My Bob-Lo Experiences

By Bob DeGroft Now living in Cedar Crest, NM

During the 50s, I had the pleasure of having the coolest job in Detroit for a kid, working for Bob-Lo.

Briefly, my main job was to be a ticket taker at the docks at the foot of Woodward from opening day to closing day, no scheduled days off. I did this for 5 or 6 summers. At 71 now, I can't remember all of the exact dates.

My family moved to Grosse Pointe Farms from Ft. Wayne, IN. in 1949. I was 12 years old and my first visit to Bob-Lo was in the summer of 1950. Immediately I was taken by the sights, sounds and smells of a steamship up close. My older brother Jerry was the first to get a job at Bob-Lo, then owned by the Browning family, and when I was able to get an underage working permit at the age of 15, I got a job there too. I continued every summer thru college. The pay was 90 cents and hour and I worked as much as I could to earn money for school. Overtime? I don't recall that we got extra pay for it but I took as much of it as I could. Depending on the amount of passengers, we, the ticket takers were recruited rather hastily to work on the boat as a “Buff Boys”, short for buffet, I guess. We worked the several counters serving popcorn, soft drinks, candy and hot dogs to the passengers. It was hard, hot work, but a lot of fun. Lots of great looking girls!

My favorite of the two boats was the Columbia. She was the oldest of the two boats, had a slimmer hull, and could run faster than the Claire. Additionally she did not have the ugly modern enclosed bow. Not sure about this but I think Captain Beatty was her Captain.

Captain Bob-Lo was always on hand to gab with the kids before and during the trips, and Joe Vitale had the two bands that played the boats. When the boat left the dock the band would hold forth on the fore portion of the beer deck and play the trip off.

After making the turn to downriver, the engine room bells would clang for full ahead and you could hear the additional strain of the engines as the steam valve was opened full by the engineer. The stern of the boat would tremble, making the un-used chairs hop around until her stern settled down. You got a free foot massage if you worked the back counter.

Most of the time, working on the boat was a lot of fun when the weather was good, but if we got into a storm, life could be very uncomfortable for passengers and crew. The wind and rain would blow thru her from bow to stern and the crew would scramble to lower her storm curtains. They gave only marginal comfort.

One particular day I was not on board but was at the dock awaiting Columbia's arrival on a really stormy day. It was raining so hard that we could not see her. We kept looking at our watches, no boat, then out of the rain came a loud blast of her whistle; she was only yards away! I stood out in the storm to catch the mooring lines and was soaked to the skin in moments. As I was hauling in one of her lines, I looked up and saw an old woman peeking out from a slit in the storm curtain above the gangway. After securing Columbia to the dock and moving the dock board into place I retired to the large waiting room where I was trying to dry off. That same lady came up to me and with scared but caring eyes she opened my closed hand and put something in it. At the same time she said “God Bless you son” and walked off. I opened my hand and there was a shiny dime! It made it all worth it.

One of the perks of being on the boat was that you got to eat in the crews galley, in the hold just behind the engine. It was small, the kitchen smaller, but the food was unbelievable. I remember having Roast Fresh Ham for the first time in my life, haven't had any since; mashed potatoes, gravy, veggies; and as much as you want. The crew always griped about the food quality, but I thought it was wonderful. The crew consisted of the men that actually ran the boat. Those of us that worked the concessions were not considered crew. An interesting additional note about the crew. They were Union and thus got the job by going to the Union Hall and waiting for a job to come up. There were some yearly regulars, but also quite a few folks who didn't last a season. Within two or three days after payday, most were broke having partied or gambled away their checks. Then they wanted to bum money off of us ‘til payday. Had the feeling that one or two of the crew had all of the gambling winnings.

As I got older, I would act as a substitute Purser, giving the real one some time off. There were no scheduled days off for the crew. The Purser's job was to manage the cash on-board, take register readings and put the days' receipts in the ships safe until the next morning. It was also the Purser's job to be the liaison between the passengers and crew. If someone got sick or hurt, or lost a kid, it was my job to take charge of the situation. I got to wear the beige uniform of a ships officer and spend the night in the Pursers' cabin and really ate the job up.

My favorite spots on board were the engine room, which I could visit during breaks as long as I didn't get in the way, and the top deck by the wheelhouse. In the engine room all of the machinery was spread about. OSHA would have a heart attack down there. The main electrical board was just a foot from the narrow passage by the engine. There was an engineer who controlled the engine and an oiler/wiper who kept the great machine running smoothly. Forward of the engine room was the boiler room; unbelievably hot with two oil fired boilers. The fireman wore only trousers, an athletic undershirt, with a fresh towel wrapped around his neck, His hair was as fine as silk, I guess from all of the steam and heat. He could open the firebox door with his bare hands to check on the fire! I couldn't. In the daytime I could sometimes get up to the wheelhouse and watch the goings-on between the Captain and the Helmsman. In the background was the ship to shore radio but much of the ship to ship communication was done by whistle. One blast to let oncoming ships know we were passing to the left or two for passing to the right. Three longs and a short were a “salute” that Columbia and Claire would blast when they passed each other or any of the Browning ore boats on the Detroit River.

The Moonlight cruises were always special on the top deck, or the “makeout deck”. Up there it was pitch dark and the young ladies and lads would sit themselves up there to get in a little smooching. In the wheelhouse it was also very dark in order to see the other ships. When the whistle was needed, the crew had a choice. If they were feeling normal, they'd let a little steam thru the whistle to pre-warn the passengers that a full blast was coming. At night, when they had a little of the devil in them, they'd simply pull the cord with a big jerk and watch all of the people jump out of their skins.

