Belle Isle Historic District

Detroit River northwest of downtown Detroit

Chippewa and Ottawa Indians called this location Wah-na-be-zee, meaning Swan Island. Antoine Cadillac, shortly after arrival, designated that the island would be available for use by anyone. The early French farmers who obtained charters for their ribbon farms from the crown in the 1700s, allowed their pigs to graze on the island, hence the French name, Ile au Chochons. In 1762, a British settler, George McDougall, cleared part of the island for his use, built a home and hired the James Fisher family to serve as caretakers. The Ottawas did not recognize McDougall's claim so, after unsuccessfully attacking the village of Detroit in 1763, they went to the island and killed Mr. Fisher, his wife and two children. Five years later, McDougall obtained official title for the island from the Indians, paying in tobacco, rum and vermillion paint. In 1893, William Macomb, of the prosperous fur trading family, purchased the island from the McDougall brothers. Twenty-four years later, his heirs sold title to Barnabas Compau, a descendent of one of the founding families of Detroit. On July 4, 1845, the name was changed to Belle Isle in honor of Isabelle Cass, the daughter of territorial governor Lewis Cass.

The Civil War sped the industrial development of Detroit and other Midwestern cities. In their early years, these places were exceptionally dirty and congested. By this time Baron Haussmann was developing his ideas to make Paris a beautiful City of Light, using broad boulevards and gracious parks. In 1877, the city and state government cooperated in their efforts to make Detroit an elegant city. A 12-mile peripheral boulevard circling the city was laid out, the boulevard whose name still conveys its purpose: Grand Boulevard. Simultaneously, Belle Isle was purchased from the Campau family and designated a park.

The island is about one-third of a mile from the United States shoreline and one-quarter mile from Canada's. Although irregular in shape, it is approximately two and one-half miles long and one-half mile wide. Originally, Belle Isle included 768 acres, but land was added with the building of the James Scott Fountain, so the park attained 985 acres.

More so than any other period, urban park building reached its zenith in the era following the Civil War. The Jeffersonian ideal presumed that this country's strength came from a population of farmers, merchants, local manufacturers and citizen patriots who lived in whole rural areas or small villages. To Jefferson, cities posed a threat to democracy since mobs might be mobilized to overturn the government as had happened in Paris.

After the Civil War, it became clear that cities were growing rapidly challenging the Jeffersonian ideals. Rum, gambling, drugs and commercial sex were readily available in cities; politicians often seemed corrupt and a system of "machine" politics was emerging. Instead of breathing the clean air of farms and living in bucolic serenity, city residents breathed coal smoke and lived next to filthy factories and rail lines. The urban park movement stressed that city residents could be given a glimpse of the virtues of the rural environment if there large areas were devoted to green space. Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Forest Park in St. Louis and the Zoological Gardens in Cincinnati date from this period.

Not to be outdone by other cities, Detroit's elders sought out the nation's most accomplished and prolific landscape architect to design Belle Isle, Frederick Law Olmstead. Perhaps they hoped that Detroit's park rival his major achievements: Mount Royal in Montreal, Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Olmstead proposed a grand boulevard or road to transverse much of the park and a canal for the its northern reaches. Belle Isle, at this time, was extremely marshy so the creative Olmstead proposed using the city's detritus for fill. Michael Dees, a local newspaperman, sharply criticized Olmstead's design for being too unimaginative. He proposed that a series of canals across the island. Eventually, the city's authorities approved Olmstead's idea of a grand central road and some of Dee's canals. John Donaldson carried out the design and is responsible for much of the present lay-out. Belle Isle was opened to the public in 1884.

In the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth, many impressive buildings were erected in the park including:

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

Two private boating organizations constructed large buildings:
Detroit Boat Club (Alpheus Chittenden, 1902)
Detroit Yacht Club (George Mason, 1923)

Belle Isle became a favorite location for the building memorials including:
James Scott Fountain (Cass Gilbert, 1925)
Statue of James Scott (Herbert Adams, 1925)
Levi L. Barbour Memorial Fountain (Marshall Fredericks, 1936)
Livingston Lighthouse (Albert Kahn, 1930)
Nancy Brown Peace Carillon (1940)
Dosin Marine Museum

Numerous historical markers and statue commemorate the contributions of both Detroit residents and international figures including:
Ransom E. Olds
Major General Alpheus Sharkey Williams (Henry Shady, 1921)
Johann Frederic von Schiller (Herman Matson, 1907)
Dante Alighieri (Rafaela Roman Elli, 1927)

As you would guess, a large city park provokes a great deal of controversy and attracts many proposals. To celebrate the city's 200th anniversary in 1901, Charles Freer and other some other successful Detroiters proposed erecting a memorial commemorating the city's importance. Sanford White designed a structure that resembled the Washington Monument, but opposition in Detroit and a lack of funds kept the design on the architect's table. For more than a decade, their was strong opposition to using the funds from James Scott's will to erect the fountain and statue that he donated. Fortunately, his estate grew rapidly during this delay so, eventually, monies were available to add one hundred or more acres to the southwestern end of the island as well as add one of the nation's most appealing fountains.

During World War II, when gasoline and rubber were rationed, Belle Isle was a favorite and extremely busy recreation spot. Unofficial Jim Crow regulations specified which parts of the park whites and blacks might use but young men frequently crossed the Jim Crow lines to fight. The nation's most disastrous and bloody World War II racial riot began on the Belle Isle Bridge on June 20, 1943.

The exodus of population from the city of Detroit after World War II reduced use of Belle Isle. The city's financial status weakened greatly in the 1970s and so support for Belle Isle and its facilities was reduced. The park also gained a reputation for being a dangerous place. This has changed in recent years.

There is a metropolitan park authority in southeast Michigan that supports facilities in the suburban ring. Frequently, there are proposals to include Belle Isle in this series of parks since this would increase the flow of funds. Some city residents oppose this since the city would surrender control of this fabulous park. In addition, admission charges are collected at all suburban parks but, since Cadillac arrived in 1701, no fees have been imposed to at Belle Isle.

A landscape architect could easily defend the proposition that there is no urban park in the United States with a more attractive location than Belle Isle: in the middle of a clean, rapidly flowing rivers with the shorelines of two friendly nations visible for every point. Unambiguous signs of favorable changes at Belle Isle have appeared in recent years and successful efforts are gradually turning Detroit's riverfront front from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle into parkland. Perhaps in another few decades, when commentators describe the legacy of the park movement of the post Civil War era, Belle Isle will be included with Prospect Park and Central Park.

Architectural design: Frederick Law Olmsted and Michael Dees
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Listed September 10, 1979
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Erected September 11, 1979
National Register of Historic Sites: # 74000999; February 25, 1974
Website for Friends of Belle Isle:

Description Updated: January 20, 2009


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