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Grosse Ile Township, Michigan
Aerial view of Grosse Ile Township looking north
Aerial view of Grosse Ile Township looking north
Location within Wayne County
Location within Wayne County
Grosse Ile Township, Michigan is located in Michigan
Grosse Ile Township, Michigan
Grosse Ile Township, Michigan
Location in Michigan
Grosse Ile Township, Michigan is located in the United States
Grosse Ile Township, Michigan
Grosse Ile Township, Michigan
Location in the United States
Country United States
State Michigan
County Wayne
Settled 1776
Organized 1914
 • Civil township 18.67 sq mi (48.36 km2)
 • Land 9.20 sq mi (23.83 km2)
 • Water 9.47 sq mi (24.53 km2)
594 ft (181 m)
 • Civil township 10,371
 • Density 1,127.3/sq mi (435.3/km2)
 • Metro
4,285,832 (Metro Detroit)
Time zone UTC-5 (EST)
 • Summer (DST) UTC-4 (EDT)
ZIP code(s)
48138 (Grosse Ile)
48192 (Wyandotte)
Area code(s) 734
FIPS code 26-35420
GNIS feature ID 1626407

Grosse Ile Township is a civil township of Wayne County in the U.S. state of Michigan. The population was 10,371 at the 2010 census.

The township encompasses several islands in the Detroit River, of which the largest is named as Grosse Ile. Named by French explorers in 1679, Grosse Île means "Big Island". Later taken under British rule after 1763, the island was not settled by European Americans until after the United States achieved independence in the American Revolutionary War. Grosse Ile Township was organized in 1914 after it split away from Monguagon Township.


According to the United States Census Bureau, the township has a total area of 18.3 square miles (47 km2), of which 9.6 square miles (25 km2) is land and 8.7 square miles (23 km2), or 47.4%, is water.

Grosse Ile is the largest island on the Detroit River. The township of Grosse Ile is actually composed of twelve islands, although the community is most often identified with the main island (which residents simply refer to as "The Island"). Grosse Ile's main island is technically composed of two islands.

The tip of the main island's northern section is named Hennepen Point in honor of the 17th century French explorer Father Louis Hennepin. It is uninhabited and separated from the remainder of the northern section by an unnamed canal that cannot be navigated in a power boat.

The southern section of the main island is separated from the northern section by the Thorofare Canal, which runs on a diagonal course from east to west connecting the main channel of the Detroit River with the Trenton Channel of the river. The southern section of the main island is connected by bridges to Elba Island, Meso Island (also known as Upper Hickory Island), Hickory Island, and Swan Island, which are all inhabited.

Grosse Ile Toll Bridge in 2006
Grosse Ile Toll Bridge

Not far from the shoreline of the main island in the river lie Calf Island, Celeron Island (charted as Tawas Island), Dynamite (also known as Powder House Island), Fox Island, Stony Island, and Sugar Island, which are all uninhabited. Stony and Celeron are owned by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Calf Island is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The other islands are privately owned. Mamajuda Island lies off the northeastern tip of Grosse Ile and only appears during times of low water level.

Two bridges connect the main island to the mainland of Michigan. The bridge on the north end of the island is called the Grosse Ile Toll Bridge (off-white color). The bridge on the south end of the island is officially named the Wayne County Bridge (light green in color), but is commonly called the "Free Bridge" by locals.


Founding and early times

Grosse Ile historians consider the beginning of ownership and governance of the community by residents of European heritage to have begun on July 6, 1776, when the Potawatomi Indians deeded the island to prominent Detroit merchants, brothers William and Alexander Macomb. Although the Potawatomi Indians, like most Native Americans, did not believe in the European legal concept of land ownership, they did consider the island to be part of their ancestral lands. The Potawatomi Indians called the island Kitcheminishen.

Historians assume that the Macomb brothers believed that by purchasing this deed through the transfer of items of value, they had in fact obtained full ownership rights. In any case, the Macomb brothers are considered to be the founders, and first legal owners, of Grosse Ile, because the Potawatomis, and later the United States government, respected the Macombs' perceived rights to take possession of the island.

