One of the two last surviving steamboats in the country is Kingston-bound

The SS Columbia, back in 1945.

It can’t be said that the maritime ghosts of the Hudson River give up easily. The accelerated quixotic efforts of the Hudson River Maritime Center on the Rondout Creek are testimony to that. And now Kingston is slated to become the interim destination for one of the two last surviving steamboats in the country.

One of the more modest awards announced this past week as part of the sixth annual distribution of state funding for economic development was $48,500 to the SS Columbia Project. The funding is arts money. The New York State Council on the Arts’ mission is to encourage participation and public interest in the cultural heritage of New York State and to promote tourism and economic development. The state money will fund “a traveling celebration,” a pilot project for “how boats, cargo, ideas and people influenced the region’s river, canal and ports.” These arts and culture programs will be held aboard the 1902-built SS Columbia.

In order for those programs to occur on that locale, the venerable 208-foot-long steam-powered vessel has to be moored on the Hudson River, and specifically on the Rondout Creek. The SS Columbia Project website says she’s coming to Kingston.

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Until 1991, when it was laid up, Columbia’s working life had been spent transporting up to half a million Bob-Lo Excursion Company day passengers annually 18 miles from Detroit to a 985-acre largely company-owned Canadian island with a large amusement park, and back.

SS Columbia was auctioned off in 1996. With the assistance of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a New York-based non-profit group, the S.S. Columbia Project, took ownership of the Columbia in 2006, with the goal of restoring her to active service as an educational, cultural and heritage-tourism resource for use on the Hudson River.

In September 2015 the weather-beaten and decaying hulk was towed from Toledo to a dock at Silo City on the Buffalo River, where her hull was repaired at a cost of $1.6 million. Further stabilization work will be done in 2017. The long trip to Kingston is presently scheduled for 2018.

That phase of the plan, the SS Columbia Project website says, consists of towing Columbia the 2,047 statute miles up the St. Lawrence River, down the Atlantic Coast to the mouth of the Hudson River, and up to Kingston. The total cost of getting her to Kingston in her present condition is estimated by the SS Columbia Project at $4 to $5 million, which the website says is within the project’s financial reach.

Once docked at a yet-to-be identified location on the Rondout Creek, the propeller-driven craft will undergo a bow-to-stern, wheelhouse-to-hull restoration. That may cost another $15 or $20 million. It’s unclear where those funds will be coming from.

After restoration, the SS Columbia Project sees the Columbia moving to New York City and becoming once again an excursion boat, this time serving Hudson River destinations. She will live happily ever after.

How the SS Columbia looks these days. (photo by Alex Atwell)

On June 21, 1945 a group of 13 young women at a secretarial school and their teacher paid 85 cents each at the company dock to go on the outing from downtown Detroit to the company-owned Coney-Island-like amusement park on Bois Blanc Island (Bob-Lo Island) in Canada and back. The Columbia and her slightly smaller sister vessel, the St. Claire, took about 90 minutes to travel to the island.

All the women in the group that day were white except for Sarah Elizabeth Ray, who was refused entry to the Columbia and offered her money back.

The company was sued under Michigan law, with the legendary Thurgood Marshall arguing the case for the NAACP. The state supreme court convicted the company under a civil-rights law “for refusing passage to a Negro solely because of her color,” according to the transcript of the United States Supreme Court, which heard the company’s appeal on Dec. 16, 1947. The case, Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. Michigan, 333 U.S. 28, was decided on Feb. 2, 1948.

“This is a case of a discrimination against a Negro by a carrier’s complete denial of passage to her because of her race,” wrote Justice William O. Douglas in a concurring majority opinion on the 7-2 vote.

Bob-Lo had stated in its 1935 annual report that its policy of racial homogeneity “helps our patrons to handle the negro problem.” The company’s rules in the 1940s, according to its assistant manager’s court testimony, excluded “so-called zoot-suiters, the rowdyish, the rough and the boisterous, and it also adopted the policy of excluding colored.”

In July of the same year, President Harry S. Truman was to issue an executive order desegregating the nation’s armed forces. The period was also characterized by a federal policy of ending segregation of public facilities, accommodations and interstate commerce. Public amusement parks and recreation facilities were integrated. Bob-Lo Island was one of them.

