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Belle Isle Memories

The Detroit River separates Detroit, Michigan from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. At some places it is a mile across. From one side to the other, you can see cars driving along the streets. The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and the Ambassador Bridge join the two countries at downtown Detroit and downtown Windsor.

Just east of downtown Detroit and downtown Windsor, in the U.S. side of the river, sits an Island – Belle Isle. Belle Isle was there when the French Explorers discovered it in 1701. Cadillac built Fort Ponchartrain across from it in 1736. It was called Ile de Cochons, Hog Island, at the time. In 1845 it was renamed Belle Isle, which means beautiful Island in French.

Once known as the Jewel of Detroit, this 1.5 square mile island is a 982-acre park. Formerly owned and operated by the City of Detroit, it fell into disrepair through mismanagement, corruption, neglect and lack of funding. It is currently being beautifully rehabilitated while it is under management by the State of Michigan under the terms of a thirty-year lease from the City. It is the largest urban island in the United States.

To enter the island one has only to drive over the MacArthur Bridge. To get onto the bridge from the north side, back in the 1950s, one drove underneath Jefferson Avenue through a small tunnel.

A small sign at the tunnel entrance read “Do not sound horn!” I think they were afraid the resonating sound might weaken the concrete-work of the tunnel. Dad honked his horn for us every time we yelled “Honk the horn, dad! Honk the horn!” The blast boomed mightily in the tunnel.

Once out of the tunnel you were on the apron of the beautiful Macarthur Bridge to Belle Isle. Driving over the bridge gave you a vista of the Detroit River extending from Lake St. Clair to downtown Detroit and the beyond the Ambassador Bridge. The Belle Isle Bridge stood tall enough to allow large pleasure craft and the Detroit Police Harbormaster boats to glide by underneath, but not cargo ships. For that, the larger vessels had to go along the other shoreline of the island.

Upon reaching landfall on the island you were greeted by a beautifully landscaped floral garden. It made you relax just looking at it. The island still has an approximately half mile long swimming beach, and boasted nine holes of golf, two yacht club marinas. It once had an operating police station with a marine Harbor Master division and a horse-mounted division. I didn’t find out until this year, that the father of a high school classmate of mine was the Detroit Police Harbormaster.

Still standing are the abandoned casino, a band shell, a canoe livery, a small zoo, a botanical garden, tennis courts and miles of tranquil riverfront drives with ample parking along nearly every foot of the scenic perimeter facing the river.

The park also had acres and acres of beautifully maintained grassy picnic grounds. It was at these grounds that my family spent nearly every Sunday in the summer, or so it seemed. And Belle Isle was a place where you never got tired of going – at least not for us kids.

My first recollection of going to Belle Isle was when I was about five or six years old. That would have been about 1951-52. Dave was maybe only three and I don’t recall if Jim was born yet or just an infant, so I may be slightly off in the years.

Our upper flat home had no air conditioning. The hot, humid summers in an upper flat could be especially uncomfortable. Occasionally, my mom and dad would bundle us up in the car (and I don’t recall what kind of car it was, but I recall its shape as a late 1940s vintage) and drive us to Belle Isle. They would have all the windows down and the warm, humid, summer air circulating through the car was like riding in a moving fan. As we neared Belle Isle driving west on Jefferson, I could begin to see the tall skyscrapers of downtown. They were lit against the night sky. It was strange for me, not understanding they were buildings, to see the colored lights hovering in the evening sky.

As we began driving slowly over the MacArthur Bridge we could see the Detroit River passing darkly below. It looked black as the night sky to me. The island was different in the dark. The welcoming flowered plantings were hardly visible. And the road was barely lit except by the headlights of the cars and far-spaced streetlights. But it was quiet, and the air was cooler by the river. I don’t recall if dad turned on the radio during our rides. I always recall the rides being quiet – designed to help us fall asleep.

We would circle the island, usually driving the outer ring road. Cars would literally form an informal procession all driving the slow speed limit. Barely a car would pass another. There were parking places along that drive where you could pull out and just watch the water going by. And if you caught it right, you might watch a cargo ship plying this part of the St. Lawrence Seaway as you faced Canada. The freighters passed so close you could hear the engines pumping away – especially at night. Almost always, that drive around Belle Isle would put me to sleep and I remember many nights of David being carried, half asleep, into the house by my dad when we got home. I was old enough to amble, half asleep, up the stairs to bed.

Belle Isle was also a place of family gatherings on Sunday afternoons after church. On warm summer afternoon’s my dad’s family would somehow all agree to meet at Belle Isle after church. Everyone seemed to know where to meet and what they were expected to bring – fried chicken, potato salad, lettuce salad, dandelion salad, beans, corn, bread, watermelon whatever it was, it was a feast. There were also plenty of hot dogs and hamburgers being grilled on charcoal BBQ grills that were provided all over the island. Lebanese food was present in abundance. My mom usually made and brought the potato salad and the bowl was always empty at the end of the day. We spread blankets on the ground and sat there and napped in the afternoon when we were tired and well fed. We also brought our ball mitts, balls and bats and played catch or a scrub game of baseball with cousins and aunts and uncles all joining in. I recall card tables and folding chairs being set up for card games that lasted all afternoon and into the early evening.

