Southern Tip of Belle Isle

Located in the Detroit River between the United States and Canada


This is the most beautiful park located on an international border in North America and one of the most impressive urban parks in the entire United States.  Perhaps no park in the country has a more attractive location than Belle Isle.

The Ottawa and Chippewa Indians who lived in this area when the French first explored the Detroit River and the Great Lakes in the Seventeenth Century apparently called the island Wah-na-be-zee, meaning white swan.  Later, however, Native Americas realized how many rattlesnakes lived on the island—perhaps a curse from a god—and gave this site a name meaning rattlesnake island.

When he arrived in 1701, Detroit founder and booster, Antoine Cadillac, was tremendously impressed by the flora and fauna and even wrote fondly of the possiblity of growing vines that would produce acceptable wine.  He named this island Isle La Marguerite in honor of one of his daughters.  I infer that name did not stick and the early French settlers called it Isle Au Ste. Clair, perhaps because its northern shores poked into the southern tip of Lake St. Clair.  Obviously they were impressed by the quality of the water here. The French population grew slowing in the 1700s, but several dozen ribbon farms developed stretching back from both sides of the river from Lake Ste. Clair on the north to Lake Erie on the south.  The farmers needed hogs, but if swine were not firmly penned, they would roam and tear up whatever was growing.  The French began letting their pigs roam on Belle Isle.  This had the beneficial effect of riding the place of snakes and the not-so-beneficial consequence of giving the site a new name, Ile aux cochons.

Much more so than the French, the English who settled the Midwest wanted official titles to their properties, and consistent with what was done in the United Kingdom, an owner measured his land and marked what he owned, thereby substantiating his claim.   On June 5, 1768; George McDougall, a lieutenant serving with the English forces, purchased the island from the Ottawa and Chippewa for cash plus tobacco, fabric, paint and rum.  The British then surveyed the island three years later.

In 1793, McDougall sold one-half of his interest in the island to William Macomb of the large and prosperous Macomb family that played a key role in the modest efforts the British made to settle and develop Detroit as a fur trading center.  The following year, Macomb purchased the other half of McDougall's interest.  Apparently there was little development of the island in the years after the United States replaced the British in Detroit.  In 1817, heirs of William Macomb sold the island to Barnabas Campau, a descent of one of the early French families that settled Detroit.

English speakers anglicanized the name of the island to Hog Island.  However, in 1845, the name was changed to Belle Isle to honor Isabelle Cass, the daughter of Territorial Governor and prominent political leader, Lewis Cass who subsequently served as Secretary of War and Ambassador to Paris.  I do not know why the name was altered at this time or who had the authority to select the name we use today.  Perhaps Lewis Cass may have owned this island at one time.  He owned a great deal of land in Detroit, hence the Cass Farms Area that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  However, I have never seen any firm evidence that Belle Isle was Cass property.

In 1851, a summer resort opened on Belle Isle.  This may be the first non-agricultural activity on the site.  The Campau family apparently continued their ownership.  Barnabas Campau’s widow married R. Storrs Willis and, in 1864, they built a home on Belle Isle.  The residence was named Inselruhe, the German term for Island Rest, a name now attached to a major south-north thoroughfare, the one with the statue of a pensive General Starkey Williams at its traffic round-about.  This home, I believe, was the first permanent residence on the island.

The post-Civil War era was the time of a great park-building effort in the prosperous cities of the United States.  City elders realized that their towns were unhealthy, dangerous places.  Many felt that there was a cultural loss as people moved away from spacious green and peaceful rural areas where they could raise their own food and into cities where some lived in elegant homes, but many more resided in congested tenements or small structures hardly larger than shacks.  Contagious diseases spread rapidly until cities built their expensive water and sewerage systems in the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century.  One way to improve the quality of urban life was to take a large area and turn it into a pleasant, quiet green park.  Thus, the mountain near downtown Montreal was turned into Mount Royale, Brooklyn developed Prospect Park, and Philadelphia created Fairmount Park adjoining a fine zoo. New York City created the most familiar park of all by removing low-income housing from 59th street to 104th to establish Central Park.  The man who was, arguably, the nation’s most imaginative and productive landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, contributed to the design of all those parks.   He was truly the father of the modern urban parks that developed in United States cities a century and half ago.

