Belle Isle Park (Michigan)

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Belle Isle Park
Belle Isle Park
James Scott Memorial Fountain, with the Belle Isle Casino in the background
Belle Isle Park (Michigan) is located in Michigan
Belle Isle Park (Michigan)
Type State park
Location Detroit, Michigan
 United States
Coordinates Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found.
Area 982 acres (397 ha)
Created 1845 (2014 as a state park)[1]
Operated by State of Michigan
Website Official website
Belle Isle
Location Detroit River
Architect Frederick Law Olmsted
NRHP Reference # 74000999[2]
Added to NRHP February 25, 1974

Belle Isle, officially Belle Isle Park, is a 982-acre (1.534 sq mi; 397 ha) island park in the Detroit River, between the United States mainland and Canada. Owned by the City of Detroit, it is managed as a state park by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources through a 30-year lease initiated in 2013.[1] Belle Isle is the largest city-owned island park in the United States and is the third largest island in the Detroit River after Grosse Ile and Fighting Island. It is connected to mainland Detroit by the MacArthur Bridge.

The island is home to the Belle Isle Aquarium, the Belle Isle Conservatory, the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, the Detroit Yacht Club on an adjacent island, the James Scott Memorial Fountain, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, a Coast Guard station, a municipal golf course and numerous monuments. It also previously housed a Nature Center where visitors were able to traverse wooded trails and view wildlife natural habitats, a former Belle Isle Zoo, riding stables and the Detroit Boat Club. The island includes a half-mile (800 m) swimming beach.


"Pig Island" in a French map of 1796

The island was settled by French colonists in the 18th century, who named it Île aux Cochons (Hog Island). The Island was once the estate of General Alexander Macomb, Jr., whose monument stands in the Washington Boulevard Historic District in downtown Detroit. On July 4, 1845, a historic picnic party was held on the island to change the name to “Belle Isle” in honor of Miss Isabelle Cass, the daughter of then Governor (General) Lewis Cass. Belle Isle literally means "beautiful island" in French. It is misspelled according to contemporary French rules, however, and should be Belle Île.

Prominent urban park designer Frederick Law Olmsted created a design for the island in the 1880s however, only some elements of his design were completed. The 1908 Belle Isle Casino building is not an actual gambling facility but rather, is used for occasional public events. A highlight of Belle Isle is a beautiful botanical garden and the Belle Isle Conservatory (1904). Both the conservatory and the adjacent aquarium were designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn, who designed city landmarks such as Cadillac Place and the Ford Rouge Factory.

Interior waterways in the park as they appeared soon after the park's creation
The old Belle Isle Casino, designed by Mason & Rice and built in 1884. It was demolished in 1908

On a fateful night in 1908 Byron Carter of Cartercar stopped to help a stranded motorist on Belle Isle. When he cranked her Cadillac, it kicked back and broke his jaw. Complications from the injury turned into pneumonia and he died. The tragedy motivated Henry Leland, founder of Cadillac Motors to state, "The Cadillac car will kill no more men if we can help it" and hire Charles Kettering who established Delco and developed the electric self-starter that was soon standard on all automobiles.[3]

The island park served as a staging ground by the U.S. military during World War II for a re-enactment of a Pacific island invasion by the Navy and Marine Corps. The island was temporarily renamed Bella Jima, and Detroiters were treated to the sight of an island invasion without the bloodshed. It was conducted after the invasion of Iwo Jima.[4]

Architect Cass Gilbert designed Belle Isle's James Scott Memorial Fountain. Gilbert's other works include the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC.[5] William Livingstone Memorial Light, the only marble lighthouse in the United States, is on the east end of the island, with sumptuous materials and architecture. It was named for the president of the Lakes Carriers Association who advocated safety and navigational improvements in Great Lakes shipping.[6][7] Additional recreational options include a nature center, wheelchair accessible nature trail, fishing piers, playgrounds, picnic shelters, and handball, tennis and basketball courts, baseball fields, and cricket pitch.

At one time, the island housed a canoe concession, which provided rental canoes and stored private ones. Canoe riders often stopped at the nearby Remick Band Shell which hosted regular concerts from 1950 to 1980. The band shell replaced an earlier facility and provided more amenities for performers and audience members. It was constructed at a cost of $150,000 and was named for resident Jerome H. Remick, who owned the world's largest music publishing house at the time.[8]

Nicholas Kerschen and his family, immigrants from Luxembourg, operated a farm on Belle Isle from 1895 until the early 1900s according to Kerschen family history.[9]

The Detroit Boat Club moved rented facilities on the island from 1902 until 1996. The marina and building are currently closed and only rowing activities still occur at that location. The Belle Isle Golf Course opened in 1922. The Detroit Yacht Club building dates to 1923 and still houses an active private sailing club also offers swimming and other country club amenities. The Scott Fountain was finished in 1925. The Activities Building was the site of a restaurant. The Flynn Pavilion (1949) was designed by Eero Saarinen and used for ice skating rental. A ferry service to the island existed from 1840–1957, although the bridge was completed to the island in 1923. Riding stables were housed in an 1863 market building that was relocated from Detroit to the island in the 1890s. The building was disassembled and stored by Greenfield Village in the 2000s. The park headquarters and police station are each located in 1860s-era houses.

Many fallow deer including the "white" variety were formerly widespread on the island

The island was home to a large herd of European fallow deer since the 1890s. However, this isolated population fell prey to disease at the close of the 20th century as a result of cyclic inbreeding. In 2004, the last of the 300 animals were captured and moved to the Detroit Zoo and nature center, located on Belle Isle. The children's zoo on the island and the aquarium closed due to budget constraints. The Belle Isle Aquarium reopened on August 18, 2012 and is now run entirely by volunteers. It originally opened on August 18, 1904, and was the oldest continually operating public aquarium in North America when it closed on April 3, 2005. The aquarium was operated by the Detroit Zoological Society prior to the 2005 closure. It reopened in 2012 and is currently operated by the Belle Isle Conservancy. It is open to the public from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm every Saturday and Sunday, free of charge. The 10,000 sq ft (930 m2) historic building features a single large gallery with an arched ceiling covered in green glass tile to evoke an underwater feeling.

In 2013, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy and a State Emergency Manager was appointed by the state government to oversee the city's finances. As part of the process, the state proposed taking over Belle Isle and converting it into a state park. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a lease on October 1, 2013 to lease the park from the city for 30 years; while the city council rejected that offer in mid-October, the Michigan Emergency Loan Board opted for the state's proposal on November 12. It set a 90-day transition period beginning on December 1 to turn the park operations over to the state. As a state park, admittance by car or motorcycle is no longer free, but requires a user to either pay the standard state park user entrance fee or to have a Michigan Recreational Passport sticker on their license plate. There is no charge for those who walk, bicycle or jog to the park.[10]

The state has promised to make up to $20 million in improvements to the park over the next three years.[11] Belle Isle formally became a state park on February 10, 2014.

The park is one of the terminus's for the cross-state Iron Belle Trail which consists of separate hiking and biking trails.[12]


Auto racing

In 1992, a temporary street race circuit was constructed on the isle for CART races. The island hosted ten events at Belle Isle from 1992–2001, and racing resumed in 2007 as part of the IndyCar Series and American Le Mans Series.

On December 18, 2008, the scheduled race for 2009 was canceled. The automotive economic crisis, and its impact on the Detroit-area was the primary reason. Roger Penske did not rule out a return in the future.[13][14]

On September 20, 2011, race organizers gained approval from Detroit City Council to use the updated track and support area on Belle Isle.[15] On October 11, 2011, it was announced that the race will return starting in 2012.[16] The race weekend will feature IndyCar as well as Tudor United SportsCar Championship and Pirelli World Challenge races.


Boating on the Grand Canal in the early 1900s

It was announced that Belle Isle would be the site of heavy metal band Metallica's 2013 Orion Music + More Festival. On Dec. 26, 2012, Detroit Councilman Ken Cockrel Jr. confirmed rumors that the city is in the process of confirming 2014 and 2015 as well to take place at Belle Isle. The 2013 Orion Contract Guarantees $100,000.00 in revenue.


Belle Isle was home to the Detroit Futbol League, but games are now held at the Fort Wayne grounds due to field conditions at Belle Isle.


James Scott Memorial Fountain

The James Scott Memorial Fountain is a monument located in Belle Isle Park, in Detroit, Michigan. Designed by architect Cass Gilbert and sculptor Herbert Adams, the fountain was completed in 1925 at a cost of $500,000. The lower bowl has a diameter of 510 ft (160 m) and the central spray reaches 125 ft (38 m). The fountain honors the controversial James Scott, who left $200,000 to the City of Detroit for a fountain in tribute to himself.

Belle Isle Aquarium

Exterior of the Belle Isle Aquarium

The Belle Isle Aquarium is a public aquarium located in Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Michigan. Designed by noted architect Albert Kahn, it opened on August 18, 1904, and was the oldest continually operating public aquarium in North America when it closed on April 3, 2005. The aquarium reopened to the public on August 18, 2012, and is now run entirely by volunteers. The 10,000-square-foot (930 m2) historic building features a single large gallery with an arched ceiling covered in green glass tile to evoke an underwater feeling. The aquarium was operated by the Detroit Zoological Society prior to the 2005 closure. It is currently operated by the Belle Isle Conservancy.

Belle Isle Conservatory

File:Whitcomb Conservatory.jpg
Whitcomb Conservatory on Detroit's Belle Isle

The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory (commonly and locally known as the Belle Isle Conservatory) is a greenhouse and botanical garden which opened in 1904. Located three miles (4.8 km) east of the city's downtown, on Belle Isle, it covers 13 acres (5.3 ha).

The Belle Isle Conservatory was built in 1904, designed by noted architect Albert Kahn, and rebuilt 1952-1954 with aluminum replacing its original wooden beams. In 1953 it was named in honor of Anna Scripps Whitcomb, who left her 600-plant orchid collection to the city. Thanks to her gift and subsequent donations, the conservatory is now home to one of the largest municipally-owned orchid collections in the United States. Rare orchids were saved from Great Britain during the World War II bombing and transported to the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. Due to a lack of maintenance and budget cuts in recent years, the vast majority of orchids have now died.

The conservatory site contains formal perennial gardens, annual flower beds, a rose garden, and lily pond garden. The conservatory itself covers more than an acre, features an imposing central dome 85 feet (26 m) high (with a total volume of 100,601 cubic feet), and is organized as a palm house in the dome, the north and south wings, and a show house. The south wing contains tropical plants of economic importance such as bananas, oranges, coffee, sugar cane, and orchids. The north wing hosts the extensive collections of ferns, cacti and succulents. The show house, remodeled 1980-1981, features a continuous display of blooming plants.

Belle Isle Nature Zoo

The Belle Isle Nature Zoo (BINZ)[43] encompasses approximately 4 acres (1.6 ha) of undisturbed forested wetland on Belle Isle in Detroit, Mich. The Nature Zoo provides year-round educational, recreational and environmental conservation opportunities for the community. A Deer Encounter, where fallow deer that once roamed the island can be fed by visitors, is part of a multi-phase project to convert the former nature center on Belle Isle into a Nature Zoo focusing on Michigan wildlife, flora and fauna. The Nature Zoo also includes a renovated auditorium, a turtle exhibit featuring native Michigan turtles, an indoor beehive allowing year-round viewing of bee behavior, a spider exhibit and a Creation Station for children’s educational programming.[42][44]

Dossin Great Lakes Museum

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum is a maritime museum. Located on The Strand on Belle Isle Park, this museum places special interest on Detroit's role on national and regional maritime history. The 16,000-square-foot (1,500 m2) museum features exhibits such as one of the largest collection of model ships in the world, and the bow anchor of the legendary SS Edmund Fitzgerald.


At 982 acres (1.534 sq mi; 397 ha), Belle Isle Park was the largest city island park (prior to its transfer to the State of Michigan as a state park) and is larger than Central Park in New York City, also designed by Olmsted. Although Belle Isle was the largest island park, it is not the largest island near a major city. Key Biscayne Island adjoining Miami, Florida has Crandon Park with about 800 acres (1.3 sq mi; 320 ha) and the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park with 400 acres (0.63 sq mi; 160 ha) and the island includes the residential village of Key Biscayne.

Detroit's River Rouge Park is 1,172 acres (1.831 sq mi; 474 ha). Prior to Belle Isle becoming a state park, the City's Parks and Recreation Department managed 6,000 acres (9.4 sq mi; 2,400 ha) of parks (now approximately 5,000 acres (7.8 sq mi; 2,000 ha)). The Huron-Clinton Metroparks authority manages 24,000 acres (38 sq mi; 9,700 ha) of parks and beaches; however, this does not include all parks in the area. There are thousands of additional acres of parks in metropolitan Detroit.


See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Belle Isle becomes a state park today, improvements continue" (Press release). Michigan Department of Natural Resources. February 10, 2014. Retrieved 2014-05-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Staff (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Bernstein, Mark (November 1, 1996). Grand Eccentrics: Turning the Century: Dayton and the Inventing of America. Wilmington: Orange Frazer Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-1882203130.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Rodriguez, Michael; Featherstone, Thomas (2003). Detroit's Belle Isle Island Park Gem. Arcadia Publishing. p. 85. ISBN 0-7385-2315-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Lochbiler, Don (November 7, 1997). "Michigan History: Detroit's fountain of mirth". The Detroit News. Archived from the original on February 28, 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "William Livingstone Memorial, MI". Retrieved 2014-05-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Wobser, Dave. "William Livingstone Memorial Light". Lighthouses of the Great Lakes. Retrieved 2014-05-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Vivian M. Baluch (July 16, 1997). "Leonard B. Smith and the Detroit Concert Band". The Detroit News. Archived from the original on August 12, 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "". Retrieved November 1, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Bell Isle, City of Detroit Recreation Department Archived January 15, 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  11. "Michigan board approves 30-year deal to lease Belle Isle to state". 2013-11-12. Retrieved 2013-11-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "FAQ about Michigan's Iron Belle Trail". Michigan DNR. February 7, 2015. Retrieved February 7, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Detroit IndyCar race no-go for 2009". 2008-12-18. Retrieved 2008-12-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  14. "INDYCAR: Detroit Cancelled for 2009, Vision Racing Trims Staff". 2008-12-18. Archived from the original on 19 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "City Council OKs Detroit Grand Prix request". 2011-09-20. Retrieved 2011-09-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Brudenell, Mike (2013-10-28). "Chevrolet, Roger Penske bring 2012 Detroit Grand Prix back to Belle Isle". Retrieved 2013-11-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

External links