Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Belle Isle Park

Belle Isle is a recreational island park located in the Detroit River. The French who settled the island in the 1700s referred to it as “Hog Island,” and allowed public use for keeping animals. The City of Detroit purchased the island from the Campau family in 1879 and opened it to the public the following year. The strains of an ever-growing urban environment inspired cities to designate space for relaxation and recreation, and Belle Isle, as it became known, was a popular choice to become a park. It is the country’s largest city island park, and at 982 acres, it is larger than New York City’s Central Park. Some elements from a plan designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted were incorporated into the island.

The park is connected to Detroit by the MacArthur Bridge, and is rich with unique architecture, fountains, statues and manmade lagoons. It is home to a Coast Guard station, as well as the William Livingston Memorial Light, the only marble lighthouse in the nation. Belle Isle boasts a nature center and trail, featuring a large wooded area inhabited by fallow deer. There are picnic pavilions, beach access and a playground. Several athletic facilities are available for use, such as baseball fields, tennis and basketball courts and small golf course.

The elegant and historic Detroit Yacht Club, as well as the nation’s oldest rowing club - the Detroit Boat Club - are located on the island. From 1992 to 2001, 2007 and 2008, and from 2012 onward, Belle Isle has hosted the Detroit Grand Prix.

The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, found on the island, is the oldest continually running conservatory in the country. Designed by Albert Kahn, the building opened August 18, 1904, and maintains a vast array of succulents, perennials, ferns, palms, lily pond garden, and more. Kahn designed the adjacent Belle Isle Aquarium as well. The island also features the Belle Isle Nature Center, operated by the Detroit Zoological Society.

Belle Isle is also home to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, which preserves and celebrates the maritime history of the Great Lakes, the Detroit River and the surrounding region. Museum exhibits include the high-speed racing hydroplane Miss Pepsi, the bow anchor of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald and pilothouse of the S.S. William Clay Ford.

Fiscal problems for the City of Detroit necessitated cutbacks for Belle Isle, which caused portions of the park to fall into disrepair. In 2013, the State of Michigan signed a 30-year lease to care for the park, saving Detroit millions of dollars annually and improving upkeep. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources now operates the park, and requires an entry fee or annual Recreation Passport (providing access to all Michigan parks and campgrounds) to enter the park by car. The Michigan DNR has since made numerous improvements, aided by the Belle Isle Conservancy, a non-profit, volunteer organization dedicated to promoting the preservation and restoration of the island as a beautiful and unique urban resource.



Belle Isle Postcard, 1915

Belle Isle Postcard, 1955

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