Restoration progresses on former Boblo Island ferry


The former Boblo Island ferry, the SS Ste. Claire, is moored in a marina while restoration is underway Sept. 23 in Detroit. Despite a fire on the boat in 2018, a restoration crew has continued to make progress on the boat.

Restoration Project Manager Stephen Faraj talks on the dock near the SS Ste. Claire Sept. 23 at a marina in Detroit. Despite a fire on the ship in 2018, Faraj and his team have continued to make progress restoring it.

Photo by Brian Wells

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DETROIT — Stephen Faraj was devastated as he watched a fire tear through the upper decks of the SS Ste. Claire as it was moored in a Detroit marina in 2018.

“I guess I have three words for you: ‘Grown man crying,’” he said. “It was devastating.”

The fire was reportedly started by welding equipment. But Faraj, who serves as the restoration project manager, didn’t let the setback deter him from his goal of restoring the boat.

Built in 1910, the boat was one of two ferries used to transport countless passengers to and from Boblo Island. Its sister ship — the SS Columbia, which was built in 1902 — is being restored by a company in New York, where it will stay once restoration is completed.

Unlike the Columbia, Faraj said, the Ste. Claire will stay in Detroit.

“One of our biggest obstacles over the years is finding a place to put this ship, and we have gone through leaps and bounds to make sure that it always has a place in Detroit,” he said. “We have no intention of moving it from Detroit or taking Detroit out of Boblo.”

Despite the setback caused by the fire, restoration on the ferry has continued. During a media tour Sept. 23, Faraj showed off some of the work that had been completed, including the new floors and construction of a fourth deck that visitors will be allowed on, which Faraj said was an area where visitors previously weren’t allowed.

As in the past, the main deck of the ship — which will still have the same steel floor — will have a gift shop, concessions and restrooms. The second floor will again have a dance floor and DJ booth, and the third floor will have a bar and a museum featuring artifacts from the amusement park.

While Faraj said the goal is to have the restored ship take people back to their childhood summers spent making the cruise back and forth from the amusement park, the ship won’t actually be mobile. The original steam engines will be preserved and powered with electric motors so visitors can still watch them operate; however, they won’t be able to move the boat.

“If we were to try and re-power this ship with something other than steam, we would have to take so much of the Boblo Boat out of it, it wouldn’t be worth it,” Faraj said.

And while the 2018 fire was a setback, it didn’t destroy the boat. But what it did destroy, Faraj said, were countless original pieces.

“What was really lost was the irreplaceable pieces we won’t be able to bring back,” Faraj said. “But we know that we have enough of the boat preserved for it to still be the Boblo Boat, and we’ll be able to re-create what was lost.”

Once the superstructure of the boat has been completed, Faraj said he and his team will turn their focus to other areas, such as plumbing and electrical work. The goal, he said, is to have it ready for guests and visitors within about three years.

“Once the superstructure’s done and we add some railings and a few other things, we’ll actually be able to have the public on the boat even before it’s done, and that’s very exciting to us,” he said.

The restoration project is being funded by the ship’s owner, who Faraj said is a “wealthy doctor.” In addition, funds have been raised through donations and merchandise sales on the project’s website, www.bobloboatdetroit.com.

This summer, a film titled “Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale” launched in theaters throughout the Great Lakes region. The documentary is aimed at raising awareness and garnishing support for the project.

“I feel like we’re living in an age of nostalgia, because of so many chaotic and terrible things that have happened in the past year, that people really want to remember the good old times,” said Aaron Schillinger, the film’s director.

Schillinger said he’s had people sending him messages and sharing their memories of time spent on the boats.

“I have people emailing me with their stories of how they fell in love on the boat, or got brokenhearted. This guy from California … he remembers being dumped on the Boblo Boat and riding the Ferris wheel completely brokenhearted,” he said. “Some of the memories are traumatic, but they still look back at them fondly.”

After the film’s initial launch, its run in theaters was extended by a week.

“I’m just ecstatic that the film is resonating with people,” Schillinger said.

“There’s no other boats alike that resemble Columbia and her sister, Ste. Claire,” he added. “They’re the last two remaining steamboats, but they’re also as Detroit as Faygo, Better Made potato chips.”

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