Today, recognition of the Macomb brothers' historical importance is found in numerous places in the community. The central business district of Grosse Ile is located along Macomb Street which was named in their honor. A monument commemorating the day that the tribal chiefs and elders signed the deed to the Macomb brothers is located near the shoreline of the Detroit River at the foot of Gray's Drive. The original deed, which was written on parchment, is stored in the Burton Historical Collection within the Detroit Public Library.

There are at least three homes still standing on the island that were built during the 19th century by a descendant or relative of the Macomb brothers. The Rucker Homestead, the oldest structure in use on Grosse Ile, 21319 West River Road: Portions of this home date to 1816; the front structure was added by John Anthony Rucker in 1835. ( Grosse Ile: A Historical Timeline) The Rucker-Stanton House on West River Road was built in 1848 by the great-grandson of William Macomb. The Wendell House on East River Road was built in the late 1860s by the John Wendell who married the granddaughter of William Macomb.

Westcroft Gardens, a Michigan Centennial Farm located on West River Road, is operated to this day by descendants of the Macombs. Westcroft, which is open to the public, features a nursery well known for growing and selling hybrid azaleas and rhododendrons. During the Halloween season they have haunted hay rides in the back of the farm called "Phantom Forest." Westcroft is one of the oldest farms in Michigan still owned by the same family. Most of the original buildings at Westcroft Gardens are still standing to this day and well preserved.

The flags of three nations—France, England, and the United States—have flown over Grosse Ile since the first Europeans, French explorers, visited the island during the late 17th century. The early French explorers named the island as la grosse ile—the "big island" in French. The British, whose control of Michigan was established in 1763 after their victory in the French and Indian War, anglicized the spelling to "Grosse Isle". This form was commonly used until early during the 20th century when local residents succeeded in an effort to re-establish the French version as the official name of the community. To the dismay of historic preservationists and long-time residents, it is still common for the uninformed to mispronounce the name of the community.

Catholic priest and missionary Father Louis Hennepin accompanied fellow French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle on the ship Le Griffon in exploring the Great Lakes in 1679. The Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church on Grosse Ile maintains that Father Hennepin came ashore and said mass at a location on the east shore of the island near the present site of St. Anne's Chapel. While there apparently is not written proof of this specific event, Father Hennepin did write in his journals about the fruit orchards and wild animals on Grosse Ile, so historians assume that, at the very least, he explored the island first-hand. The north end of Grosse Ile is named Hennepin Point in his honor.

Grosse Ile played a minor role in the founding of the city of Detroit by the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. Cadillac and his convoy of 25 canoes sailed down the Detroit River and camped on the shore of Grosse Ile during the evening of July 23, 1701. On the morning of July 24, Cadillac returned upriver and reached a spot on the shore near the present intersection of West Jefferson and Shelby streets in Detroit, where he claimed French possession of the territory under the authority of King Louis XIV.

Although Grosse Ile maintained its own name and identity as a community beginning in the 18th century, it did not obtain status as an independent unit of government until October 27, 1914, when the Wayne County Board of Supervisors agreed to separate the island from Monguagon Township. The first supervisor of Grosse Ile Township was Leonard H. Wilton.

Trenton Channel and boating

Grosse Ile waterfront
A section of Grosse Ile waterfront

As an island, boating has been both a means of transportation and recreation since the first residents lived in the community. Native Americans used canoes to travel between Grosse Ile's islands and the mainland in Michigan and Canada. Early residents of European heritage primarily used sail-powered vessels to travel to and from the islands. By the late 19th century Grosse Ile was known as a popular destination for recreational boaters. During this time period Sugar Island, which is one of the twelve islands commonly considered to comprise Grosse Ile, featured an amusement park, dance pavilion and bathing beach. Paddle steamers regularly carried people seeking recreation from Detroit and other points along the Michigan side of the Detroit River to Sugar Island.

