History of the Boat
SS Columbia, the oldest remaining excursion steamship in the United States, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and designated as an historic landmark in 1992.
An iconic Made-In-America/Made-in-Detroit success constructed in Wyandotte, Michigan in 1902 by the Detroit Dry Dock Company on behalf of the Detroit and Windsor Ferry Co, Columbia is one of only two such ships remaining. The other, SS Ste. Claire, was constructed in Toledo, Ohio in 1910 and is currently docked in River Rouge, Michigan. Both ships were designed by one of America’s greatest naval architects, Frank E. Kirby, in collaboration with his partner, the painter and designer Louis O. Keil.
Design and Engineering
At 207 feet in length and 60 feet in width, Columbia was designed to carry 3,200 passengers on her three decks. An innovative girder system made a dance floor possible, and so Columbia became the first steamboat in America with a ballroom. When Columbia was built, excursion steamships were popular throughout America. Columbia’s innovative design inspired and informed the design of a new generation of excursion steamships. Columbia was adorned with mahogany paneling, etched and leaded glass, gilded moldings, a grand staircase, and an open-air ballroom. Columbia features a massive 1,200-horsepower triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine, surrounded by viewing galleries.
For 89 years (1902-1991) — a US maritime record of service for an excursion steamship on a single run — Columbia ferried Detroiters from downtown Detroit to Canada’s Bois Blanc Island (known to most as BobLo Island), home to an amusement park known as Detroit’s Coney Island. The iconic 18-mile, 90-minute summer journeys on the “Boblo Boats” became beloved memories for generations of Detroiters. In the 1945, Columbia played a major role in the Civil Rights story in the United States, when its owner’s refusal to allow an African-American teenager, Sarah Elizabeth Ray, to remain on board with her classmates. This refusal ultimately led to a Supreme Court case (Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. Michigan, 333 U.S. 28, 1948) that forbade discrimination in public places and led to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.
A New Life Imagined
Columbia ceased service in 1991 (two years prior to the closure of Boblo Island Amusement park), and for the next two decades, the boat slowly deteriorated at a Detroit pier. Hope was fading for Columbia when, in the early 2000’s, art dealer Richard Anderson found her after a long search for a boat of exactly her make and age — a boat that could be brought to New York and restore the Hudson River’s great Dayliner tradition. Anderson formed the SS Columbia Project, recruited a Board, acquired the boat, and began planning and raising funds to restore her for service on the Hudson River. Tragically, Anderson died of cancer in 2013 before seeing his vision completed, but he left the bulk of his estate to the SS Columbia Project, providing enough support to begin the boat’s restoration and bring her from Detroit to the Hudson Valley in 2015. The SS Columbia Project is dedicated to making Anderson’s dream a reality and completing the journey he began. The first leg of the journey Richard Anderson envisioned took place in September 2014, when Columbia was towed from Detroit to a shipyard in Toledo – her first excursion of the 21st century.
Excelsior! Arrival in the Empire State
After a year in the shipyard, Columbia was deemed seaworthy and towed to Buffalo, New York. She’s docked next to her contemporaries — the historic grain elevators at Silo City. She has been reborn as a cultural and educational venue with tours of the restoration work, site-specific theater, music performances, community gatherings, and more happening aboard her decks. All events are free and open to the public. The SS Columbia Project crew is completing the work needed to prepare Columbia for her great journey up the St. Lawrence Seaway and down the eastern seaboard, before arriving to great fanfare in the Hudson River. We hope you will join us on the shores as she arrives!