Checking in with Columbia

We reported on the excursion steamer Columbia one year ago in Sea History 149 (Winter 2014–15). Believed to be the oldest intact remaining passenger steamer in the country, the veteran of nearly 90 years of ferrying passengers back and forth to Bob-Lo Island had been towed to the Toledo, Ohio, Ironhead Marine for initial cleanup and repairs before making the journey to Buffalo, NY, where work continues.

Photo: Joe Russello for the SS Columbia ProjectWe’ve received this year-end update from the good folks at the SS Columbia Project:

We have made tremendous progress in the past year. Columbia has undergone a $1.6 million hull restoration. The boat has traveled over 250 nautical miles, glided across three rivers—Detroit, Maumee, and Buffalo—and crossed Lake Erie. She has passed the shorelines of three states—Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—before landing for the first time in New York State.

It was a memorable experience to watch. A flotilla led by the fireboat Edward M. Cotter, the tall ship Spirit of Buffalo, and private vessels, from sailboats to kayaks, greeted our steamboat as she came into Buffalo Harbor.  Columbia is now docked in the Buffalo River at Silo City, where our crew has prepared her for winter.

Columbia was built in 1902 by the Detroit Dry Dock Company in Wyandotte, Michigan. Her designer was the well-known naval architect Frank Kirby, working with artist and architect Louis O. Keil. She carried passengers from Detroit to the amusement park on Boblo Island. The 80-minute cruise was an attraction in its own right; Columbia had a full-sized ballroom and bands played popular music to entertain the crowds. Columbia and her “little sister,” Ste. Claire, the “Boblo boats,” served the island until 1991, just two years before the amusement park closed altogether.

The Boblo boats were declared national Historic Landmark Vessels in 1992; unfortunately, campaigns to restore them and find new homes for them weren’t able to secure the funding necessary for the undertaking. New York preservationist Richard Anderson formulated a plan to bring Columbia to the Hudson River, which had its own heyday of steam ferries, to serve as a cultural flagship reconnecting New York City to the waterfront cities and towns along the scenic Hudson Valley. Mr. Anderson passed away in 2013, but SS Columbia Project is continuing his work to make Columbia‘s new mission a reality.