Opinion: Saying goodbye to the Ste. Claire
Many Detroiters cherish memories of trips to Bob-Lo Island, where half of the fun was riding the waves of the Detroit River back & forth on the two old excursion steamers – The SS Columbia and the SS Ste. Claire. Ste. Claire was ravaged by fire on July 6, most of her upper structure destroyed. Her burned out hull remains opposite Belle Isle, where she has been stuck deep into a sandbar about 30 feet offshore from Riverside Marina for the past year and a half.
This tragic fire was not the first caused by welders who were working on the ship, but sadly it destroyed what little remained of this once great vessel.
The owner of Ste Claire, Dr. Ron Kattoo claims that he can still rebuild her. In the past, Dr. Kattoo used the term "restoration," but from his description of his plans even then he seemed to be talking about a rebuild.
A few years ago posts on his old website – “Boblo Boat Ste. Claire Restoration Project” – stated: "A final determination is being made as to the amount of wood that needs to be left to maintain historical status. The majority of the superstructure will be removed meaning the removal of the fourth and third decks and the outer rim of the second deck. The superstructure will be completely rebuilt from the second deck and above. The outer supporting ring on each deck which is made of wood will be replaced with steel.”
Architectural plans posted by Kattoo promised did not promise a restored Ste. Claire but a new modernized interior of the ship.
The Columbia built in 1902 and the Ste. Claire built in 1910 were designed by the famed ship architect Frank E. Kirby with interiors designed by Louis O. Keil. They are the oldest remaining classic excursion passenger steamers in the country, and they are the last existing vessels from the Detroit, Belle Isle and Windsor Ferry Co who contracted to have them built for the Bob-Lo Island run.
These ships’ 81 years of service on a single run is unequaled in U. S. maritime history. They were both laid up after completing their voyages on Labor Day 1991 and never sailed again.
One can only hope that there might be some small glimmer of a future for Ste. Claire, but it would seem that this dim dream has gone up in smoke. There could be much damage to her hull and keel from running into the sandbar, the fire and the extensive weight of the water poured into her. Ste. Claire may be joining the sad fate of many other old steamer ferries of the Detroit River like the Tashmoo, the Put-In-Bay, the Britannia, and their many other predecessors.
However there is still hope for Ste. Claire’s older, bigger sister the SS Columbia! Columbia is doing well these days and spending time in Buffalo, New York, visited by her followers while awaiting continuance of her journey to New York City for a full, historic restoration by the SS Columbia Project group. While it is unfortunate that she is now one of a kind, Columbia is expected to revive the grand tradition of excursion steamboats on the Hudson River. Once Columbia arrives in New York and finishes her restoration she will be loved for more than just memories of trips to Bob-Lo Amusement Park, but for the opportunity to once again get out on the water for the day with children onboard, once again laughing and playing on her decks.
Lori Feret has been involved in restoration efforts of the Ste. Claire.