Nature. People. Places.

Fun Facts

How many names has the island had throughout its history?

Eight (8)

  1. As part of the Ottawa and Chippewa territory, Belle Isle was known as Mah-nah-be-zee (meaning the Swan in Chippewa), because it was the resting place for migratory swans. Some references refer the name as Wah-na-be-zee (Swan Island or White Swan).
  2. In 1620, local tribes gave the island the name of Rattlesnake Island due to its infestation of rattlesnakes. Legend says the snakes were placed there by the God Manitou to keep evil spirits away.
  3. It was used as common pastureland by settlers in 1701 and called the “Common”.
  4. Antonie de lay Mothe Cadillac named it “Isle lay Marguerite” in honor of one of his daughters.
  5. Some early French settlers called it “Isle au Ste. Clair” due to its proximity to Lake St. Clair.
  6. In 1759, the French called it “Isle aux Cochons” (Hog Island), as they placed their hogs and cattle on the island. If the hogs were on the mainland, they would destroy the crops on the local ribbon farms. Also, hogs eat snakes and could help control the rattlesnakes population on the island.
  7. 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.
  8. On August 29, 1881, Detroit Common Council officially changed the name to “Belle Isle Park”.

How big is Belle Isle Park?

Belle Isle Park is the largest island park in the United States comprised of 985 acres, and the tenth largest municipal park in the United States. Belle Isle is the third largest island in the Detroit River after Grosse Ile and Fighting Island. There are five miles of scenic shoreline.

How many owners did the island have before the city purchased it?

Seven (7)

  1. It was part of the Ottawa and Chippewa territory.
  2. The French settled the island in 1701.
  3. Lt. George McDougall was granted a deed to the island in 1771 after purchasing it from the Ottawa and Ojibwa Chiefs Okitchewanong, Couttawyin and Ottowachkin. The purchase price was four barrels of rum, three rolls of tobacco, three pounds of vermilion and a belt of wampum with an additional three barrels of rum and three pounds of pain to be delivered when possession was taken. The value was at 194 pounds sterling.
  4. In 1793, it was sold to William Macomb for 183 pounds sterling.
  5. Barnabas Campau purchased the island in 1817 for $5,000.
  6. Barnabas Campau died in 1845 leaving the island to his two sons and two daughters.
  7. In 1879, Belle Isle was purchased for $180,000 and developed as a park.

How many acres was the island when the city purchased it?

Originally, Belle Isle was mapped at 690 acres when the city purchased it. It now comprises 985 acres.

During the construction of the Scott Fountain an addition extended the western end of the island nearly 200 acres. Building up of the shoreline accounted for approximately another 100 acres. A section of the shoreline was filled with soil excavated from the Guardian, Buhl, Penobscot and Scott buildings in downtown Detroit provided additional landfill. The soil was moved by truck from the constructions sites to a dock at the foot of Orleans Street and taken to Belle Isle on scows pushed by a tug, affectionately dubbed “Josephine”. The eastern point was added during the construction of the Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse.

Was there an architect who designed the island?

Yes, Fredrick Law Olmsted.

How old is the Conservatory?

Construction began in 1902 on the Aquarium and Horticultural Building, as it was called then. The two buildings, designed by Albert Kahn, opened on August 18, 1904, and were originally joined where one could walk through between the two structures without leaving the building. The Conservatory originally had a wooden frame. The wings and dome were rebuilt with a skeleton of steel and aluminum in 1949. On April, 6, 1955, the Conservatory was dedicated to Anna Scripps Whitcomb who donated her 600 plant orchid collection to the City of Detroit.

How many rooms are in the Conservatory?

The Conservatory is divided into various ‘houses’. The Palm House which includes tropical trees and palms, the Cactus House including succulents and cactus, the Fernery which is sunken to provide cooler conditions and more humidity, the Tropical House where many plants that provide food are housed including bananas, oranges, figs and the Show House which has changing displays of flowering plants.

How tall is the Palm House Dome?

The Palm House dome is 85 feet high. When the palms reach the full height, they have to be cut down as they cannot be pruned to height. One palm tree has already been removed.

How often are the plants exchanged in the Show House of the Conservatory?

There are 6 shows, Chrysanthemum-October-November, Poinsettia-December through early January, winter-January to Easter, Easter-featuring Lilies, Mother’s Day-spring and summer.

Was the Lily Pond part of the original design of the Conservatory?

The Lily Pond was constructed in 1936 between the Aquarium and the Conservatory buildings. 200 tons of moss-covered limestone boulders were brought from the construction of the Livingstone Channel in the Detroit River near Amherstburg, Ontario, to create the rockery walls.

