159468

Bridge to Belle Isle

Image: The original wooden bridge to Belle Isle, built in 1887. Image available at http://atdetroit.net/forum/messages/6790/159468.jpg (accessed April 29, 2014)

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Up until 1887, the only way for people to cross over to Belle Isle from Detroit was by ferry, and a fare was required to board the boat. A wooden bridge was then constructed that allowed visitors to walk or drive over to reach the park. The bridge caught fire in 1915 and was destroyed, but it was immediately replaced with a temporary bridge and then completely rebuilt by 1923. The new bridge’s 19 beautiful arches span the Detroit River to this day, having gone through a ten-million dollar restoration in 1986. In 1942, the bridge was renamed the MacArthur Bridge in honor of General Douglas MacArthur who led American forces in the Pacific theater of World War II.

While still in the planning stages, there was much debate over who should build and maintain the bridge. Popular opinion was in favor of the city of Detroit supplying the workers, owning and operating the bridge. Public ownership would mean providing free access to the island, whereas if a private corporation took over the bridge, they would be doing so for profit and would, therefore, charge a fee to enter the island.

The city eventually did take ownership of the bridge which led to greater access for the residents of the Detroit. The bridge itself had a democratizing effect. It was free. People did not need to have any money in order to enjoy Belle Isle. This allowed for all classes to be able to spend their time together at the park. You could spend the day with your family on the island even if you had no money. The very bridge structure acted as an equalizer among the classes. This is additionally why the state takeover of the park is such a contentious issue among the citizens of Detroit. You have to buy a state park pass in order to cross over the bridge into Belle Isle. While it is a nominal amount, many families do not have any disposable income that can go towards that. Therefore, a structure that began as an opportunity for the lower classes to enjoy the park has become the very thing that will keep some out.

  • “Let the City Build It,” Detroit, MI Free Press, September 30, 1884, 4.
  • Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?,” in The whale and the reactor: a search for limits in an age of high technology, ed. Langdon Winner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 19-39.

Click here to see all narratives about Belle Isle

Click here for more information about Belle Isle’s architectural features

Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle

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