During this era and into the early 20th century, a number of wealthy residents from Detroit and other nearby towns built summer homes along the shoreline (mainly on the southern end) of Grosse Ile in order to enjoy views of the Detroit River or Lake Erie. The interior section of the island was sparsely populated, as most of the land was undeveloped woodlands or part of farms. The residential population of Grosse Ile only totaled 802 during the 1920 U.S. Census. The majority of homes were located around the perimeter of the island and a number of main roads that crossed the community in either a north-south or east-west direction.

In 1894, the federal government funded and constructed a series of channel range lights to assist ships to avoid shallow areas in the Detroit River and its shoreline. The northernmost of the channel range lights was the Grosse Ile Light, which is now the only lighthouse remaining on the island. The original 1894 Grosse Ile lighthouse resembled a water tower on stilts as it was constructed on wooden pilings along with a 170-foot (52 m) walkway to shore. It was rebuilt in 1906 to become the classic white structure which today is one of the most iconic landmarks on the island.

The image of the lighthouse is considered a symbol of Grosse Ile and can be found on the masthead of the Ile Camera community newspaper and many other places. The lighthouse's beacon was turned off in the 1940s, and the structure is no longer an important navigation aid for lake freighters, although small boaters still refer to the location.

In 1965, the Grosse Ile Township purchased the lighthouse from the U.S. Department of the Interior for $350 with funds provided by the Grosse Ile Historical Society (GIHS). The GIHS was given the responsibility to preserve and maintain the lighthouse. The GIHS annually holds a tour of the lighthouse during a weekend each fall which is the only time of the year that it is open to the public.

Island resident Cameron Waterman invented the outboard motor and successfully tested his invention in the ice-filled Detroit River off the shore of Grosse Ile during February 1905. Following the successful testing of his invention, he established the Waterman Marine Motor Company in Detroit. The company eventually manufactured and sold up to 1,000 outboard motors per year until Waterman sold the business in 1917. During the fall of 2005, the GIHS celebrated the 100th anniversary of Waterman's invention by hosting a public exhibition featuring fully restored Waterman outboard motors which are highly collectible and very rare.

During the Prohibition era, Grosse Ile became a crossing point for bootleggers illegally importing alcoholic beverages from Canada. They typically arrived to the island via small speed boats. During the winter months, some daring smugglers drove cars across the frozen river.

Aviation and military

NAS Grosse Ile NAN2-47
Naval Air Station

During the 1920s and 1930s, a small airport on the southern end of Grosse Ile was the location of historic early aviation activities. The Curtiss-Wright Flying Service operated a flying school at the airport. The Aircraft Development Corporation built the world's first all-metal airship, the ZMC-2, for the Navy in a large hangar. Amelia Earhart set three women's air speed records from June 25 to July 5, 1930 at Grosse Ile airport.

Grosse Ile was the home of a U.S. Navy base for forty years. The U.S. Naval Air Station Grosse Ile opened in 1929 after three years of construction of seaplane and dirigible facilities. During World War II, the naval base developed into an important center for military flight training. The base was expanded considerably to accommodate large numbers of American and British fliers who trained on the island. Former President George H. W. Bush was stationed at the base for training during 1945 for about two months.

During the height of the Cold War, in 1954, the U.S. Army installed an Ajax-Nike missile base at the airfield which was functional until it was decommissioned in 1963. The Navy closed the base during November 1969, and it was deeded in 1971 by the federal government to the township government for civilian use as a municipal airport.

Today, the Grosse Ile Municipal Airport is primarily used for general aviation, and occasionally is a temporary docking area for blimps that visit southeastern Michigan to fly over major sporting events. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Large Lakes Research Station also occupies one of the buildings on the airport grounds. The airport campus is the home of Grosse Ile Township Hall, which was moved to this location from Macomb Street in 2000, and a number of private businesses. In addition, the airport has been the site of public airshows.

