Take me on a Sea Cruise
Lost in Time in Fiji
The Royal Treatment
Enjoy Stress Free Travel
Climbing the Volcano
Hong Kong: Lived it, Loved it
Island in the Stream
Christmas in Jakarta
Travels with Barney
in the Stream
Central Ave. on Belle Isle, Detroit, around 1905.
photo from the Detroit Publishing Company
on the banner below to download the latest version from
the Adobe site.
returned from a relaxing trip on a beautiful island get-a-way, a
place where I felt transported back in time. This rock featured
two gorgeous yacht clubs, a nine-hole golf course, a swimming beach,
lots of hiking trails, an aquarium, a conservatory, formal gardens,
ball fields, handball and tennis courts, an old lighthouse, lagoons,
woods populated with white-tailed deer, and many picnic areas. The
numerous historical buildings that dot the landscape are some of
the finest on the continent.
the best part? I only had to travel less than a mile from Windsor
to Belle Isle.
cities have anything this impressive: an island park two-and-a-half
miles long, accessible by a bridge that would not be out of place
in Europe, and only a ten minute drive from downtown Detroit.
Isle has been Detroiters’ favourite place of refuge and recreation
for 150 years or more. It’s a great spot to watch the magnificent
freighters gliding along “le Detroit.”
as Wah-na-be-zee (Swan Island) to the Chippewa and Ottawa Native
American tribes, the island became popular with early settlers for
hunting, fishing bathing and picnicking.
passed over time to the French, then the British, before ending
up with American settlers. The city of Detroit acquired the island,
whose name changed from Hog Island to Belle Isle in 1879.
citizens were calling on the city to create a public space on Belle
Isle that would imitate the parks and tree-lined boulevards of Paris.
In 1883, the city secured the services of Frederick Law Olmsted,
the prominent landscape architect and planner responsible for famous
urban parks in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston. After
Olmsted’s design was completed, buildings were added to the
island. Olmstead laid out a central road with canals crisscrossing
The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, shown above in 1890's,
contains more than a million plants. It has one of the largest
municipally owned orchid display in the country, dating back
to the 1800's. The 1904 structure is located at the western
end of Belle Isle, next to the aquarium.Photo “Detroit
Then and Now” by Cheri Y. Gay
heavily forested and marshy, the island soon was populated with
a scattering of buildings begun in the late nineteenth century through
the early 20th century, most located on the western half of the
most famous structure on Belle Isle may be the Aquarium and Horticulture
Building where diverse marine habitats are still displayed. Inspired
by the Naples aquarium, Albert Kahn designed a building with brickwork
facade, copper roof, and a huge interior space to hold the great
aquariums. (The aquarium features about 60 exhibits of 146 species
of freshwater and saltwater fish. Exhibits include freshwater stingrays,
electric eels, coral reef fish, and native Detroit River/Great Lakes
Horticulture building, also called the Conservatory, includes a
fernery and a tropical plants sections, and is surrounded by three
acres of formal gardens, lily ponds and greenhouses, was patterned
after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The Belle Isle Casino
built in 1907, was once said to be the finest casino in the United
States. Ornate towers frame the building’s four corners, and
verandas provide picnickers with shelter (casino in those days were
less about gambling and more about a site for public entertainment.
fine building is the cottage style police station, which would not
look out of place in the British countryside.
85-foot high Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Tower was dedicated at the
7th annual sunrise service held June 17, 1940. Nancy Brown was one
of the first advice columnists in the United States. Her advice
column, “Experience,” launched in April of 1919.
worked for “The Detroit News” until her retirement in
1942. Column readers raised most of the building’s funds for
this monument. Originally, bronze bells would serenade island visitors
with performances. Now, a computer automated 49-bell carillon recreates
the sounds of cast bronze bells ringing out.
Gets the Last Laugh
it his last and greatest joke? That was the burning question
all over town when Detroit's most eccentric bachelor, James
Scott, died at 79 on March 5, l9l0, bequeathing his $500,000
estate to the city to build a fountain on Belle Isle.
was a loafer and a gambler; he told off-color stories. And
he perpetrated vindictive practical jokes.
Folly" was one. When the owner of an adjoining lot refused
to sell Scott some land that he wanted to add to his property
at Park and Peterboro, Scott spent $20,000 to build a sham
house. From the Peterboro side it looked like a mansion, but
its elegant facade was attached to a high, windowless wall,
whose only purpose was to shut out light from the home of
the recalcitrant neighbour.
fountain on Belle Isle took more than l5 years to build, and
was dedicated in 1925. Cass Gilbert won a competition for
design of the glistening white memorial.
the fountain was Scott’s last joke, time has made the
jest a kindly one.
The Rearview Mirror:
Detroit’s Fountain of Mirth
of Detroit’s most eccentric bachelors, James Scott, who died
at 79 on March 5, l9l0, bequeathed his $500,000 estate to the city
to build a fountain on Belle Isle. According to the AIA Detroit
Guide, Scott was “one of the most despised men in the city
who delighted in lawsuits and other disputes. In his will, he left
money for a memorial fountain to be named for himself.” (See
side bar next page.)
old Belle Isle Bridge, which burned in April 1915, had a swing section,
which opened at midnight, preventing anyone on the island from reaching
the mainland until the next morning. To be trapped on the island
was tantamount to disgrace and social ostracism. All club dances
ended promptly at 11:30. Long after the present bridge opened in
1923, dances at the Boat Club and Detroit Yacht Club continued to
end at 11:30.
bridge was built and used until 1923 when the 2,193 foot bridge
was completed. In 1953 the present bridge was christened the Douglas
MacArthur Bridge to honor General MacArthur who gained fame during
World War II and the Korean War.
Walkerville ferry (1881-1942) had a dock at the tip of the island
near Hiram Walker’s empire and folks from Windsor would cruise
to the island to stroll the grounds or spend the day at Edgewater
Park (see Issue #36).
Detroit fireman battle the blaze from boats below the bridge
Photo courtesy of the Tim Baxter Post Card Collection.
however, few Windsorites tour the island, probably because the island’s
current state is so depressing. Visitors pass boarded-up buildings,
drive over deteriorating roads (wait, it’s just like being
in Windsor!) see neglected athletic fields and trash overflowing
the once tidy canals.
advocates argue that the 120-year-old island park could play a huge
role in the city’s revival efforts and become a magnet for
suburbanites and tourists. If Belle Isle were cleaned up and modernized,
boosters say, it could become the glittering centerpiece of Detroit’s
riverfront, as much of a lure as Grant Park is in Chicago or Central
Park is in New York.
fixes won’t be cheap. Some $180 million is needed in park
improvements, according to a group commissioned to develop a master
plan for the park.
for those who wish to take a trip back in time, Belle Isle can be
a delightful place to unwind. Just don’t go at night on weekends.