Overt racism, punctuated by an atmosphere of periodic outbreaks of violence and persistent intimidation, continued then, and continues often in more subdued form today. In 1943 a race riot in segregated Detroit killed 34 and injured more than 600. That ugly episode was dwarfed by the prolonged Detroit riots of 1967, which left scores dead, hundreds injured and thousands arrested.

Sarah Elizabeth Ray never sought to go back to the amusement park, saying the incident had left a bad taste in her mouth. Still feisty at 85, she told a Detroit Free Press reporter in 2006 that she was “in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in.”

The Detroit excursion steamboat Columbia is the last of its domestic kind. It fits well with the river to which it seeks to emigrate. Is it not fitting that both the first American steamboat, the Clermont in 1807, and the last, the Columbia, hopefully 211 years later in 2018, will have plied the same waters of the Hudson River?

“It is often difficult to determine why some historical events rise to national prominence while others fade into oblivion,” writes historian and Cold Spring resident Ron Soodalter, explaining that he had been helping in the restoration of the Columbia when he came across Sarah Elizabeth Ray’s story.

The Columbia is a work in progress, with its fate very much uncertain. The Rondout clearly offers the best location and the most resources for a possible restoration. HRMM Executive Director Lisa Cline says various options are being considered.

Columbia restoration coordinator Ann Loeding, a Kingston resident, is confident the vessel, probably anchored near the maritime museum, “will not be a dead boat sitting at the dock.” During her long restoration, Columbia will be used, Loeding said, for education, cultural events and interpretation.

Should not Ray’s story be an important part of the Columbia experience? It would certainly be a timely reminder. The long era of the day liners should be celebrated not through rose-colored maritime nostalgia but warts and all. The farmers and laborers of the Hudson Valley who early every morning loaded the milk, the ice and the seasonal produce on the day liners destined for the city, for instance, are as important to the story of the Hudson as the posh tourists coming upriver in search of the sublime and the picturesque.

The saga of the Columbia, an ersatz Hudson-bred prodigal being towed to its new home port for restoration, provides one epic tale. Might it not do greater justice to the cultural heritage of New York to celebrate equally American stories such as Sarah Elizabeth Ray’s?

Just putting it out there.

There are 6 comments

  1. Tom Moore

    Growing up in Detroit in the 1950’s and 60’s I had the pleasure to have ridden on the Columbia many times and I can’t wait to witness it’s resurrection on the Hudson.

  2. Brian Shaughnessy

    I also grew up in Detroit and had the pleasure of riding to Bob-Lo Island as a child. I’m very excited to have Columbia coming to the area soon. Hopefully it will inspire many new fond memories as it has in the past.

  3. Hilary Harper

    It is a horrible shame that the SS Columbia is anywhere but on the Detroit River. Along with her sister ship the SS Ste. Claire, she is iconic to Detroit. Both ships were known as the “Bob-Lo Boats.” They were a happy part of life in the Detroit area for more than 80 years. And what a double shame that someone has gone to the trouble to dredge up an unhappy memory of Columbia. Obviously you have no idea what this ship meant to so many people in Detroit. The excursion to and from the amusement park was always joyful, with music and dancing on the dance floor. The Bob-lo boats were a daily sight on the river, making many trips back and forth. The sound of their whistles were the sound of summer along the river. She doesn’t belong to you and never will.

  4. Bob Walsh

    Even though it won’t reside in Detroit anymore, I, for one, am very glad to see that it won’t be rusting away moored to some dock. Both of these boats deserve a better fate. I spent lots of time on them as they made their way to the island. Half the fun was getting there and falling asleep on the way back. Things have changed since 1945 (the year I was born) and it was about time. It’s part of the history of the boats, the island and management. Not always pretty but, I feel, needs to be said. It would be wonderful to make the trip, after she is done, and ride on her again. I hope I’m around long enough to see it. Bob

  5. karen

    I recently viewed the bus Rosa Park refused to give her seat up at the Henry Ford Museum and was awe inspired. Perhaps they can make the Columbia another historical piece of history. Never knew about the incident with Sara Ray. Kind of darkens the memories I had of riding the boat. I was young and never noticed the discrimination. I have already made a date with some African American friends of mine who live in New York to party hardy on her when she begins her new life in New York. I wish her sister was having better luck. I am afraid she is just going to keep on her road to ruin.

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