Posted on November 14, 2016 by Janet Steinberg
Belle Island: A River Island Between Two Countries

Part 4 of a Series 


When I was a very small child, I used to visit my grandparents who lived in Detroit, Michigan.  As an adult, I remembered absolutely nothing about Detroit, and very little about my grandparents.  The only thing I ever remembered about those trips was the name Belle Isle, a place to which they would take me during my visits. 


Now, umpteen years later, I made it a point to revisit that romantic-sounding island that I fantasized about from my childhood.  Well, I didn’t find palm trees swaying from ocean breezes and I didn’t find turquoise waters beckoning snorkelers. However, what I did find was an historic 982-acre island park plunked down in the middle of the Detroit River…a 2.5 mile-long river island between two countries, and the two cities of Detroit, USA and Windsor, Canada. 



Like me, people in the area have fond recollections of reunions, celebrations, or events they attended on the island that has been a Detroit attraction since 1880.  This serene island of lakes, woods, and spectacular views of the Detroit and Windsor skyline, also offers many historic, cultural, and fun features.  


Come along with me as we cross the approximately half-mile long, 35-foot wide, cantilever arch MACARTHUR BRIDGE from Detroit to the island.  This longest concrete deck arched bridge in Michigan, opened on November 1, 1923 and was renamed for WWII General Douglas MacArthur in 1942. 




Upon entering the island, you will be greeted by Belle Isle’s lovely FLORAL CLOCK, originally created in 1893 at Waterworks Park.  In 1934, Henry Ford rescued and restored the clock and placed it at the entrance to Greenfield Village. In 1989, the clock had fallen into disrepair again was returned to Detroit Water & Sewage Department and placed in storage.  In 1990, the workings were moved to Belle Isle where it is once again a functioning beauty. 




Continuing on, you will see the JAMES SCOTT MEMORIAL FOUNTAIN that features 109 water outlets in the shape of lions, turtles, Neptune figures, artistic horns and 16 bas-relief panels that depict early Detroit life.  James Scott, (1936-1910) the fountain's namesake, was a Detroit real estate speculator and developer.  He was also a gambler and a scoundrel of his day.  When he died he left Detroit $200,000 on the condition that they build a fountain with a life-size statue of himself.  Because of his checkered past, several community and religious leaders opposed honoring him with a fountain.  They were overruled and the city accepted the gift. However, they placed the statue of Scott in a spot where the spray of the fountain would continually hit him in the face. 





The 85-foot NANCY BROWN PEACE CARILLON TOWER was named to honor Nancy Brown, a longtime well-loved columnist for the Detroit News who, in 1934, organized a Belle Isle Sunrise Service.  In 1936, her readers proposed to erect a commemorative tower to be paid for from contributions and fund-raisers.  On Dec. 13, 1939, Nancy Brown wielded a trowel and the cornerstone was laid.  It read: “Dedicated to peace in honor of Nancy Brown by readers of her Experience Column in The Detroit News. A.D. 1939.”  The tower, said to be “a voice for peace in a war-weary world,” was dedicated at the seventh annual Sunrise Sevice (June 16, 1940) before a crowd of 50,000 people.






Renowned Detroit architect, Albert Kahn designed THE BELLE ISLE AQUARIUM featuring a Beaux Art style entrance that is decorated with an ornate arch incorporating two spitting dolphins and the emblem of Detroit.  Rare green opaline glass tiles line its vaulted ceiling.  Opened on August 18, 1904, it is the oldest aquarium in the country and home to a unique collection of more than 1000 fish from around the world.  According to the Belle Isle Conservancy, much of the water in the tanks was brought in directly from the ocean. 






In 1955, The ANNA SCRIPPS WHITCOMB CONSERVATORY, built in 1904, was renamed after Anna Scripps Whitcomb, who had donated a huge collection of orchids to Detroit. The conservatory is divided into six distinct sections: the Vestibule, the Palm House, the Tropical House, the Cactus House, the Fernery and the Show House, which includes an outdoor lily pond.  Located at the center of the island, this historic building was also designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn. 






The DETROIT YACHT CLUB, one of the oldest, largest, and most prestigious yacht clubs in the world, was founded in 1868.  The current Mediterranean-themed clubhouse, completed in 1922, was designed by architect George D. Mason.  Mason also deigned the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.  The Detroit Yacht Club has been the center of Detroit society since opening its doors and provides social and recreational boating activities to its members and their guests.





The BELLE ISLE GIANT SLIDE will bring out the inner child in you. Originally introduced in 1967, the renovated slide re-opened for business on Aug. 2, 2014.  During the first two weekends, 1400 visitors went down the slide.  Staffed by Michigan Department of Natural Resources park rangers, the six-lane slide is open from June-Labor Day.  Fun! Fun! Fun!  Fun for the young and the young at heart. 



JANET STEINBERG is an award-winning Travel Writer/Editor and International Travel Consultant with THE TRAVEL AUTHORITY in Mariemont, Ohio 

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