Pioneers, inventors and prominent residents

A number of pioneers, inventors and influential executives in the automotive industry have made Grosse Ile their residence over the years. Ransom E. Olds, the founder and head of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company that was the foundation for the later establishment of Oldsmobile by General Motors Corporation, built a grand summer estate on Elba Island in 1916, which caught fire due to electrical mishaps in 2005, however was restored by the current owner and still stands today. John Kelsey, founder and president of the Kelsey Wheel Company, was a summer resident of Grosse Ile and one of the key organizers of the Grosse Ile Golf and Country Club which was established in 1919.

Charles and William Fisher, co-founders of the Fisher Body Company that later became a division of General Motors, built large summer homes at the north end of Parke Lane (one remains today). General William S. Knudsen, president of General Motors Corporation from 1937 to 1940, lived during the summer in an old remodeled farm home that later became the clubhouse for Water's Edge Country Club. Knudsen Drive and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall on Macomb Street were named in his honor.

During the 1920s Henry Ford, founder and president of the Ford Motor Company, bought a sizable tract of land between West River Road and the Thorofare Canal. While Henry Ford was interested in building a large home on the waterfront his wife Clara said that her child would not drowned in that river. Although he never built a home, he did sell pieces of his property to Ford employees. Ford's controversial personnel director, Harry Bennett, built the famous "Pagoda House" on West River in 1939. Grosse Ile resident John Karmazin, Sr., who lived on the island from 1926 until his death in 1977, invented the automotive radiator pressure cap, obtained more than fifty automotive-related patents, and founded the Karmazin Products Corporation which produced automotive and heavy construction equipment components in the city of Wyandotte from 1946 until 2000. Jack Telnack, former Global Vice President of Design at the Ford Motor Company, lived on the island during the 1980s when he was credited with designing the very popular Taurus model.

In 1929, at the age of five, J. Robert "Bob" Beyster moved to Grosse Ile where his father was a general contractor. He attended Trenton Slocum Truax High School, served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and graduated from the University of Michigan with a Ph.D. in physics. Dr. Beyster went on to found Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), which by 2007 had more than 44,000 employees and annual sales in excess of $8 billion.

Heinz Prechter, the German-born, but American-spirited inventor of the automobile sunroof, made the island his residence from the 1970s until his suicide in 2001. During the late 1960s, Prechter founded the American Sunroof Company (ASC) headquartered in the city of Southgate. ASC became one of the largest private sector employers headquartered in Downriver Detroit. At the time of his death, Prechter was widely regarded to be the most successful and influential businessman in Downriver, as he was a friend of many prominent leaders in industry and government, including President George W. Bush.

Grosse Ile has also been the home of Michiganders with distinguished service in civilian government and the military. Colonel Thornton Fleming Brodhead (1822–1862) was one of the island's most prominent residents in these fields of endeavor. Colonel Brodhead and his wife, Archange Macomb Abbott, lived on East River Road. Colonel Brodhead was, at various times, editor and part owner of the Detroit Free Press, a Michigan state senator, and postmaster at Detroit. He served in the Mexican–American War and led the First Michigan Cavalry in the American Civil War. The colonel was mortally wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862.

Railroads and bridges

Grosse Ile was directly connected to the mainland of Michigan during 1873 when the Canada Southern Bridge Company, a subsidiary of the Canada Southern Railroad Company, established a railroad to the island which carried both passengers and freight. The company laid tracks across Grosse Ile and built bridges over the Detroit River that enabled trains to be transferred to a ferryboat on Stony Island (one of the islands near the east shoreline of Grosse Ile's "main island"). Once on the ferryboat, the train cars were taken to Ontario where they were put back on a rail track so they could travel to Buffalo and other points east. Canada Southern operated trains on this route for about ten years before ceasing service due to financial difficulties.

After Canada Southern ended its operations, the Michigan Central Railroad operated a train that enabled Grosse Ile residents and visitors to travel between the island and Trenton. Train service in Trenton provided people a means of regularly traveling to Detroit and other cities in the region. In 1904, the Michigan Central Railroad built a small brick and stone depot along the tracks near East River Road on the east side of the island.

