Belle Isle Park
Location Name: Belle Isle Park (Detroit, Michigan)
Location Type: Park (City)
Year Opened: 1879
Detroit’s Belle Isle Park is a historic and recreational urban oasis located on an island in the Detroit River. Totaling 982 acres, Belle Isle is the largest island city park in the United States. Rich in attractions to suit any interest, Belle Isle is one of the city’s most cherished cultural treasures. Its recorded history began when French colonists named the island Ile aux Cochons, or ‘Hog Island.’ Following the 1763 Treaty of Paris, the area including Detroit was passed to British control. King George III granted George McDougall ownership of Hog Island in 1768 for the price of 194 pounds sterling (approximately $30,000 in current U.S. dollars). The island remained private land for the next century, though it passed through several hands during this time. The unappealing name of Hog Island was changed in 1845 to honor the Count of Belle Isle, the physician in Cadillac’s party who founded the city in 1701. In 1879, the City of Detroit purchased the island for $180,000 and it became the municipal park we know today.
When the city acquired this beautiful island park in 1879, it quickly sought to improve the island and build it into a premier urban attraction. In 1881 the city hired noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted; known for creating the plan for New York’s Central Park. Though Olmsted resigned from the project, his plan was approved by Detroit City Council and work soon began to transform the landscape. Canals were dug, lagoons were created, swampy land was filled in, many trees were planted and numerous buildings were erected to serve the needs of the public’s recreational needs. The island was stocked with fallow deer and the first incarnation of the Belle Isle Zoo was established in 1895. For the first time, in 1889 the first Belle Isle Bridge opened so that visitors no longer had to rely on ferry service alone.
The early 20th century saw many improvements to the island; Belle Isle had become an urban paradise much needed by the residents of the industrial city across the bridge. 1904 saw the opening of the Belle Isle Conservatory, Aquarium and the Casino (not a gambling establishment but an event hall). In 1916 the bridge burnt down and left the island accessible only by ferry once again. The replacement, the current MacArthur Bridge was completed in 1923. In 1925 the James Scott Memorial Fountain was completed and in 1930 the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse was built; it is the only lighthouse in the United States built entirely of marble.
In more recent years Belle Isle’s story has been somewhat more precarious. Surely the park has seen some pleasant new additions; including the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in 1960 and the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix which has taken place on the island most years since 1992. Yet despite these new attractions, the park has become a victim of the poor economic situation of the Detroit area. Funding has been cut, leading to the closure of the Zoo and the Aquarium in the 1990s (both have since re-opened at some level). Along with the cuts in funding have been a cut in the use of the island by Detroiters. Often times the park appears somewhat unkempt. Crime is becoming another concern for many would-be visitors.
Despite the city’s troubles, the city council recently rejected a state offer to lease the island and revamp it as a state park. Without additional funding, the park’s future seems in limbo. The city has touted some ideas for the future of the park but it is unclear how realistic such plans can be without more funding. Many skeptics feel they cannot trust the city who has neglected Belle Isle this long to solve the problem without help. Regardless of the future Belle Isle still remains one of Detroit’s greatest attractions; it could just use a much needed makeover. The non-profit group The Belle Isle Conservancy has been working to improve the island in the meantime. They successfully re-opened the Belle Isle Aquarium in 2012 after seven years of closure and have done much to improve the island and (perhaps more importantly) bring the cause of saving Belle Isle to the public’s attention. What the next few years have in store for the park should surely help Belle Isle return to its former glory.Sources