One of my favorite childhood memories is of piling into the backseat of my grandfather’s big Dodge with my cousins on steamy summer nights in the 1950s and cruising around Belle Isle, hoping to catch a breeze off the Detroit River.
My uncle recalls spending entire nights on the island, sleeping on blankets on the ground when my grandparents joined thousands of other Detroit families seeking relief, gypsy camp-style, from Detroit’s infamous 1936 heat wave.
And whenever my mother saw frog legs on a menu she would reminisce about stalking frogs in Belle Isle’s marshes. She and her brothers weren’t alone in bopping the amphibians on the heads with a stick and tossing them in a bucket until they had enough for dinner.
Accessible by the graceful MacArthur Bridge a few miles east of downtown, Belle Isle is Detroit’s island playground, with views of the city skyline and its international neighbor of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Generations of area residents have fond memories of bottle-feeding goats in the old petting zoo, lining up for pony rides, ice skating, picnicking and posing for photos by the James Scott Memorial Fountain.
“Our user survey found a deep sense of connectedness to Belle Isle,” says Michele Hodges, president of the Belle Isle Conservancy, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving the 982-acre urban retreat.
With seven miles of shoreline, it’s America’s largest city-owned island park. “Pretty much any Detroiter you ask will have a memory and a story. They see Belle Isle as an iconic place where you celebrate life’s special moments. There’s a real deep connection.”
That connection has remained strong for centuries as the fortunes of the glacier-created island in the middle of the Detroit River waxed and waned with the city’s changing economic conditions. But after some very tough times in the late 20th century, Belle Isle is on the upswing once again, following its transition in 2014 to a Michigan State Park that’s leased from the city.
Last year, as one of Michigan’s top destinations, Belle Isle drew more than 4.1 million visitors, many of whom came to watch the Detroit Grand Prix car races, ooh-and-aah at the end-of-June fireworks display, or participate in the Once Around Belle Isle paddlers’ event, the family-oriented Shiver on the River or Detroit Free Press Marathon. Others opted to lounge on the beach, paddle canoes or kayaks, bird-watch, fish, picnic or hit golf balls at the driving range.
Marine history exhibits, including the anchor from the shipwrecked Edmund Fitzgerald, draw visitors to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. Families especially enjoy the Belle Isle Nature Center’s glass-enclosed bee colony, Michigan wildlife and migratory birds, plus descendants of European fallow deer that were given to Detroit by the president of France in 1895.
The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, with its stunning 85-foot dome, 600-plant orchid grotto, koi pond, gardens and holiday displays of poinsettias and Easter lilies is a favorite escape year-round. At the Belle Isle Aquarium, which ranks among the nation’s oldest aquariums, green opalite glass tiles line the arched ceiling designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn. With ocean water brought in from the coasts, the aquarium opened in 1904 and is home to one of the world’s largest collections of air-breathing fish, South American piranhas and the only known collection of all seven species of gar in North America.
It was affection for the aquarium’s puffer fish named Otis, combined with fond childhood memories, that convinced Phyllis Strange of Detroit and her sister, Melba Stokes of suburban Farmington Hills, to volunteer there several times each month. Strange says her family’s attachment to Belle Isle began decades ago when her father worked in the island greenhouse. As the sisters reminisced near the aquarium’s Beaux Arts entrance, Kevin and Kathleen McGraw LeClair paused for photos outside the nearby Conservatory, where they’d just gotten married. Theirs was one of some 235 wedding ceremonies held at various sites on the island last year.
“My parents used to keep their sailboat at the Detroit Yacht Club, which afforded me many great memories of Belle Isle as a child. When I had my children I would take them over to visit the Conservatory, and at times go by myself, especially in the winter. I love gardening and when I had the winter blues it always made me feel better,” the bride says.
Since they visited the Conservatory on one of their first dates, it seemed like the perfect place for their wedding, adds Kevin LeClair. “We wanted a smaller, more personal affair for our second marriages. We wanted it in a unique location that helped create an event to remember.”
And, as it has for so many Detroiters and visitors, Belle Isle once again came through.
A FASCINATING HISTORY
Belle Isle’s unofficial historian, Lori Feret, co-editor of the Belle Isle Conservancy Newsletter and a volunteer on various committees including historic preservation and the Belle Isle Aquarium, shares these bits about Belle Isle:
Native Americans used the island some four centuries ago for fishing, hunting and meditation.
Detroit’s 18th century French settlers brought cattle from their ribbon farms to graze on the island and, later, hogs whose thick skins made them snake-resistant—all of which helps explain why it was variously known as Rattlesnake Island and Hog Island.
Belle Isle Park became the official name in 1881, honoring Isabella Cass, daughter of the general-turned-governor, Lewis Cass.
The island was deeded to Lt. George McDougall by King George III for four barrels of rum, three rolls of tobacco, three pounds of vermillion and a belt of wampum, plus an additional three barrels of rum and three barrels of paint upon delivery. Valued at 194 pounds sterling, the deal was signed on May 5, 1769.
Belle Isle’s colorful history includes an Indian massacre, duels and a visit in 1895 by Buffalo Bill Cody and his legendary Wild West Show, with Sitting Bull. Magician Harry Houdini flung his shackled self into the Detroit River from the MacArthur Bridge in 1906 and survived.
Ferries served the island from the 1840s through 1957.
The park was partially designed by prominent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame. He resigned five years after being hired, in 1885, after failing to get the desired financial commitment from city officials to realize his vision.
Dedicated in 1930, the historic William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse is made of white Georgian marble with a gilded bronze lantern room. It’s the only marble lighthouse in the nation.
A speakeasy operated in the basement of the aquarium during Prohibition, and during World War II the U.S. military practiced landing maneuvers for Iwo Jima at the Belle Isle beach.
In 1921 Detroit’s was the nation’s first police department to put a radio-equipped police car into service, at the Belle Isle police station. After seven more years of experimentation its radio communication system became a model for the nation.
The Nancy Brown Peace Carillon, an 85-foot tower, plays recorded bell sounds at intervals throughout the day.
WHEN YOU GO
Learn more about the history of Belle Isle and its individual attractions, including hours and days of operation, at the Belle Isle Conservancy website: belleisleconservancy.org
A State Park Recreation Passport is required for entry, though admission is free for visitors who arrive by foot, bicycle or public transportation. For non-Michigan drivers, the fee is $9 for a day-pass or $32 for an annual recreation pass good for all state parks. michigan.gov/recreationpassport
DETROIT VISITOR INFORMATION visitdetroit.com; (800) 338-7648 or (313) 202-1800
This article originally appeared in the 2017 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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