What happens to the fish in the Lily Pond during the winter?

Volunteers maintain the Lily Pond garden off the Show House and also care for the Japanese koi that live in the Aquarium basement during the winter.

How many people take care of the Conservatory?

Currently, there are two staff persons and a supervisor assigned to the Conservatory plus a greeter.  They are employees of the City of Detroit General Services Department and make up the Floriculture Unit.  They are responsible for caring for all the plants in the Conservatory and greenhouses and outside flower beds.  The Conservatory also relies on volunteers to augment the staff.

How many greenhouses are there and are they open to the public?

There are 20 greenhouses and they are not open to the public. They hold the orchid, bromeliad, cactus, amaryllis and tropical plant collections. Five of them are used by the Golightly Career and Technical Center’s Agriscience Program for high school students in the metro Detroit area. The first greenhouse was built on Belle Isle in 1903.

When did Belle Isle become an American Territory?

In 1783, the Treaty of Paris marked the end of the Revolutionary War and established the Detroit channel as the boundary between the U.S. and Canada, making Hog Island an American Territory. The British gave up all claims to the island as the Revolutionary War ended.

What is unique about the lighthouse on Belle Isle?

The William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse is the only marble lighthouse in the United States. It is a white, fluted 70-foot high tower made from Georgian Marble and was first lit on April 8th, 1930.

Did the Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse ever have a lighthouse keeper?

No, but there was another lighthouse that stood on Belle Isle.  In 1882, a lighthouse was constructed on the east side of Belle Isle facing the Canadian shore in the middle of about 20 acres of reed filled marsh. The island was a swampy, wilderness located less than three miles from Detroit’s City Hall. The only way to get there was by boat. The light tower was a red, square, brick tower 43 feet in height featuring a fixed fourth order lens. A keeper’s dwelling was added in 1883 along with a surrounding retaining wall and a boathouse. The first keeper assigned was William Badger, but he was soon re-assigned to the Windmill Point Light. Louis Fetes was the only other keeper at Belle Isle.

What became of the old Belle Isle Lighthouse?

It was automated in 1929, and decommissioned in 1930 with the installation of the Livingstone Memorial Light. In 1943, the old lighthouse was demolished and replaced by “Belle Isle Lifeboat Station”, which became Coast Guard Station Belle Isle. The foundation of the old lighthouse is underneath the parking lot.

What recreational sports league plays on Belle Isle?

Belle Isle is home to the Detroit Futbol League. The league plays 8v8 adult (18+) co-ed soccer. The games are held at Belle Isle and Ft. Wayne.

What collection does the Dossin Great Lakes Museum feature?

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum features one of the largest collections of model ships in the world and the bow anchor of the legendry S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. It also contains 1/3 of the Gothic Room from the Great Lakes luxury Steamer City of Detroit III, the Pilot House from the Great Lakes Freighter S.S. William Clay Ford, the Miss Pepsi Hydroplane, and in front of the building are two of Admiral Perry’s Victory Cannons from the Battle of Lake Erie. There is also an exhibit on Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park.

What building closed in 2005 and is hoping to reopen to the public?

The Aquarium closed in 2005. The Belle Isle Aquarium was the oldest continually operating aquarium in North America. The Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium (FBIA) then formed a non-profit group to preserve the century old Belle Isle Aquarium and secure this educational icon for future generations. They have a future plan for reopening the building. FBIA has been merged into the Belle Isle Conservancy.

When did the Belle Isle Zoo close and when was it first opened?

The Belle Isle Safari Zoo closed in 2002. The Belle Isle Zoo was originally established on the island in 1895 with a deer park and a bear den. By 1909, the Detroit Zoo on Belle Isle had 150 animals in 32-acres. The Belle Isle Children’s Zoo was established in 1947 dismantled in the 1970s. In 1980, the Belle Isle Safari Zoo was opened with raised walkways expanded into the wooded area.

Was the floral clock on Belle Isle built by the same person as the one that was at Greenfield Village?

They are the same clock. The Floral Clock was originally located at Water Works Park (also known as Gladwin Park) on Jefferson Avenue. It was designed and built in 1893 by the superintendent of grounds at the park, Elbridge A. “Scrib” Scribner. In 1934, the clock was destined for the junk heap and rescued by Henry Ford. Henry Ford restored it and displayed it at the entrance to Greenfield Village in 1935. In 1974, the clock was placed in storage because of problems with the clock mechanism and the high cost of maintenance. In 1989, the clock was deaccessioned and returned to the City of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department. It was moved to Belle Isle around 1990.

What happened to the deer that roamed Belle Isle?