Today, the depot is well preserved and serves as a community museum operated by the GIHS. The depot and the nearby old U.S. Customs House (moved in 1980 from Macomb Street to its present location), also owned and maintained by the GIHS, are the only structures in the National Historic District along East River Road that are regularly open to the public. In addition, the district features Saint James Episcopal Church, the oldest church building on the island, constructed during 1867 in part with funds provided by a freed slave named Elizabeth Denison. The district also includes six homes, built during the 1840s to 1860s period, that provide outstanding examples of architecture, particularly Gothic Revival and Jacobethan Revival, from this era.

Train service peaked during the early 20th century, but rapidly declined after Edward W. Voigt's Grosse Ile Bridge Company opened the Grosse Ile Toll Bridge on November 27, 1913 (Thanksgiving Day). The bridge, which is privately owned, is on the west side of the island and connects to the city of Riverview. After automobile traffic crossing the bridge became the most popular means of traveling to and from the island, the Michigan Central Railroad ceased daily passenger service during early 1924 and stopped occasional freight train service to the island in 1929.

During 1931, the county government converted the Michigan Central Railroad's defunct rail bridge crossing the Trenton Channel into the Wayne County Bridge for use by vehicular, bike and pedestrian traffic. The rail tracks across the island were replaced by a roadway that is now known as Grosse Ile Parkway. The Wayne County Bridge is commonly referred to as the "Free Bridge" by residents because of the absence of a toll for crossing.

Today, about three-quarters of the vehicle traffic going to and from Grosse Ile travels over the Wayne County Bridge, while one-quarter crosses the Toll Bridge. The Toll Bridge has been hit twice by lake freighters, causing it to close temporarily (first in 1965, then again in 1992). The Wayne County Bridge was closed to vehicle traffic for major renovations between May 2, 2007, and December 21, 2007. During the 2007 county bridge closure period, the Toll Bridge provided the only route for vehicles to travel to and from the island.

Modern times, growth and preservation

Grosse Ile is considered to be one of the best locations along the Detroit River to observe commercial shipping and pleasure boat traffic. Lake freighters and oceangoing ships traveling to destinations around the Great Lakes regularly pass near the east side of the island where the main channel of the Detroit River separates Grosse Ile from Canada.

While the shoreline areas of Grosse Ile feature the majority of historically significant places and structures, approximately a dozen 1920s era homes in the Jewell Colony subdivision, located in the middle of the island, are listed on the Michigan Register of Historic Places. Jewell Colony was the first planned subdivision on the island.

As a result of its unique natural setting, strong community values, historic preservation, highly rated schools and close proximity to major employers in Metro Detroit, Grosse Ile experienced a significant increase in the rate of residential development during the last half of the 20th century. By the 1980 census, the population of Grosse Ile had rocketed to approximately 9,300—an increase of about 106% from the 1960 census.

Fearing that the natural character and small-town charm of the community was being forever destroyed by this housing boom, during the early 1990s the Grosse Ile Township established the "Open Space Program" funded by a voter-approved dedicated local property tax to buy undeveloped land. The township's Open Space Program succeeded in acquiring large tracts of environmentally sensitive land which helped to slow the pace of development, preserve the environment and protect housing values. Grosse Ile's Open Space program is considered to be a national model for market-based growth management in a small town.

In 1993, a group of community-minded citizens established a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization named the Grosse Ile Land & Nature Conservancy to aid in the protection and stewardship of the diverse natural resources on the island. The Conservancy soon acquired by donation a number of environmentally important woodland and wetland areas.

The U.S. EPA granted stewardship responsibilities to the Conservancy for a 40.5-acre (16.4 ha) marsh and upland area on the federal government-owned section of the Grosse Ile Municipal Airport. This tract of land, which at one time was the location of the Navy's seaplane base and later the Army's Nike missile base, has been restored to its natural state featuring rich biodiversity and rare coastal wetlands. Named the Nature Area by the Conservancy, this land is periodically used by local teachers and Boy Scout groups to teach children about nature and the importance of conservation.