At the time, I recall that the coast guard who regulates passenger capacity of the two boats rated Columbia at 2550, and Claire at 2414. That was the allowable count from Woodward Avenue, but it was impossible to govern this if you were the last boat off the Island. Then you had to take everyone who was there regardless, so sometimes she came home pretty low in the water. We would feverishly throw a full package of hot dogs in the steam table and start serving them at once, cold. We'd run out of ice (no ice machine on board) and serve the drinks warm. Hardly anyone fussed!

During evenings and on Moonlights, the beer deck (3rd level) was open for business, and believe me they did good business! Not often, but sometimes a fight would break out up there. As underage kids we were not allowed and the crew would have to break them up along with the security guard, if they could find him. Fights usually broke out between two tables of drinkers who built pyramids out of empty cans on their tables as a sort of competition. Then one group would knock over the pyramid of the other and the fights began. I remember a deckhand named “Tilley” who was short, totally bald, muscular, and not afraid of a fight. We thought He actually had bayonet scars on his torso! On one particular fight he jumped into the fray and shortly came skidding out on his chest. The beer deck was about a foot higher than the rest of the deck and had a grating all around it to keep non drinkers out. He came flying out of the beer level, plopped on the lower deck, got up and jumped right back in. This time he stayed in. Fighters were then sentenced to serve the rest of the trip in the check room that was a cage on the main deck located just above the boilers. By the time they got to the dock, they were very co-operative. In the afternoon, one of my jobs was to help stock the beer coolers. They had a conveyor belt rigged from the dock to the third deck and we would take the cases from the end of the belt, throw them over the beer rail and put them in the coolers. Sometimes a few beers seemed to disappear during this process. I know nothing about that.

 A very Close Call. One evening returning from closing the island we were just about under the Ambassador Bridge making a gentle turn to starboard. I was on the main deck buffet at the stern. When you spend as much time as I did on the boats you could tell the time and your location on the trip by hearing the engine room bell signals as they never changed much from one trip to another. First we heard our whistle sound two blasts, indicating that we were going to pass a down bound ship on the right. A moment or two went by without the usual response from the other ship acknowledging. Our Captain repeated the signal without a response; then the engine room bell signaled for an “all stop”, unusual for this place in the river. Then repeated emergency whistle blasts, and hurried signal bells to the engine room indicating the Captain wanted full astern. I thought the boat was going to fly apart. Everything on the stern was bouncing all over the place as the boat strained to reverse her forward motion. All of a sudden a very large black hull soundlessly whisked by, you could reach out and touch it, but it disappeared in a split second. It turned out to be a foreign freighter navigating the River without a river pilot. Had the Captain not taken the emergency measures that night, a lot of people would have died. There was a huge sigh from all when this happened. The next day there was a hearing with the Coast Guard on the near collision, and the freighter was sighted.

If I did take a day off, sometimes I'd put on a swimsuit under my clothes and get up to the top deck behind the stack, lay out a towel and sunbathe all the way to the island, spend the day on the island riding for free, and return via the top deck; all to myself. Only thing I had to worry about was when the fireman blew the soot from the boiler tubes thru the stack. If the wind was right I'd get a nice coating of oil soot all over me.

When I was in college, my folks moved to Illinois, so myself and my college buddy John Martinen shared a room at the Norton Hotel, on Jefferson. Gone now, along with the Bob-Lo waiting room and docks, Vernors plant, etc. But it made it very easy to get to work, about five minutes!

The Moonlight charters were always a lot of fun, the most fun being when the Detroit Police would charter both boats for an evening of fun. They used to toss beer cans off the stern and shoot at them with their pistols! Other charters were the SPEBSQSA (Society for the Promotion and Expansion of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America). Quartets all over the boat singing.

A romance that never got under way. All employees on the Island were Canadian, since the Island is in Canada. The kids that worked on the Island would hitch a ride to Detroit on the boat to shop and mess around. One day a very nice looking, very petite young girl was with them and I was smitten. I asked around and found out that her name was Pat Willette; she worked on the Island at a refreshment stand, and lived in Amherstberg. I hopped a boat to the Island a few days later and went to look for her to ask her out. I found her there working but I couldn't get up the courage to talk to her. Never saw her again. I really beat myself up over that. 

I really don't recall anything about special trims or decorations on the boat. Each Spring she'd get a new coat of paint. We used to joke about the paint being so thick you could scrap the boat and sail the paint!

A not so nice thing: We used to toss all of the garbage off the stern at night. The bottom of the Detroit River must be lined with beer cans. It never occurred to us that this wasn't a good thing to do.

Some names I remember:

Bill Browning, President of Bob-Lo

B.B. Browning, Bills father, he lived in the closed upstairs section of the waiting room during the summer. Heck of a guy.

Troy H. Browning. Pres. of Browning Steamship Co. Offices in Guardian Bldg., Arrived in a big black Imperial. Always with big cigar. His ego got there before he did. Ralph Browning was generally following behind.

Rudy…don't know his last name, never did. He ran the concessions. A fireplug of a guy with one bad eye and grey hair. Ever present stub of a cigar in his mouth.

Ray Scheetz, ex vaudevillian / magician. He ran the ticket operation and charters.

Lon Rose, Purser, from Ft. Collins, CO


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