Nature. People. Places.

History of the Park

“The island is the priceless jewel in the crown of Detroit; woods of green and waters of blue—art and nature—moving waves and waving grass—stillness and activity—vistas and broad views—beautiful flowers and lofty trees—the white sails of numerous vessels, and the swift motion of great steamers, all alike are combined in the captivating beauties of the favored place” —Silas Farmer, 1895

Belle Isle has a rich history that includes many changes in ownership over the last several hundred years. Throughout, the island was recognized as a unique natural site—one to be treasured by generations.


The Pottawotami Indians who lived along the Detroit River were the first to claim ownership to the island in the Detroit River. They called it Wah-nah-be-zee (White Swan). As the story is told, the Indians erected a statue in honor of the Great Spirit Manitou along the banks of the Detroit River. When the idol was discovered by priests accompanying LaSalle’s exploration party in 1699, the destroyed it. The Indians returned to find their holy spot desecrated, and after gathering the pieces of the statue, set off for the island. There they scattered pieces of the relic, and as the fragments landed, they turned into rattlesnakes. Manitou felt this would protect him from the white man.

When Antoine de Cadillac arrived in 1701, he was followed by many French settlers, who saw the island as a valuable piece of real estate. Legend has it that the French turned herds of pigs loose to eat the rattlesnakes. The reality may well be that the French used the island to confine hogs and other animals from theft by the Indians. Regardless, the island became knows as Ile de Cochons (or Hog Island). For a time, the island was used for grazing livestock.

Ownership of the island changed hands a number of times between 1762 and 1879. First the French, then the British, claimed ownership (in keeping with the possession of Detroit). McDougall is believed to be the first individual who owned the island, purchasing it in 1769. William Macomb purchased Belle Isle from George McDougall in 1793. In 1817, Macomb sold the island to Barnabas Campeau, whose descendants sold it to the City of Detroit in 1879 for the sum of $200,000. Many Detroiters opposed the purchase, objecting to the price.

The island had become popular with Detroiters as a picnic spot, even though it was only accessible by boat. It is believed that the island’s name was changed to Belle Isle in 1845, honoring Miss Isabelle Cass, the daughter of Lewis Cass, former Michigan territorial governor and later U.S. Senator.

Belle Isle becomes a park

In 1881, the newly appointed Park Commission of the City of Detroit hired Frederick Law Olmsted to develop a plan for the island. His paper, “The Park for Detroit: Belle Isle Scheme” was published in 1882.

Olmsted was known as the leading landscape architect of the post-Civil War generation and one of the greatest believers in the “City Beautiful” movement. He has long been acknowledged as the founder of American landscape architecture.

The challenge for Olmsted with Belle Isle was to create a design that allowed for public gathering and recreation while maintaining the natural state of the island. Olmsted produced a design which placed a ferry dock at one end of the island and concentrated all the public facilities there – a refectory, boathouses, a lighthouse, playing fields, a racing oval and exhibition grounds. The rest of the island he left in as natural a state as possible.

A gently sloping beach controlled erosion of the shore. The woods of elm, oak and hickory were thinned out to create meadows, the largest of which were eighty acres and could function as a parade ground. To drain the marshy land of the low-lying island, he proposed a system of underground pipes leading into canals, which were emptied out by steam-operated pumps. The canals also served for pleasure boating.

Olmsted’s contract called for him to be paid $7000 for his design and included a supervision fee for three years. Unfortunately, his design was deemed too elaborate and, due to disagreements with the City Council and Park Board, it was never carried out. Olmsted resigned in 1885. The only elements of Olmsted’s plan implemented were the pedestrian oriented Central Avenue; a canal system; thinning the forest and clearing underbrush to develop the open and wooded areas; and the combination pavilion/ferry landing.

Historic Structures

For many years, access to Belle Isle was by ferry only. The Pavilion Ferry Dock was built in 1883 and the ferries continued to run from the lower end of the island until 1957.

The first bridge to the island was a wooden structure erected in 1889. It served as a foot and wagon bridge until it burned in 1915. A temporary structure was put into place and used until a concrete bridge was completed in 1923. Known today as the “Belle Isle Bridge”, it was formally named the MacArthur Bridge in 1942 after General Douglas MacArthur, the World War II hero.

During its first quarter century as a city park many features, familiar to park visitors today, were developed:

  • The oldest building in the park, the White House (now used as an administration office), was built in 1863 by the son-in-law of Barnabas Campeau.
  • In 1870 the first ferry dock was built just east of the Dossin Museum; in 1883 the dock on the western end of the island was built; and in 1912 a dock was built closer to the bathhouse.
  • Between 1892 and 1899, the Newsboy Fountain and Sculpture (1892); the Police Station (1893); the Horse Stables, designed by George Mason (1895); and the Athletic Field house (1899) were completed.
  • Beginning in 1904, the Aquarium and Conservatory were completed; as well as a new Casino (1907).
  • Construction of the various canals and lagoons took place between 1893 and 1910.
  • During the 1920’s, the new concrete bridge was constructed (1923) and the Scott Fountain completed (1925)
  • The William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse – the only marble lighthouse in the world – was first lit on April 8, 1930.
  • The Nancy Brown Peace Carillon tower was dedicated in 1940, honoring Nancy Brown, a much-loved columnist with the Detroit News.

Natural Environment

The natural features of Belle Isle are incomparable. The island has a unique ecology. Surrounded by water, with approximately 7 miles of shoreline, it is a picturesque spot. It has a high water table, due to its low elevation.

More than half of the island is covered by three lakes, a lagoon and 230 acres of forested wetlands. It’s rare wet-mesic forest contains specimens that mimic the Detroit ecosystem of hundreds of years ago. Forests like this were found throughout southeastern Michigan after the glacial period. Shumard Oak and Pumpkin Ash, once common, are now quite rare. There are also Red Oak, Pin Oak, Swamp White Oak, Silver Maple, Willow and Dogwood trees.

In the 1930’s when trees were labeled along some of the trails, hawthorn, basswood, cottonwood and wild black cherry trees were present. Dutch elm disease ravaged the forests of Belle Isle during the 1960’s. Likewise, during the past several years, the Emerald Ash Borer has taken a toll on the many ash trees on the island.

Birds and animals play an important part in the island’s ecology as well. It is a migratory flyway of waterfowl; pheasants and tern have been found on the island. The woods are home to raccoons, opossums, Great Horned Owls, Fox and Grey Squirrels, beaver and a wide variety of birds.