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Belle Isle Park
Belle Isle Park
James Scott Memorial Fountain, with the Belle Isle Casino in the background
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Type State park
Location Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Area 982 acres (397 ha)
Created 1845 (2014 as a state park)
Operated by State of Michigan
Website Official website:
Belle Isle
Location Detroit River
Architect Frederick Law Olmsted
NRHP reference No. 74000999
Added to NRHP February 25, 1974

Belle Isle Park, known simply as Belle Isle, is a 982-acre (1.534 sq mi; 397 ha) island park in Detroit, Michigan, developed in the late 19th century. It consists of Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River, as well as several surrounding islets. The U.S.-Canada border is in the channel south of Belle Isle such that the island is not in Canada.

Owned by the city of Detroit, Belle Isle is managed as a state park by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources through a 30-year lease initiated in 2013; it was previously a city park. Belle Isle Park is the largest city-owned island park in the United States, and Belle Isle is the third largest island in the Detroit River, after Grosse Ile and Fighting Island. It is connected to mainland Detroit by the MacArthur Bridge.

Belle Isle Park is home to the Belle Isle Aquarium, the Belle Isle Conservatory, the Belle Isle Nature Center, the James Scott Memorial Fountain, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, a municipal golf course, a half-mile (800 m) swimming beach, and numerous other monuments and attractions. It is also the site of a Coast Guard station. The Detroit Yacht Club is located on an adjacent island, connected to Belle Isle by a bridge.


"Pig Island" (Île aux Cochons) on a French map of 1796

The island was settled by French colonists in the 18th century, who named it Île aux Cochons (Hog Island). They allowed their livestock free range on the island.

Following his victory in the War of 1812, American General Alexander Macomb, Jr. was assigned to this region and owned the island as his estate. He was later appointed as Commanding General of the US Army. A monument to him was erected in the Washington Boulevard Historic District in downtown Detroit.

On July 4, 1845, a historic picnic party was held on the island; attendees decided to change its name to "Belle Isle" in honor of Miss Isabelle Cass, daughter of Governor (General) Lewis Cass. The name Belle Isle (an archaic spelling of Belle Île) means "beautiful island" in French.

The city planned to develop the island as a park, and hired prominent American urban park designer Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1880s to design it. He is known for his design of Central Park in New York City. But only some elements of his design were completed.

The 1908 Belle Isle Casino building is not used as a gambling facility; rather, it serves for occasional public events. Highlights of Belle Isle include a botanical garden and the Belle Isle Conservatory (1904). Both the conservatory and the adjacent aquarium were designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn, who designed Cadillac Place and the Ford Rouge Factory, now recognized as city and national landmarks.

Belle Isle, river-environed park, Detroit, Michigan, from Robert N Dennis collection of stereoscopic views (extract)
Interior waterways in the park shown in a c.1880 image, soon after the park's creation
Guide and souvenir of Detroit (1891) (14801065063)
The old Belle Isle Casino, designed by Mason & Rice and built in 1884. It was demolished and replaced in 1908.

One night in 1908, Byron Carter of Cartercar stopped to help a stranded motorist on Belle Isle. When he cranked her Cadillac, it kicked back and broke his jaw. Complications from the injury resulted in his contracting pneumonia and he died. Henry Leland, founder of Cadillac Motors, said that "The Cadillac car will kill no more men if we can help it". He hired Charles Kettering, who established Delco and developed the electric self-starter. This soon became standard on all automobiles.

Architect Cass Gilbert designed Belle Isle's James Scott Memorial Fountain, completed in 1925. Gilbert's other works include the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC. William Livingstone Memorial Light, the only marble lighthouse in the United States, is located on the east end of the island, and features 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.

During World War II, the US military used the island park for training. They also staged a re-enactment of the invasion of a Pacific island invasion by the Navy and Marine Corps. The island was temporarily renamed Bella Jima, and Detroiters witnessed an island invasion without the bloodshed. This event was conducted after the successful US invasion of Iwo Jima.

At one time, the island housed a canoe concession, which provided rental canoes and stored private ones. Canoe riders often stopped at the nearby Remick Band Shell, which hosted regular concerts 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 operated rented facilities on the island from 1902 until 1996. The marina and building are currently closed, and only rowing activities are still conducted 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; it also offers swimming and other country club amenities. 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 an 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-era houses.

