The Magic of Boblo Island

For 95 years, this southern Ontario amusement park provided family fun for visitors—and an unforgettable summer job for local teens.

Boblo Island Scenic Railroad Vintage PostcardSWODA (Southwestern Ontario Digital Archive)
This postcard from 1960 featuring the Bob-Lo Scenic Railroad boasted “An enjoyable two-mile train ride, for young and old, to explore Bob-Lo Island’s beauty.”

Boblo Island Memories

Growing up in a sleepy little southern Ontario burg, across from an amusement park in the middle of the Detroit River, was an interesting childhood. Many of the local kids worked on Boblo Island when they turned 15, including me. We were a crew of around 30 people and were in charge of painting the massive long dock yellow, where the huge old paddle boats from Detroit, and the smaller ferries from Amherstburg, Ontario, would anchor and unload the happy, noisy tourists all summer long.

Boblo Island opened for business in 1898 and closed in 1993, but I still consider it a pleasure to write one of the many wondrous stories about it. My father took me there in the late 1960s, and it was a magical place. I remember the smells of cotton candy, hot dogs, corn on the cob, roasted peanuts, and French fries. The park also played popular music hits through their squeaky loudspeakers and had many different rides—that got more numerous every year. Folks came from far and wide, as it was quite an attraction. There was the Whip, the bumper cars, the putt-putt mini golf with cement-reinforced canals that ran throughout the course, the old Model T cars you could drive yourself, and the very scary Cat and Mouse roller coaster. That ride had 90-degree turns without any type of banking and after your first ride, if you weren’t completely insane, you never went on it again.

Boblo Island Log Flume RideJoe Clark / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
The log flume ride at Boblo Island.

One of my favourites, however, was the Jet-ride. Its design allowed you to sit in cool metal jet planes, connected by massive steel tubes and ride-goers could actually use controls to make it go up and down, as you went around and around, very high in the air. The loud hissing and puffing of the steam, the clanking of the gears, loose bolts, and old metal parts always evoked anxiousness.

When I got older and started working on the island, I would show up at sunrise, before all the other kids, waiting for the ferry to take me across the river. I still remember the damp ground and dew of the cool mornings, the boat ride across, and the spray of mist on my face. I was lucky enough to spend several summers working on the island, before I went onto other things. No matter what was going on in my life, once I arrived on that magical island sanctuary, in the middle of the river, I had escaped and was free as a bird. No teachers or bullies to bother me.

After the island closed, it became a residential development property. A few celebrities, including Tim Allen, bought houses there.

Donald Lugers Amherstburg OntarioCourtesy Donald Lugers
A recent pic of Donald at the ferry landing in Amherstburg, Ontario.

A Long-Awaited Return

More than 40 years later, I embarked on the current Boblo Island ferry and it was surreal being out on that river again. Parking my rental car at the restaurant, I walked towards the west side of the island, to see if White Sands beach was still there. My father had helped to create that beach with the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the tonnes and tonnes of sand needed was brought in from elsewhere. I passed by the old War of 1812 log house and a few of the old rides were still there, too, but long since inoperative. I eventually found the beach. The sand was hot enough to almost burn my feet and so I decided to relax on a picnic table with a cold beer, while watching a few boaters play volleyball.

Boblo Island Lighthousecindylindowphotography /
The Boblo Island lighthouse.

I started my long walk back towards where the old dock once stood. I doubted that it could still be there, after 100+ years. As I made my way down the trail, seeing deer out in the fields through the trees, and walking past the bushes and lighthouse, I spotted an old, derelict building in the middle of an overgrown field, and went to look inside. As I got closer, my heart skipped a beat as I realized it was the old bumper cars ride! To this day, I am a huge Formula 1 racing fan, and seeing the old bumper cars reminded me of my mother encouraging me to try that ride, since it was the closest I might get to being an actual F1 driver! I looked inside and saw the large wooden beams, still supported by huge coil springs, lining the bottom of the walls. Even the steel-grid fencing on the ceiling that the electric poles used to power the cars, where all the sparks would fly, was still there! I could almost hear the laughs and howls of the ghosts of past park visitors. Memories from my wonderful childhood came rushing back, but the real treat was still ahead.

Walking ahead, past stands of bushes, there it was, the old dock! I marvelled at its ancient appearance and the old sign at the top of it. The dock was all dusty, with overgrown weeds tangled through the cracks. There was no gate or anything stopping me, so I slowly walked down the concrete walkway, taking in the familiar old sights. The aquamarine-coloured water and my old town across the river had me reliving my childhood like never before. I strolled up to the rusty guardrails and noticed the old blue paint chipping away. I stood inside the tiny abandoned ticket shack and was again flooded by emotions.

As I walked back to the car, with melancholy settling in, something caught my attention off to the right, through the trees and bushes. I made my way over to investigate. I bushwhacked my way through the heavy brush and, low and behold, there it was. I set my eyes on the heavily overgrown putt-putt golf course, with all the empty cement canals filled with dead leaves, that twisted throughout the links. This entire visit overwhelmed me with childhood memories. Getting off the Amherstburg ferry, walking up the rickety gangplank and paying for my tickets on those hot sunny summer days, as a bright-eyed and carefree boy. It was an incredible feeling and I nearly cried thinking how much time had gone by. All my years spent living out west made me miss the time I spent at this amusement park and with my father as well.

Next, brush up on the haunting history of Balaclava, Ontario’s most famous ghost town.

Originally Published in Our Canada