosperity to the nation, and in 1935, the Bob-Lo boats resumed their river runs.
Financial trouble loomed for the Detroit and Windsor Ferry Company again in 1949. Arthur John Reaume, the mayor of Windsor, suggested that the island be turned into a national park, but the Browning family of Grosse Point, owners of a steamship line, bought the island and the boats. The Brownings turned Bob-Lo into an amusement park, building rides, roller coasters, and a funhouse. They installed a Ferris wheel, a dance hall, and an antique car exhibit. They brought in 300 exotic animals for a zoo, leading off with Socrates II, a giraffe. They built a mini railroad for rides around the island. In 1961, the Brownings replaced the island landing dock with the deck of the freighter Queenston, sunk in place. In 1973, they built the Thunder Bolt roller coaster of steel and it was one of the largest in the country. Another popular ride was the flue, a log carrying riders down a water slide. In 1975, the Brownings restored the original 48-house carousel from 1878, and it delighted children and adults alike until it was sold off piece by piece at auction in 1990.
The Brownings sold Bob-Lo Island in 1979 and it passed through the hands of several owners, including the AAA of Michigan. Rowdiness on the boats and on the island in the 1980s caused the crowds to keep diminishing and when Canadian police and immigration officials spent a day in 1987 rounding up members of the Outlaws motorcycle gang, the end of a 90-year era drew nearer. In January 1996, the steamers Columbia and Ste. Claire, which had carried as many as 800,000 visitors to Bob-Lo Island every year in the glory years of the 1960s and 1970s were auctioned off.
Jo Santoro Cialkowski, a life-long resident and historian of the Downriver area, captures what the Bob-Lo boats have meant to thousands of people. She recalls the days of her youth in the 1920s and 1930s when a day at Bob-Lo was like the Fourth of July and Christmas together. The Columbia docked at the foot of Southfield Road and West Jefferson at that time, and she and her friends and family waited impatiently on the dock straining to hear the Columbia’s whistle. She tapped her foot to Finzell’s live band playing “Up A Lazy River.” She remembered the picnics and games, riding her favorite pony on the merry-go-round and screaming as she rode the cantankerous “Whip.” In her teens, she remembered dancing at the Bob-Lo Island dance hall. As the Columbia neared the Ecorse port, she recalled men taking off their straw hats to dance with the ladies as everyone waltzed on the Columbia’s deck all of the way back to Ecorse.
Jo concludes her remembrance of the last cruise of the Columbia in 1991:
“At the dock my eyes lingered for a long while as the Columbia horn blared “good night” and drifted off into the night, not knowing then that it was a lonely goodbye. Waving adieu with both arms, I walked away from the park and headed for home. It is my fondest hope that the SS Columbia, queen of the Detroit River, will be off to the seas again."
Both the Columbia and the Ste. Claire are National Historical Landmarks, because they are among the last steamers of their type on the Great Lakes. Columbia’s machinery survives almost intact from 1902, which is quite rare in Great Lakes ship history. The Columbia and the Ste. Clair also are an important part of the individual historical memory of countless people in the Detroit River region. Both boats made their last trips to and from Bob-Lo on Labor Day 1991. Since then, their story includes Michigan weather and rust, crud, holes, wear and tear, and even thieves.
The Friends of the Bob-Lo Boat Columbia is attempting to acquire the Columbia and restore her for excursions on the Detroit River. If the Columbia is restored to her former grandeur and returns to service, she will be the last classic excursion steamer in service in America and the last operating ship of her kind in the world. The owner of the Ste. Claire also has the goal of restoring her and using her as a floating restaurant, dinner theater or conference center along the Detroit River or on Lake Erie.
The restoration of the Ste. Claire and the Columbia will be a race against the ravages of time and the necessity of buying enough time to raise sufficient funds to restore them. By all accounts, Frank E. Kirby was a modest, unassuming man who did not seek public acclaim, although the scores of ships that he designed won him well-deserved fame. Passing years fade memories of Frank E. Kirby, but two of his steamers still survive and can still be reclaimed from the ravages of time. Frank E. Kirby would modestly back the effort to restore the Ste. Clair and Columbia so that 21st century people can reap the benefits of his creative genius.
 Frank E. Kirby, Shipbuilder. The Magazine of the Great Lakes. Published by the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company, 1918.
 Saginaw Images, A Pictorial History of Saginaw Michigan. Presented by the Public Libraries of Saginaw. http://www.saginawimages.org
 History of the Great Lakes, Volume I, p. 430
 History of the Great Lakes, Volume I, p. 736
 The steel used in the Syracuse and Albany was part of the Bessemer steel cast at Wyandotte twenty years earlier and proved extremely brittle. The Syracuse had a long career, ending as a sand sucker at Algonac. The Albany was sunk by a collision in Lake Huron in 1893 with a loss of 24 lives. History of the Great Lakes, Volume I, p. 789.
 Race between the Tashmoo and City of Erie-------------------------------------
 “Red Hot Race Down the River, Detroit Free Press, September 15, 1902.
 Light Flash Saved Two Boats, Detroit Free Press, June 16, 1902.
 Frank E.Kirby Shipbuilder, Water Way Tales, The Magazine of the Detroit & Cleveland Niavigation Company, 1918.
 Beeson’s Marine Directory of the Northwestern Lakes, Season of Navigation 1914, Harvey C. Beeson, Publisher.
 Beeson’s Marine Directory of the Northwestern Lakes, Season of Navigation 1915, Harvey C. Beeson, Publisher.
 Jo Santoro Cialkowski, Memories of the Bob-Lo Boat Columbia.