White deer argonne
Many fallow deer including the "white" variety were formerly widespread on the island

From the 1890s, the island was home to a large herd of European fallow deer. But this isolated population fell prey to disease at the close of the 20th century as a result of cyclic inbreeding. In 2004, the last of the 300 animals were captured and moved to the Detroit Zoo and nature center, located on Belle Isle. The children's zoo on the island and the aquarium closed due to budget constraints.

The Belle Isle Aquarium reopened on August 18, 2012, and is now run by the Belle Isle Conservancy. It originally opened on August 18, 1904, and was the oldest continually operating public aquarium in North America when it closed on April 3, 2005. The aquarium was operated by the Detroit Zoological Society prior to the 2005 closure. It is open to the public from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm every Saturday and Sunday, free of charge. The 10,000 sq ft (930 m2) historic building features a single large gallery with an arched ceiling covered in green glass tile to evoke an underwater feeling. Additional recreational options in the early 21st century include a nature center, wheelchair accessible nature trail, fishing piers, playgrounds, picnic shelters, and handball, tennis and basketball courts, baseball fields, and cricket pitch.

After years of economic problems, in 2013, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy. A State Emergency Manager was appointed by the state government to oversee the city's finances. As part of the process, the state proposed taking over Belle Isle and converting it into a state park. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a lease on October 1, 2013, to lease the park from the city for 30 years; while the city council rejected that offer in mid-October, the Michigan Emergency Loan Board opted for the state's proposal on November 12, 2013. It set a 90-day transition period beginning on December 1, 2013, to turn the park operations over to the state. As part of the deal, the state promised to make up to $20 million in improvements to the park over the next three years. Belle Isle formally became a state park on February 10, 2014.

Users of the state park entering by car or motorcycle must either pay the standard state park user entrance fee or have a Michigan Recreational Passport sticker on the license plate of their vehicles. There is no charge for those who walk, bicycle or jog to the park.

Belle Isle was the top-visited state park in Michigan in 2016, receiving more than 4 million visitors. Since the state took control in 2014, it has invested $32 million in renovation and improvements in the park.

The park is one of the termini for the cross-state Iron Belle Trail, which consists of separate hiking and biking trails.


Auto racing

In 1992, a temporary street race circuit was constructed on the isle for CART races. The island hosted ten events at Belle Isle from 1992–2001, and racing resumed in 2007 as part of the IndyCar Series and American Le Mans Series.

On December 18, 2008, the scheduled race for 2009 was canceled. The automotive economic crisis, and its impact on the Detroit-area was the primary reason. Roger Penske did not rule out a return in the future.

On September 20, 2011, race organizers gained approval from Detroit City Council to use the updated track and support area on Belle Isle. On October 11, 2011, it was announced that the race would return in 2012. The race continues to be held annually, as of June 2016. The race weekend will feature IndyCar as well as IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Blancpain GT World Challenge America races.


Grand Canal, Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, 1898-1905
Boating on the Grand Canal in the early 1900s

Plans are underway to renew the tradition of Summer concert band performances for 2018 at the Remick Band Shell. Various Detroit-area concert bands are planning on performing on Sunday afternoons at the Band Shell. For instance, the Heritage Concert Band of Troy is scheduled to team with the Belgian American Association Band for a joint performance on July 29, 2018, at 1:30PM (tentative time). Many of the musicians belong to both concert bands.

It was announced that Belle Isle would be the site of heavy metal band Metallica's 2013 Orion Music + More Festival, guaranteeing $100,000 in revenue. On December 26, 2012, Detroit Councilman Ken Cockrel Jr. confirmed rumors that the city was in the process of confirming 2014 and 2015 as well to take place at Belle Isle. However, in 2013 the festival series was canceled permanently due to financial constraints.


Belle Isle was home to the Detroit Futbol League, but games are now held at the Fort Wayne grounds due to field conditions at Belle Isle.

Canoe, Kayak and Paddleboat Rental

There are canoes, paddleboats, and kayaks available for rental located at the Flynn Pavilion.