On September 23, 1879, the city of Detroit purchased Belle Isle, perhaps from heirs of the Campau family, although the state government may have also been involved in the property transfer.  The city then began developing the park we know today.  Frederick Law Olmstead was asked to assist in the design.   He called for a grand esplanade that might extend for much of the length of the island—an esplanade similar to what he designed for Central Park—and for a at least one canal to cross Belle Isle.   I believe that many in Detroit criticized Olmstead’s plan.  They may have also been financial problems in executing it.  Detroit newspaper man, Michael J. Dee, apparently proposed a different plan that would involve many canals and some lakes.  Whatever the reasons, Frederick Law Olmstead resigned from his role as the landscape architect but the park gradually emerged with both an esplanade— now known as Central Avenue—and many canals along with Lake Takoma.

Gradually, investments were made in the park.  The first bridge to the mainland—a wooden one—was completed in 1887. This bridge was undergoing repairs in 1916 when the crew accidentally set it on fire.  It burned to the water line.  A temporary bridge was built, but that structure was replaced in 1923 by the magnificent bridge that now links the mainland to the island.  For reasons that I do not understand, this bridge was named for General Douglas MacArthur in 1941.   When the city purchased Belle Isle in 1879, it included about 700 acres.  Detroit real estate entrepreneur, James Scott, contributed substantial funds for a major fountain in his honor.  As the city deliberated about whether to accept his donation and what sort of fountain might be appropriate—he made many enemies during his lifetime so it was not given that the city would accept his funds—his estate appreciated substantially.  By the time, work began on the James Scott Fountain, monies were available to add about 200 or more acres to the southwestern tip of the island.

Since the city purchased the island in 1879, the parks development has depended upon city funding and private donations.  Many, perhaps most, of the buildings on Belle Isle depended upon philanthropic contributions.   Several major buildings were erected around the turn of the Twentieth Century, and thereafter, a few building almost every decade.

Histories of Belle Isle suggest that it was used extensively by Detroit residents.  Until after World War II, many families did not own cars so they got to Belle Isle by the streetcars that took them to the intersection of East Grand Boulevard and East Jefferson.  With gasoline rationing during World War II, even those with cars could not drive very far, generating, presumably, more visitors to Belle Isle.  There were frequent racial confrontations on the island during World War II and the largest racial riot of that era began on Belle Isle on June 20, 1943.

After World War II, the city was able to invest in Belle Isle for some decades, but with the exodus of population and the loss of tax revenue by 1970 or so, the city lacked funds to invest in the park.  Gradually, several of its attractions, including the zoo and the aquarium, were closed.  In 1973 a new collaborative effort was initiated to improve the island—the Friends of Belle Isle.  In the last 15 or so years, modest investments have been made to restore Belle Isle to its glory including the renovation of the Flynn Pavilion, the planting of trees and the building of a new comfort station at the southern end of the park and the opening of a new Belle Isle Nature Zoo at the northern end.

This website includes pages describing many of the major buildings including the following:

Belle Isle Police Station (George Mason and Rice, 1893)
Belle Isle Aquarium (Albert Kahn, 1904)
Belle Isle Conservatory (Albert Kahn, 1903)Belle Isle Conservatory – 1904 – Architect: Albert Kahn
Belle Isle Casino (Van Leyen and Schilling, 1907)

Belle Isle Nature Zoo - 2007
James Scott Fountain (Cass Gilbert, 1925)
Livingston Lighthouse (Albert Kahn, 1930)

The Reverend Samuel Francis Smith Flagpole -1932 – Architect Albert Kahn
Nancy Brown Peace Carillon (1940)
Flynn Memorial Skating Pavilion – 1950  - Architect Eero Saarinen
Dosin Marine Museum (1960)

Two private organizations built large clubhouse that are, technically, not on Belle Isle but adjoin it:

Detroit Boat Club (Alpheus Chittenden, 1902)
Detroit Yacht Club (George Mason, 1923)

There are many sculptures and works of art on Belle Isle.  This website includes web pages for the following:

Detroit Newsboy Statue and Fountain – 1892
Major General Alpheus Sharkey Williams (Henry Shady, 1921)
James J. Brady Memorial – 1928 – Sculptor Sam Cash wan
Spanish American War Commemorative – 1932 – Sculptor Allen Newman
Levi Barbour Memorial Fountain – 1936 – Sculptor Marshal Fredericks
Untitled – 1972 – Sculptor Stanley Dolega
Atom Gazelle – 1991 – Sculptor Richard Bennett

City of Detroit Designated Historic District – Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites; Listed September 10, 1979, # P25,046
National Register of Historic Places: Listed April 25, 1974  #74000994
Use in 2011:  City park
Description prepared: January, 2011

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