Belle Isle is a 982 acre island park in the Detroit River, between the United States mainland and Canada, managed by the Detroit Recreation Department. It is connected to the rest of Detroit, Michigan by the MacArthur Bridge. It is the largest island city park in the United States and the third largest island in the Detroit River after Grosse Ile and Fighting Island.
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 1845 it was given its present name.
A design for the island was created in the 1880s by Frederick Law Olmsted, a prominent urban park designer; only some elements of his design were carried out. 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 Anna Scripps Whitcomb 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.
It is home to the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory (1904), the Detroit Yacht Club, the Detroit Boat Club, James Scott Memorial Fountain, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, a Coast Guard station, and a municipal golf facility. The city maintains a Nature Center where visitors are able to traverse wooded trails and view wildlife natural habitats. The island includes a half-mile (800 m) swimming beach.
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.
Architect Cass Gilbert designed Belle Isle’s James Scott Memorial Fountain. Gilbert’s other works include the U. S. Supreme Court building in Washington, DC. 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. 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 even a cricket pitch.
There was a canoe concession and a band shell, and canoe riders often stopped nearby to enjoy the concert. Concerts occurred at the Remick Band Shell 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.
The Detroit Boat Club moved to the island in 1902 but the marina and building is 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. 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 a 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 houses.
The island was home to a large herd of European fallow deer for more than 50 years. However, this isolated population fell prey to disease at the close of the 20th century. The children’s zoo on the island and the aquarium closed due to budget constraints.
During the early 2000’s, the island lost it’s lustre as a destination for recreation and most buildings on the island were left abandoned. One of the few exceptions being the Casino, which is still used for special occasions and the certain public works that are needed by the city proper.