State - Michigan boat undergoes $10 million renovation

By Melanie D. Scott

Detroit Free Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Underneath the chipping paint and decaying wood found in a sitting room for women on the SS Columbia, Lori Feret points out the intricate murals of roses on the ceiling.

"The murals are so beautiful, I don't understand why they covered them with paint," Feret said. "There are so many beautiful areas on this boat."

As a local historian and a board member of the Friends of Belle Isle, Feret has spent years trying to save historical institutions throughout Detroit.

"She's such a piece of history, and I hate to see her in this condition," Feret said of the Columbia.

But the Columbia is undergoing a $10-million face-lift and soon will leave the Detroit River for a new home in New York.

As a result of her love for the boat, Feret has been asking metro Detroiters to share their memories of the Columbia and her sister boat, the Ste. Claire. The two took generations of metro Detroiters to and from Boblo Island.

Feret of Madison Heights has organized several fund-raising cruises on the Detroit River, where people are recorded sharing their memories. The video is then posted on the SS Columbia Project's Web site.

"The Columbia represents a lot of history," said Richard Anderson, president of the New York-based SS Columbia Project. "She had a long good career and never lost a passenger."

Docked behind the U.S. Steel Great Lakes Works plant in River Rouge, the SS Columbia sits in the Detroit River looking worn and tattered after nearly 20 years of abandonment.

The Columbia, which mostly is known for shuttling thousands daily in the summer over several decades to Boblo Island, is now the oldest surviving passenger steam vessel in the U.S.

The Columbia, at 108 years old, is undergoing a restoration. A New York-based nonprofit organization hopes to use the historical boat as a floating educational tool stationed in the Hudson River Valley.

"We want to use the boat to teach school kids and help revive a floating cultural center," said Richard Anderson, president of the nonprofit SS Columbia Project.

In late November, the SS Columbia Project hired Troy-based insurance restoration contractors Signal Building to stabilize the boat before transporting it next year to New York, where it will have more work done to restore it to its original condition.

Workers from Signal Building have spent days, mostly in temperatures below 30 degrees, adding plywood on top of the boat's rotting floorboards. The week before Christmas, the workers were enforcing the hurricane deck -- also known as the top of the boat.

"This boat was docked near where I lived, and I rode it many times as a kid," said Mike Prusky, a lead carpenter from Wyandotte. "I would prefer to see this boat in Detroit, but no one stepped up to the plate."

When Prusky and other contractors arrived to work on the boat, they had to be careful where they walked because the surface was so unstable.

"We are making it stable so you will be able to walk around, and we are cleaning it up," said Brent Dexter, 23, a laborer from Farmington Hills. "My mom and dad told me stories about the boat, and it's definitely one of the cooler projects we've worked on."

A dance floor in the center of the boat, which was often used during trips to Boblo, was the first to be built on a steam vessel in the U.S. The Columbia shuttled passengers to Boblo Island for 89 years.

Those who ventured to the amusement park may remember a second boat, the Columbia's smaller sister, the Ste. Claire. Both last were used to take visitors to Boblo in September 1991.

William Worden, head of the Columbia Steamer Foundation, tried to sell the Columbia in the early 2000s but had no takers.

The Ste. Claire sits behind the Columbia in the Detroit River. It is owned by Maximus Corp. and awaits restoration. It is slated to stay in Detroit.

The SS Columbia Project acquired the Colombia in May 2006 with the assistance of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Since then, the organization has been raising money to restore the boat, and the project is to be done in several phases.

Project coordinators estimate the cost to restore the Columbia at $10 million.

Anderson said the boat will teach visitors about the environmental evolution of the steam vessel from originally burning coal and dumping sewage to eventually burning oil and disposing of human waste in a more environmentally friendly way.

The boat also is to incorporate other history lessons, including one about an African-American woman named Sarah Elizabeth Ray who was ordered to leave the boat in 1945 because of her skin color. The incident led to a civil rights lawsuit.

"It's beautiful because there are multiple ways in which the Columbia will serve the public," Anderson said. "She has a relationship with the environment because she has the ability to take people out of an urban area into nature."

Published: Wed, Jan 12, 2011