Belle Isle Park (Photo courtesy of Patricia Drury under CC license)
Belle Isle Park (Photo courtesy of Patricia Drury)


The largest island city park is in Detroit? You wouldn’t think such an obscure title would belong to Detroit, a city that just voted to a consent agreement with the state of Michigan concerning its financial instability. Well, this is true, and it will probably stay true for many years to come.

Belle Isle, named for Isabelle Cass, daughter of the territorial governor Lewis Cass, is located directly between the city of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. The island today is now a city park, but it wasn’t that way when the French found it.

When Cadillac landed, the French did settle in parts of the island. That wasn’t the case originally. The settlers used the island to house their pigs and chickens, keeping them away from coyotes and other animals. The island was actually called Pig Island for awhile, until the name changed to Belle Isle in 1845.

People did settle on the island too, but many of the houses were destroyed in the French and American War in 1763. In 1817, Barnabus Campau, who named the island Belle Isle, bought it for $5,000. He held onto the island until 1879, when the city of Detroit bought the island for $200,000.

It was part of a plan to make the city more beautiful. It was called, “Beautify Detroit,” and the planners wanted to create a boulevard circling the city, starting at Belle Isle, and extending all the way to West Jefferson. This is where Grand Boulevard came from. It was the original “city limits.” In 1881, the city changed the name to Belle Isle Park. Belle Isle does mean something in French–beautiful island. With the French founding the city, a better name could not have been chosen.

Once the city incorporated the island into a park, it was time to find a designer. Who better than the man who designed Central Park in New York City? Fredrick Law Olmstead designed the island between 1884 and 1908. In its development stage, the park opened to the public.

Belle Isle Bridge (Photo courtesy of Lauren (femaletrumpet02) on Flickr)

For 5 years, people had to take a boat over to the island. That changed in 1889, when a wooden bridge was constructed. Unfortunately, it was accidentally destroyed in a fire on April 27, 1915. Plans for a new bridge were soon started, and at the cost of $2,635,000, a concrete and steel arched bridge was built. It was completed on September 1, 1923. It was originally called the “Belle Isle Bridge,” but after World War II, they named the bridge after U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur.

The island today is dedicated to keeping itself a park, amid the financial constraints of the city. There are buildings on the island though, courtesy of Albert Kahn. The Belle Isle Casino, Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, and Belle Isle Aquarium were all designed by him.

The Casino, built in 1908, is used for public events, none of which are gambling. The Conservatory, which was built in 1904, houses a greenhouse, a botanical garden, and thousands of plants. It’s 13 acres large and open to the public–for free! It’s open every Wednesday-Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Anna Scripps donated her 600-orchid plant collection to the conservatory, which is why it is now named after her.

Belle Isle Fountain (Photo courtesy of Joseph Novak on Flickr)

Finally, the Belle Isle Aquarium, which is unfortunately closed for the time being, was built by Kahn in 1904. It was the largest aquarium ever when it opened, and before it closed, it was the oldest operating aquarium in the United States. It closed in 2005 because of declining membership and funding. The Belle Isle Conservancy is now looking to open the Aquarium sooner rather than later.

Also on the island is the Belle Isle Nature Zoo and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The zoo is currently closed, and is also planned to be opened soon by the Belle Isle Conservancy. The museum is open and focuses on Michigan maritime history, especially on the Great Lakes and the Detroit River.

The Detroit Yacht Club is also on the island, home to the most prestigious yachts and boats on the Great Lakes and in Detroit. It is a private yacht club and opened in 1868, but didn’t move to Belle Isle until the 1900s.

The island also will boast a Grand Prix race on June 1-3, 2012. There have been races on the island before, and this year, with the help of Chevrolet, the island will once again be a centerpiece in the Indy Grand Prix series.

To help with any of these projects, go to

Belle Isle still needs help. Most weekends parties happen, but the week after is cleaning up. The city is in a financial crisis, and cleaning up a park is the least of their worries. Belle Isle can become a gem, like it once was, and it is on its way. If Detroit were to have a beautiful city park that others can model after, Detroit can be the center of attention, but this time in a good way.

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