James Scott Memorial Fountain

The James Scott Memorial Fountain is a monument located in Belle Isle Park, in Detroit, Michigan. Designed by architect Cass Gilbert and sculptor Herbert Adams, the fountain was completed in 1925 at a cost of $500,000. The lower bowl has a diameter of 510 ft (160 m) and the central spray reaches 125 ft (38 m). The fountain honors the controversial James Scott, who left $200,000 to the City of Detroit for a fountain in tribute to himself.

Belle Isle Aquarium

Belle Isle Aquarium exterior
Exterior of the Belle Isle Aquarium

The Belle Isle Aquarium is a public aquarium located in Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Michigan. Designed by architect Albert Kahn, it opened on August 18, 1904, and was the oldest continually operating public aquarium in North America when it closed on April 3, 2005. The aquarium reopened to the public on August 18, 2012, and is now run by the Belle Isle Conservancy. The 10,000-square-foot (930 m2) historic building features a single large gallery with an arched ceiling covered in green glass tile to evoke an underwater feeling. The aquarium was operated by the Detroit Zoological Society prior to the 2005 closure. It is currently operated by the Belle Isle Conservancy.

Belle Isle Conservatory

Whitcomb Conservatory
Whitcomb Conservatory on Detroit's Belle Isle

The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, commonly and locally known as the Belle Isle Conservatory, is a greenhouse and botanical garden which opened in 1904. Located three miles (4.8 km) east of the city's downtown, on Belle Isle, it covers 13 acres (5.3 ha).

The Belle Isle Conservatory was built in 1904, designed by architect Albert Kahn, and rebuilt 1952-1954 with aluminum replacing its original wooden beams. In 1953, it was named in honor of Anna Scripps Whitcomb, who left her 600-plant orchid collection to the city. Thanks to her gift and subsequent donations, the conservatory is now home to one of the largest municipally-owned orchid collections in the United States. Rare orchids were saved from Great Britain during the World War II bombing and transported to the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. Due to a lack of maintenance and budget cuts in recent years, the vast majority of orchids have now died.

The conservatory site contains formal perennial gardens, annual flower beds, a rose garden, and lily pond garden. The conservatory itself covers more than an acre, features an imposing central dome 85 feet (26 m) high (with a total volume of 100,601 cubic feet), and is organized as a palm house in the dome, the north and south wings, and a show house. The south wing contains tropical plants of economic importance such as bananas, oranges, coffee, sugar cane, and orchids. The north wing hosts the extensive collections of ferns, cacti, and succulents. The show house, remodeled 1980-1981, features a continuous display of blooming plants. The conservatory is currently undergoing renovations , and is closed to the public until July 2019.

Belle Isle Nature Center

The Belle Isle Nature Center (BINC) is a nature center that encompasses approximately 4 acres (1.6 ha) of undisturbed forested wetland on Belle Isle. The nature center provides year-round educational, recreational and environmental conservation opportunities for the community.

A Deer Encounter, where fallow deer that once roamed the island can be fed by visitors, is part of a multi-phase project to convert the former Belle Isle Zoo into a nature center focusing on Michigan wildlife, flora and fauna. The BINC also includes a renovated auditorium, a turtle exhibit featuring native Michigan turtles, an indoor beehive allowing year-round viewing of bee behavior, a spider exhibit, and a Creation Station for children's educational programming.

Dossin Great Lakes Museum

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum is a maritime museum. Located on The Strand on Belle Isle Park, this museum places special interest on Detroit's role on national and regional maritime history. The 16,000-square-foot (1,500 m2) museum features exhibits such as one of the largest collection of model ships in the world, and the bow anchor of the legendary SS Edmund Fitzgerald.


At 982 acres (1.534 sq mi; 397 ha), Belle Isle Park was the largest city island park (prior to its transfer to the State of Michigan as a state park) and is larger than Central Park in New York City, also designed by Olmsted.

Detroit's River Rouge Park is 1,172 acres (1.831 sq mi; 474 ha). Prior to Belle Isle becoming a state park, the City's Parks and Recreation Department managed 6,000 acres (9.4 sq mi; 2,400 ha) of parks (now approximately 5,000 acres (7.8 sq mi; 2,000 ha)). The Huron-Clinton Metroparks authority manages 24,000 acres (38 sq mi; 9,700 ha) of parks and beaches; however, this does not include all parks in the area. There are thousands of additional acres of parks in metropolitan Detroit.


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