Belle Isle Timeline

Belle Isle

Belle Isle Team: Donovan Alkire, Lauren Alliston, Massimo Amerena, Sean Carr, Claudia Celovsky.

Click here to see all narratives about Belle Isle

Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle

The island now known as Belle Isle has had many different names throughout its history, and its ownership has passed from the Potawatomi Indians, to French fur traders, to ribbon farmers and settlers, and finally to the city of Detroit. It was known as Wah-nah-be-zee when it was owned by the Potawatomi. The French then took it over and named it Isle au St. Claire. When the place got overrun with snakes, hogs were put on the island to deplete the population. After that, it became known as Ile de Cochons, or Hog Island. In 1851, to promote its new use as a recreational destination for Detroit residents, it became known as Belle Isle.

By the 1870s, Belle Isle was a popular destination for Detroiters, who could reach the island by boat or ferry. Fishermen used the richly populated waters of the Detroit River for the rounding up of whitefish.  Some Detroiters began to use the island as a picnic spot, a pleasant getaway from the big booming city just across the river. In 1879, the city purchased the island for $200,000 to become a public park. Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to design the park and published his proposal in 1882.

Several elements of Olmsted’s design were built before the turn of the century, including a sculptural fountain, field house, horse stables, and even a police station.  In 1887, the first wooden bridge connected Detroit to Belle Isle, allowing greater access to the park by the people of Detroit, though the ferry remained active for several decades. Without having to pay to ferry from the mainland to Belle Isle, the park became the “backyard” of the city that it is known for. It was a place for Detroiters from all walks of life to come and enjoy nature, free from the hustle and bustle of the city. It was almost becoming a little town, without residents.

These new developments took precedence over the fishing industry, which was slowly depleting along with the fish population in the Detroit River. This represented a shift in which class Belle Isle was now catering to-from the working class to the middle to upper class Detroit residents.  The middle to upper class residents were the island-goers who had the luxury of time and money to be able to visit the island and enjoy the new recreational facilities. Several new structures were built to accommodate the growing crowds: 1904 saw the construction of the Aquarium and Conservatory, joined in 1907 by the Casino.

 In 1908, the Ford Motor Company introduced their iconic Model T, the first car to be mass produced on an assembly line with interchangeable parts. The auto boom brought enormous numbers of people into the city of Detroit looking for work, and Belle Isle’s popularity as a getaway for city residents expanded along with the urban population.

The roaring twenties brought the vibrancy and wealth the country was experiencing to Belle Isle.  Belle Isle became an escape from the industrializing city for many of the wealthy in the Detroit area.  The boom of wealth brought new luxuries and recreational activities to Belle Isle.  These luxuries included the Belle Isle Golf Course,  the Scott Fountain, the MacArthur Bridge and Detroit Yacht Club.  The beginning of the Great Depression ended the ended the process of beautification and development of Belle Isle as the wealth that had initiated the process evaporated.

During WWII, following President Roosevelt’s call for Detroit to transform into the “Arsenal of Democracy” and produce supplies and equipment for the war effort, the city’s industrial centers boomed once again. The growth of business spurred increased migration into Detroit. An estimated 340,000 people moved into the city for work. As the industrial jobs increased, so too did the demand for a place to escape from the increasingly overcrowded urban environment, and find a place of leisure. In 1940, the multiple organizations who handled recreational spaces and activities in the city consolidated into the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation, coordinating their efforts on new projects and proposals. The Department of Parks and Recreation expanded Belle Isle’s picnic areas, created a city owned horse and canoe rental, expanded the greenhouse operations and added onto the swimming area before the end of WWII.

Many of the new immigrants to the city were African Americans from the South. While racially segregated housing projects were built to accommodate the migration wave, tensions increased as Black Detroiters moved into traditionally all-white spaces in neighborhoods and factories. As a city park, Belle Isle was one place where Blacks and Whites shared a public space in Detroit. Small skirmishes broke out on the island as tensions increased, and on June 20, a fight of more than 200 people on Belle Isle incited the Detroit Race Riot in 1943. Rumors spread in both white and black circles concerning the abuse of women on the Belle Isle bridge, and tensions grew from there. This gained national attention as 34 people died within 36 hours of the fighting.

After WWII, Belle Isle reflected major changes in the physical environment and demographics of the city itself. Federally funded urban renewal projects got underway across Detroit, and landfill from those excavations was used to reshape the shoreline of Belle Isle. New concerns about water quality curtailed many traditional water sports and activities. The Bandstand, home to a marching band in previous decades, was converted into a Bandshell to host free jazz, soul, and classical concerts on weekends when the weather was good. Numerous sporting facilities were established upon Belle Isle during this period also, reflecting the rising popularity of sports like soccer alongside traditionally popular basketball and golf. The Detroit Grand Prix was also planned to be moved from the mainland to Belle Isle in 1989, but was replaced by various other car races in the next twenty years. Almost every resident of Detroit over the past several decades has strong positive memories of the time spent in Belle Isle, the city’s “backyard.”

Belle Isle recently changed hands once again, as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources began a thirty-year lease on the property intended to improve its maintenance and relieve the economically struggling city. Several volunteer organizations working with the park seek to address a variety of issues including the encroachment of invasive species, the quality of the water, and the running and funding of the park’s various monuments and features. Click here to read more about these efforts and to get involved yourself!

Click here to see all narratives about Belle Isle

Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle