Main image: Astronaut photo of Belle Isle, April 12, 2018 via NASA/Detour
Belle Isle has been a favorite Detroit spot since the city purchased the island back in 1879. While it has gone through numerous changes and weathered financial challenges, it remains a popular destination for Detroiters and visitors. With the highest attendance of any state park, more than 4 million people now visit each year for barbecues, bird-watching and taking in the breathtaking views of the Detroit River.
2020, unfortunately, has brought new challenges for visitors and the island itself. Extensive flooding has returned, closing the perimeter road. Destinations like the aquarium and conservatory are closed due to COVID-19, and the crowded beaches and recreation areas that are usually a beloved part of summer weekends can now stoke anxieties about social distancing.
Even with limited access, Belle Isle is open, and has still been busy in the last couple months, providing an escape from the hectic city and stresses of living during a pandemic. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the last 100-plus years. Beyond the beach and picnic spots, the island is chock-full of landmarks, cultural institutions, traditions, hidden wildlife, quirky history and yes, memories.
Belle Isle is very special to my family and me. We have been able to peacefully and unapologetically enjoy BBQs, picnics, family celebrations and nature-based activities while being Black because of Belle Isle. It was the place where I was first introduced to plant life at the Conservatory and exposed to driving ranges and the world of golf. I was able to be Black in nature out in the open on Belle Isle and for that I am eternally grateful especially in light of the way BIPOC are treated in outdoor spaces where the majority of visitors are white.Detour reader Candace Calloway
We pulled it alllll together for a Belle Isle Detroit guide to familiarize newcomers with the island and share some lesser-known gems with old-timers, with help from Mary Bohling, a Michigan State University Extension Educator for the Michigan Sea Grant program and author of “Beautiful Belle Isle: Detroit’s Unique Urban Park.” We also consulted with Laura Williams, Director of Cultural Resources at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, Karis Floyd, Michigan Department of Natural Resources park manager at Belle Isle Park and about a dozen knowledgeable, Belle Isle-loving Detour readers.
Here’s the lowdown on Belle Isle, from A to Z.
If you want to really take in all 982 acres of Belle Isle, it’s best to start from above.
Did you know that Belle Isle hosts the oldest public aquarium ever in the U.S.? The Belle Isle Aquarium became a mainstay in 1904, and is still recognized by its iconic dome-shaped ceiling with sea-green glass tiles. Budget issues forced the aquarium to temporarily close in 2005, but reopened in 2012 — the Belle Isle Conservancy has helped keep this historical spot alive and well through fundraising efforts. But that’s not the only funding issue in the aquarium’s long history — during the Great Depression, officials said they couldn’t afford to buy saltwater and got rid of all the marinelife. Poor “Big Pete,” the giant sea turtle, was sold for soup.
Belle Isle has some of the best bird watching in metro Detroit! If you’re new to the activity, here are some great sights to look out for: the songbird migration in the fall, raptors, and the swamp woods on the eastern side that’s home to warblers, thrushes and sparrows. For more, check out bird bander Allen Chartier’s guide to birding on Belle Isle.
“We were the bike capital of the world before motorized vehicles took over,” Bohling says, referencing Detroit’s numerous Bike Clubs in the 18-1900s. She notes that the Athletic Complex used to be a bicycle pavilion. “Imagine needing a building that big just for Bicycle Clubs,” she says. “The lower floor used to be an open air area where they could fit up to 500 bicycles.”
The Detroit Boat Club is one of the oldest rowing clubs in the country, dating back to 1839, and one of the oldest social clubs of any kind in Michigan. DBC’s Belle Isle connection didn’t come until the 1890s when they planned a clubhouse on the island — or actually three, since the first two structures burned down. The Detroit Boat Club building that went up in 1902 is still standing, though you know it as the Belle Isle Boat House. Detour reader Melissa Bunker recalls taking her daughter to the Detroit Boat Club for rowing when she was in high school: “We visited the island in the dark early mornings and evenings and beautiful summer days, 12 months a year. We saw sunrises, ice and snow and sunsets waiting in that parking lot. When my daughter returned from a morning workout and told us of rowing bridge to bridge in dark and dawn — she glowed.”
This isn’t Mackinac Island — despite the nature trails, cars are very much part of the Belle Isle experience (though you can bike, walk or take a bus on to the island), whether cruising, checking out classic cars or watching race cars zoom by. The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix draws thousands of visitors each year, but controversy over the racing event, which was postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19, has been on the rise. Last year, a group of conservationists protested the Grand Prix, waving signs reading, “No place for a race” and “Picnics not pit stops.”
The Belle Isle Casino was originally built in the 1880s, one of the first structures on the island — but no, it was never a gambling spot and instead was intended for social gatherings. The first building was made entirely of wood and became dilapidated, so in 1908, the casino was reconstructed just to the south of its predecessor.
The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory has been around since 1904. It was renamed in 1955, when Anna Scripps Whitcomb, the daughter of Detroit News founder James E. Scripps, donated 600 orchids to the conservatory. Now, it’s a popular spot for relaxation, and of course, exploring its vast array of plants — from the desert to the tropics.
Dossin Great Lakes Museum:
The Dossin Great Lakes Museum focused on maritime history on the Great Lakes is one of the more underrated cultural institutions in the city, with plenty to look at for boat nerds and local history enthusiasts.
Did you know that at the former Belle Isle zoo, there was an elephant named Sheba? In 1923, a group of schoolchildren saved up their pennies for this adorable Asian elephant who quickly became a celebrity on the island until she passed away in 1959.
Yes, there are deer on Belle Isle! In fact, they are European deer, sent as a gift from France’s president in 1895 — and they go wayyyy back. They were one of the first animals at the original Belle Isle Zoo, and a small group from the original population still roam at the Belle Isle Nature Center today.
Reader Jo Cohen shares: “My grandmother lived above a store on Townsend and my Aunt and her family lived on Sheridan. So every Sunday we would take the Chalmers bus and then the Jefferson one to get to their place(s). Then we would take bags of food, blanket, anything needed and walk over the bridge to Belle Isle. I knew every inch of that place as a child. Very rich ice cream they sold there and the only place where you could purchase birch beer back in the ‘40s. Great, great memories. I remember the horse carriage rides and rental of horses… never did the carriage ride as we didn’t have the money for that luxury, but it sure looked nice… I climbed the Scott Fountain and burned my uniform after graduation there. After the ice storm when Detroit completely shut down I went to Belle Isle and a guy had a parachute and was holding it as he skimmed across the ball park there. He let me do it, and it felt like flying.”
Flooding on Belle Isle has been a big challenge for the island. Recently, a project designed to boost its natural habitat opened the floodgates, so to speak, for the high Detroit River to seep in. Areas of the park are now closed off to visitors, and it’s hard to know whether temporary pumps and dams will be able to keep flooding on Belle Isle under control.
If you consider yourself a board nerd, head to Boatnerd.com, where you can identify the freighters going by near Belle Isle in real time. “You can see what’s the freighter hauling, where’s it headed, where it’s coming from and a little history of the freighter,” says Bohling.
Frederick Law Olmsted:
Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape designer also famous for Central Park and the 1897 grounds of the World’s Fair in Chicago, played a role in Belle Isle’s original, elaborate design. Olmsted was big on preserving its natural beauty — his design showed a ferry dock and public facilities on one section of the island, and focused on leaving the majority in its natural state. Much of his design plans were not favored by the City Council and Park Board as they felt it was “too elaborate,” but the elements you will see from Olmsted are Central Avenue, canals, a pavilion/ferry landing and maintaining wooded areas. Of course, credit for the design of the island, which has evolved over the years, is owed to more than one man — and some historians say local officials from the period had more of a hand in its final form.
It kind of looks like an industrial relic, but the giant slide on Belle Isle is really a larger-than-life piece of playground equipment, complete with larger-than-life fun — for youthful folk of all ages. The giant old waterslide wasn’t as lucky.
The unsanctioned dollop of sand past the lighthouse has been a popular not-so-secret local hang spot for years — even when officials have routinely cleared out sunbathers and swimmers.
While the island no longer goes by this name, it was the “Ile aux Cochons” back in the 1700s. French settlers chose the name because they allowed folks to house pigs and chickens, keeping them far away from coyotes.
Prior to 1913, the Belle Isle was only about 700 acres. “It was expanded with excess dirt from construction of a lot of the skyscrapers on the mainland — they needed to dispose of the dirt somewhere, so they actually took it out to the island,” Bohling says. Now, it’s a whopping 982 acres.
‘Jewel of Detroit’:
A nickname for Belle Isle, because where else can you live in a city and still have quick access to flatwoods, the Detroit River, historical monuments and more?
James Scott Memorial Fountain:
The Belle Isle fountain is named after the heir to a real estate fortune whose namesake landmark hasn’t improved his image in the 110 years since he died. “James Scott was a wealthy but loathed guy — people of the time and historians described him as vulgar,” Williams says. “When he died, he gave his money to the city, but said a life-sized statue of him had to be built and had to be named after him. There was this huge debate on whether they should use the money to build a statue of not-a-great guy.” The city opted to use the money and went all out, with “109 water outlets in the shape of lions, turtles, Neptune figures and artistic horns,” and of course, a bronze statue of Scott that overlooks the fountain. “They put the statue in the spot where the water blows heaviest…with the hope that it would eventually weather away,” says Bohling.
Albert Kahn, Detroit’s most famous and probably most prolific architect, also made his mark on Belle Isle. He designed the Belle Isle Aquarium, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory and the Livingstone Lighthouse.
Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse:
This is the only marble lighthouse you’ll find in the U.S. Located on the north end of Belle Isle, the Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse was built in honor of William Livingstone, president of the Lakes Carriers Association. The older Belle Isle Lighthouse was demolished in 1941 in order to construct the Coast Guard station, which boasts an 8,600-candlepower beacon that can be spotted for up to fifteen miles. The lighthouse was vandalized in 1980, which is why the fence is strategically situated around the perimeter.
Just a top-notch street name, even if no one uses it to actually give directions on Belle Isle. Picnic Way and Pleasure Drive are pretty great, too.
Willow trees? Secluded overlooks and humble wooden bridges? Majestic old buildings and views of two countries?!? Belle Isle is too picture-perfect for its own good. But that makes it perfect for romantic moments, and a few Detour readers shared theirs: Liz Blondy: “One of my first dates with my husband at the nature center. So many amazing memories.” Katie Vogel: “My first date with a very sweet boy in high school was picnicking, reading books and then eventually making out on a blanket over by the old aquarium, then meandering across the lawn to watch the fireworks.” TáLyn Lovin-Life Maynard: “Went there with one bae before and had some deep convos on the water, dope date.”
Major General Alpheus Starkey Williams:
A statue of Major General Alpheus Starkey Williams atop his horse sits near the middle of the island. “His horse’s name is Plug Ugly — that’s what I think is an interesting fact,” says Bohling. Williams had an expansive resume, serving as a congressman, judge, postmaster and a not-so-successful gubernatorial candidate, among other roles. He fought in the Mexican-American War and for the Union side in the Civil War. “The same person who built that sculpture also designed the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington, D.C., and when you look at the two, they’re almost identical,” Bohling says.
If you’re paying close attention, you can catch the Jewel in a few movies over the years — including “Real Steel,” “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Blue Collar,” “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” “Whip It,” “Scarecrow” and maybe more. Looking for a starring role? “Belle Isle Revealed” is a short doc about the island’s ecological significance. And if watching Big Sean drive across the bridge in a ‘66 GTO in the music video for “Guap” doesn’t make you want to drop everything and head to the Isle, what will?
Landscape designer Piet Oudolf, known for the High Line in New York and Chicago’s Lurie Garden, is working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the City of Detroit, the Belle Isle Conservancy and other institutions to bring a “transformative” garden designed with perennials and native plants to the area around the Nancy Brown Peace
Carillon. After pausing this spring, they’ve resumed construction. You can explore the garden’s planned intricate patterns and plant species here.
‘The Park Question’:
Belle Isle Park almost didn’t happen! Back in 1873, the mayor vetoed the bonds that were proposed at the time to build a park. The Park Question snuck back onto the table in 1879, when state Sen. Eber W. Cottrell introduced a bill to construct a boulevard in Detroit with a low-key clause to allow to purchasing a park on Belle Isle.
State management of Belle Isle has brought many changes to the island, but the one most often criticized is the police presence and frequent traffic tickets. Some residents have said the overbearing police presence now keeps them off the island, with particular concerns from Black Detroiters. Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey told the Detroit News she was stopped by Michigan State Police in 2014 while driving with her 80-year-old mother and said the officer insisted she was driving over the speed limit, which she denied. Detour reader Penny Logan shared similar sentiments. She reminisced about dancing past midnight at The Strip as a teenager, and making out with her college boyfriend on Belle Isle before police told them to move along. But years later after the state took over management, she said, she was showing out-of-town guests the island when they were stopped by Michigan State Police. “The officer continued to ask my guests for Michigan ID after they explained they were not from Michigan,” Logan recalled. “After releasing us, he then followed us for a while. That was the end of my visits to Belle Isle…” Michigan State Police have said in the past that they only enforce existing laws and ensure people are driving safely.
Perhaps the most legendary Belle Isle mischief happened in 1972, when pranksters stole an alligator from the aquarium in hopes of releasing it in a pool in front of Cobo (now TCF Center), where the Rolling Stones were set to perform. Thwarted, they let their captive go in the James Scott Fountain, according to Jeff Morrison in his book “Guardians of Detroit.” Speaking of the Rolling Stones… Mick Jagger and Brian Jones reportedly learned to drive on the right side of the road on Belle Isle, when they visited during their first American tour in 1964.
Located at the Western edge of the island, Bohling highly recommends checking out Sunset Point — you can plop yourself down on a bench and simply take in the beautiful water as you watch the sun go down. The island can also be a balm when you’re suffering, writes Marsha Music in “A Poem for Belle Isle” — have a good cry among the rocks and dip your toes in the water to get some relief.
Biking, hiking, running, golfing, playing basketball, fishing, swimming, boating and kayaking are just a few of the ways you can get active on the island. The DNR has maps and more info.
Belle Isle’s green spaces — and pavilions you have to reserve far in advance — make for a great spot for family reunions. On any given summer weekend, you’ll see buses pulling up with dozens of family members in matching shirts, laden down with food and toys. “While many different families from all over the world have reunions, the notion has particular resonance in the black community,” wrote Desiree Cooper in BLAC after her family’s 37th reunion on Belle Isle. “I suspect that we care so much about family reunions in no small part because of the legacy of slavery and its aftermath. A family reunion is like gathering up the limbs of family trees that were severed by that cruel institution and, decades later, by the Great Migration. African Americans have a special need to cling to each other over time and distance, and to know who ‘our people’ are.”
Race riots of 1943:
On June 20, 1943, a fight between Black and white youth at Belle Isle started three days of riots, fueled by widespread inequality and racism in the city. By the end of the riots, quelled after President Franklin Roosevelt sent in federal troops, 25 Black people were killed (17 shot by police) and 9 whites were killed.
While technically owned by Detroit, the city leased the island to the state of Michigan for 30 years beginning in 2014, with two 15-year renewals. The cost-cutting measure — initiated by state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr and approved in November 2013 in Lansing despite City Council’s rejection — was meant to save Detroit upwards of $4 million in operating costs annually as the city underwent bankruptcy proceedings. New management meant Belle Isle required a fee for drivers to get on the island for the first time — and that the DNR would spend money on capital improvements and address simpler issues like maintaining clean bathrooms. The lease faced strong opposition from many Detroiters concerned about relinquishing a city asset and additional state interference. In the years since, the state has spent large sums to beautify the island and attendance has increased — but some still object to the fees, the increased presence from officials and state police and DNR initiatives like the habitat restoration project that caused extensive flooding and closing part of the island each summer for the Detroit Grand Prix.
The Belle Isle Aquarium is known for housing sea creatures, but during prohibition, the basement was used as a speakeasy, acting as the perfect place to enjoy a cocktail. It was also located in quite the convenient spot for importing booze from our Canadian neighbors.
Detour reader Don Melson II recalls hanging out at “The Strip” — Detroiters’ unofficial name for a stretch of road on Belle Isle — like it was yesterday. Melson describes The Strip as “one big parking lot,” where people from the city to the suburbs would gather to show off their cars and socialize. In other words, it was an outdoor club minus the cover charge. “The Strip was the main hangout spot for everybody — not only my age but also the generation before,” Melson, 40, recalled. Read more memories of The Strip here.
Many Detroiters remember driving through the tunnel under Jefferson Ave. that provided easy access to the bridge onto the island via W. Grand Boulevard. But in 1985 when the bridge was reconstructed, the city opted to remove the underpass.
From Detour reader and Transportation Riders United (TRU) board member, David Gifford: “‘At one time the entrance to the Belle Isle Bridge had its very own bus station — one that was once considered to be “…the greatest little bus stop in the world.’ Bus service to Belle Isle began in 1909 and was operated by the Detroit Department of Parks and Boulevards until 1924 when the DSR took it over. A standalone route for nearly 40 years, the Belle Isle bus has also been merged with other city routes and is known today as #12-Conant. The Conant bus runs hourly 7 days a week between the State Fair Grounds, through Hamtramck and stops at the aquarium. Other transit in the past included ferry service, and although streetcar tracks were built into the MacArthur Bridge, they were never used and paved over in the 1950’s. While there is no MoGo bike station on the island yet, you may find a stray scooter.”
Utopia for billionaires:
One of the wildest tidbits from Belle Isle’s winding history is from less than a decade ago. In early 2013, as Detroit was careening toward bankruptcy and the idea of leasing the island to the state was under debate, these developers had an alternative proposal. Why not sell the island to an investor to turn it into a private, wealthy community outside U.S. law? The plans for Belle Isle Commonwealth — limited government, “self-reliance,” a currency named after Ayn Rand, a monorail — were detailed in a novella set in the 2040s. There’s no indication that anyone seriously considered privatizing the public park, no matter how convincing the 3D rendering.
Views and vistas:
There is no shortage of beautiful scenery on Belle isle. DNR manager of Belle Isle Karis Floyd says, “There’s a view when you come into the park, just as you’re going past the Scott Fountain — it’s part of the Sunset Point area, right on the edge of the Detroit River. You can see all the boaters, jet-skiers and a view of downtown.” Find more of Floyd’s favorite spots on the island here.
According to the American Association for State and Local History, that’s the name, or “Swan Island,” by which Belle Isle was known to the Anishinabeg peoples native to the area before the French colonized Detroit.
There are no shortage of Belle Isle weddings — plus, there are plenty of gorgeous spots for pictures. Reader Alicia Secord shared this memory on Facebook: “When I moved to Detroit, I lived in an apartment 5 minutes from Belle Isle. I met my now wife shortly after I moved here, so we spent a lot of time going there that first summer. So we got married there in 2015 at the Conservatory.”
Belle Isle’s ice tree is one of the city’s best unofficial sights around the holidays and into January and beyond. Ice sculptures have been a Detroit staple since the 1900s, and Belle Isle’s longstanding tradition of creating an ice tree (pine trees stacked together and coated over time with running water to create a cool, icy formation) is the epitome of semi-natural winter beauty.
“The original building was built in the 1870s, but it was on McDougall Street just south of Jefferson Avenue, so it wasn’t even on the island,” Bohling says. “Then there was a falling out and the club split. In the 1880s, some of the members formed the Detroit Yacht Club at the current location on Belle Isle. It’s a Mediterranean-style villa, and George Mason was the architect who designed it (he was also known for the Masonic Temple, the Gem Theater and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island).”
The once-happening Belle Isle Zoo opened in 1895. By the early 1900s, there were 152 animals. Over the years, the zoo went through numerous variations — the Detroit Children’s Zoo in 1947, and let’s not forget Safariland in the 1980s. Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick closed the zoo in 2002, citing financial troubles. (We would never recommend sneaking in, though it was a popular activity in the years after that). Today, the Belle Isle Nature Center is the spot for animal-watching and insect-catching.
Kate Abbey-Lambertz contributed reporting.
Correction: A previous version of this piece misspelled Don Melson’s last name as Melton. We regret the error.