Grosse Ile is a community of about 10,371 residents. Many seek to balance environmental conservation, historic preservation, small town suburban living, and new development in a manner that makes it a very desirable place to live. In fact, Money magazine named Grosse Ile one of the "Top 100 Best Places to Live" in 2009.


Originally held on Macomb Street, the annual "Islandfest" (formerly "Azalea Festival") takes place around Grosse Ile Municipal Airport. On the same site as Islandfest, the Grosse Ile Youth Recreational Association (GIYRA), a 501c3 charity, runs a haunted house every Halloween. GIYRA coordinates the youth sporting events for the island children. The sports offered by GIYRA are Football and Cheer, Flag Football, Basketball, Baseball and Softball.

In addition to sporting events sponsored by GIYRA, the island houses an indoor tennis facility. The six courts are inside an old hangar at the city's municipal airport. The Tennis Center has been taken under new ownership. The courts have been refinished, and there are other extensive renovations taking place.

The Grosse Ile Soccer Association coordinates the township's soccer league. The rapidly expanding soccer association, which started off by just hosting a recreational league, has expanded into a larger association. The Grosse Ile Soccer Association now has over 15 select travel / premier level teams on top of the in house recreational program.

Grosse Ile's community theatre, The Islanders, is Downriver's oldest theatre club and one of the oldest civic theatre groups in the state of Michigan. The club has been active on Grosse Ile since 1925, when friends and neighbors needed an outlet for wholesome entertainment during the long Michigan winters. The first major play was produced on May 21, 1926, by a group of 40 founding members.

Grosse Ile social clubs include the Grosse Ile Yacht Club, the Ford Yacht Club, the Elba-Mar Boat Club, the Grosse Ile Golf and Country Club, West Shore Golf Course, Water's Edge Golf Course and the Grosse Ile Rotary Club (founded in 1947).


The U.S. Census Bureau also defined Grosse Ile Township as a census-designated place (CDP) in the 2000 Census so that the community would appear on the list of places (like cities and villages) as well on the list of county subdivisions (like other townships). The final statistics for the township and the CDP were identical.

As of the census of 2000, there were 10,894 people, 4,122 households, and 3,293 families residing in the township. The population density was 1,133.9 persons per square mile (437.7/km2). There were 4,335 housing units at an average density of 451.2 per square mile (174.2/km2). The racial makeup of the township was 95.23% White, 0.36% African American, 0.34% Native American, 2.74% Asian, 0.04% Pacific Islander, 0.29% from other races, and 1.00% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.61% of the population.

There were 4,122 households, out of which 34.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 72.8% were married couples living together, 5.0% had a female householder with no husband present, and 20.1% were non-families. 17.8% of all households were made up of individuals, and 7.4% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.64 and the average family size was 2.99.

In the township the population was spread out, with 24.9% under the age of 18, 5.1% from 18 to 24, 23.4% from 25 to 44, 34.8% from 45 to 64, and 11.9% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 43 years. For every 100 females, there were 99.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 97.0 males.

The median income for a household in the township was $87,062, and the median income for a family was $96,226. Males had a median income of $71,777 versus $42,430 for females. The per capita income for the township was $42,150. About 1.9% of families and 2.6% of the population were below the poverty line, including 3.4% of those under age 18 and 2.6% of those age 65 or over.

The township is considered to be among the safest communities in Michigan. It is highly affluent and is isolated in the river, with two bridges connecting it to the mainland.


Grosse Ile Township Schools serves the township.

On the island, there are two elementary schools: Parke Lane Elementary which serves grades K-2nd, and Meridian Elementary which serves grades 3rd-5th. The Grosse Ile Middle School enrolls students in 6–8, and Grosse Ile High School provides college preparatory education for grades 9–12. Their mascot is the Red Devil.

In 2001, Grosse Ile was ranked the highest out of 88 school districts in Michigan by The Detroit News.

Notable people

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