Photograph, 1890-1920, by George Washington Merrill. Bentley Historical Library, Ann Arbor, MI.

Belle Isle Fisheries: Sitting on the Dock of the River

Image: Belle Isle Fisheries, 1890-1920, by George Washington Merrill. Bentley Historical Library, Ann Arbor, MI.

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The afternoon is young as the fishermen laze around. Their fishing nets, cast off a Belle Isle dock in the Detroit River, are not yet full.  This is a scene which George Washington Merrill, a Great Lakes Steamship engineer, captured some time around the turn of the last century.  About twelve men and a horse standing on a large dock connected to Belle Isle are featured in the black and white photograph. Behind them is a heavily wooded shoreline, and what seems to be a bridge.  The photo is taken after Frederick Law Olmsted, then America’s premiere landscape architect, had proposed his plan for Belle Isle’s design. He had anticipated that artificial waterways be implemented on the island for water recreation such as boating, but said nothing of fisheries or using the water for industry.

Perhaps Olmsted did not envision fisheries in his initial plan because he did not agree with using natural parks in this way.  He represented a the middle ground between John Muir’s preservationist movement and Gifford Pinchot’s utilitarian vision of nature.  Utilizing Belle Isle Park’s waterways for fishing is something Pinchot would agree with, as long as it was done conservatively, in a way that would preserve the fish stocks for the future. Olmsted probably envisioned waterways in the park for boating and recreation (and not fishing) because he saw nature as a place for reverence and use.  The artificial waterways he planned are inherently for “use” as the original land would be altered, but the boat users would still be able to enjoy their natural surroundings. Olmsted’s vision was also one that matched that of the upper class, who had the time and money to boat and use the water for leisure.  Working class families did not have this luxury; perhaps the men in the photo are fishing to feed their families. The varying plans for use of Belle Isle’s waterways can therefore represent a larger struggle of socioeconomic class in how to utilize this shared space.

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  • Anne Whiston Spirn, “Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted,” in Uncommon Ground, ed. William Cronon (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996), 488.

Click here to see all narratives about Belle Isle

Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle

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