The deer herd on Belle Isle had expanded to over 400 head. Many of them were sick, and they were overpopulating the island destroying many of the plants. Twenty-five of the Fallow Deer that were originally brought to the island were moved to a large pen at the Belle Isle Nature Zoo. Others were removed.

When was the Casino building built and who designed it?

Construction of a new casino designed by the architects Van Leyen and Schilling began in 1904 near the site of the original one. The building opened in 1908. The first casino building designed by Donaldson and Meier was completed in 1884 and was a three-story wooden structure that was destroyed by fire shortly after 1900. The site of the first casino building was near the current one.

When was the Belle Isle bridge built?

The current bridge to Belle Isle was opened on November 1, 1923. It is a reinforced, concrete, cantilever bridge nearly one half-mile long with 5 lanes, 2 sidewalks and 19 spans. It was first named for George Washington and, in 1942, was renamed in honor of General Douglas MacArthur. It replaced the original bridge to Belle Isle that was opened in 1889 and burned on April 27, 1915. A temporary bridge completed in 1916 was used until the new one could be completed.

Was there a tunnel to the island at one time?

During the 1923 construction of the bridge, a tunnel or underpass going beneath Jefferson Avenue was built providing direct access to the bridge via W. Grand Boulevard. In 1985, during the reconstruction of the Bridge, the city decided to remove the underpass and rework the bridge entrance.

Was there ever an amusement park on Belle Isle?

Electric Park was not located on the island but rather on both sides of its entrance to the bridge below Jefferson Avenue where Gabriel Richard Park is today. Electric Park opened in 1906 and was raised in 1928. One of the Electric Park Carousel horses was sent to Disney World.

Was there a submarine or tall ship located on Belle Isle?

The J.T. Wing was the last of the Great Lakes schooners. In 1948, it was situated on dry land along the water near where the Dossin Museum is and served as a maritime museum for eight years. She was condemned as unsafe due to dry rot. Police fired rounds into her rotting hull, and she burned to the ground on November 4, 1956, in front of a crowd of 6,000.

In 1947, the submarine U.S.S. Tambor was located near the foot of the Belle Isle Bridge. She was used for training but was open for public tours on Saturdays. In 1958, the Tambor was scrapped.

The 1926, the U.S.S. Yantic, a three-masted wooden-hulled screw gunboat built in 1864 and said to be designed as President Abraham Lincoln’s private yacht, was brought to Detroit. She was docked by the Belle Isle Bridge and open to the public for tours. On October 22, 1929, she sank where she was moored. The Yantic’s anchor and bell are at the Broadhead Naval Armory while her hull was buried in a slip behind the Armory.

Was there a giant stove located at the entrance to Belle Isle?

In 1926, the replicated “Garland” kitchen stove, built by the Michigan Stove Company for the 1883 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was moved to the approach of the Belle Isle Bridge. The 25 ft. high 30 ft. long stove was hand-carved of oak and painted black and silver to replicate the nickel-plated look of the old line of ranges. In 1965, it was moved to the Michigan State Fair grounds. On August 13, 2011, the old giant stove went up in flames at the fairgrounds after being struck by lightning.

What groups play at the handball courts on Belle Isle?

There are two organizations that hold tournaments at the Belle Isle Handball Courts on Loiter Way across from the Athletic Building. Belle Isle Racquetball Ball has outdoor racquetball sessions every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday starting at 3 pm. Michigan Handball Association also holds sessions at the Belle Isle Handball Courts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays after 4 pm; occasionally, they may have sessions on weekend mornings.

Are there still fish in the Belle Isle Aquarium?

Yes, the second largest exhibit tank contains 50 large fancy goldfish and Japanese koi.

What institution was described in the December 4, 1904 Detroit Free Press as being “the finest in the world?”

The Belle Isle Aquarium.

What building was vandalized in the 1970’s prompting Channel 7 News Hawk, Jerry Stanecki to embark on an expedition to replace one of the lost exhibits?

The gar tank in the Belle Isle Aquarium was vandalized when soap was thrown in the tank killing all of the fish. Jerry Stanecki answered the public’s outcry for this senseless act by leading a group of professionals down to the Mississippi River to catch gars to replace those that were lost. His trip was a success and can be viewed on YouTube.

What is the architectural style of the Belle Isle Aquarium façade?

The Belle Isle Aquarium is built in the Beaux-Arts style. This style consists of a return to the classical ideal in architecture including principles of proportion, scale, balance, and heavy ornamentation of the façade incorporating sculptural cues such as seaweed, seashells, spitting fish and the Roman god of the sea, Neptune, to communicate to the visitor what to expect when they come inside.

How many people visited the Belle Isle Aquarium during its first year of operation in 1904?