We usually found a place across from the Scott Fountain.

It was centered in a roundabout and featured water spouting from lions’ heads and a couple huge sprays out of the top. At the outer edge of the fountain was a statue commemorating James Scott who left $200,000 to the City under the stipulation that a memorial statue be built in his honor. That is the equivalent of $7 million in today’s dollars. Scott was apparently a rogue with a bad reputation, so his statue was put on the island. As a kid I never knew his contribution and as a young boy and young man, I thought it was cool to take pictures of and with my friends standing next to James Scott’s statue. As a little boy, I once had a nightmare about lions pounding on drums. I later realized the lions looked exactly like the lions on Scott Fountain.

At night the fountain was lit. But more than lit – colored lights slowly cycled in pastels of blue and red, yellow, orange and green and gave the water a beautiful hue. It was once considered one of the most beautiful fountains in the country. Then, in the City of Detroit hands through the early 2000s, it was turned off and fenced in to prevent vandals from damaging it further. Under Michigan State supervision and management, it is now clean and beautifully restored. As kids we were allowed to sit on the edge of the fountain and dangle our feet in it. But unlike many other kids, we were not allowed to wade in the fountain. Mom thought the water was dirty and that we might get polio, which was before Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine. Polio was feared and still uncontrolled at the time.

The island also boasted live cricket matches every Sunday. I have no idea where the players came from, but they played all afternoon and the matches were umpired events. They drew nice crowds in lawn chairs to watch as they played against a backdrop of the Detroit River behind them. I recall being fascinated by the over arm arching toss of the pitcher, more correctly called a “bowler”; and the flat bat of the batter, called the “batter”. I would walk over to watch, but could really never get the hang of scoring. To this day, I still don’t.

On very rare occasions, a couple of us would come up with enough allowance money to rent a canoe from the livery. (I am sure that our parents supplemented our money.) We really never got very far down the canal. For one thing, I couldn’t swim and was afraid of the water. For another, canoeing involved a smattering of skill and coordination to paddle effectively. At the time, I lacked the required smattering, being neither skillful nor coordinated enough in the art of water navigation to get very far from the dock without tipping over or banging from side to side in the stream.

Belle Isle was also the best vantage point from which to watch the “Thunder Boat Races.” These were wooden “unlimited” hydroplane racing boats, called “U boats”, built in the 1940s and 50s.

They were powered by post WWII surplus Rolls Royce aircraft engines. These beautifully crafted and colorfully painted boats were known to reach over one hundred miles per hour on a flat river. The engines were so powerful and loud that, during the week, when the drivers were racing their qualifying time trials, I could clearly hear them roaring at my house – the sound traveling across the water – nearly three miles away. It would literally shake the china in the cabinets. In the picture below, Miss Bardahl is barely skimming the surface of the water as it passes in front of the grand structure of the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle.

Thunder boat races, as they were known, were a major sporting event each summer when they came to the Detroit River. Hundreds of thousands of people would be on Belle Isle and lining the main shores of the river on both the land and the Island sides to watch. Everyone’s goal was to get as close to the actual racecourse as possible. The boats thundering across the water actually caused your entire body to shake as they roared by, throwing a “rooster tail” of water 20 feet into the air. The drivers came so close to the shore as they passed that you could see their faces, and if the winds were right, the spray would land on you. It was impossible to carry on a conversation even if you yelled to the person next to you as the racers passed. What a wonderful event! The Dossin Museum on the Island contains a classic hydroplane race boat. A local restaurant now sits directly across from what would have been the racecourse straight away. The name of the fine dining establishment is “The Rooster Tail!”

As an adult, I took my son, Mike to the races. He was about 5-6 years old. It was exciting to be in the crowds and I carried him on my shoulders so he could get a good view of everything. We wormed our way pretty near to the front of the crowd and had an excellent view of the river and the racing boats thundering by. I brought my camera that day. As one of the drivers roared by, he must have struck a submerged log. Such floating debris was common on the river. As his boat hit it at nearly one hundred miles an hour, the wooden hull disintegrated right before our eyes and you could see the driver, still in the sitting position flying in the air where his boat had been. At that very moment, I snapped my camera and captured that image. Next to me was a man who was a reporter for Time Magazine. He offered me a hundred dollars for my roll of film so he could have the picture. I, of course, was smarter than he was and decided I would sell that photo myself for much more than that. So, after the race I promptly had the film developed.

When I got the photographs back from the drug store, I looked at picture after picture. They were all the same quality – black. Completely black. It seems my camera had not advanced the film with each snap of the shutter. And I had no pictures of the race – especially no picture of the moment of the dissolving boat and the racer floating in the air amidst his debris. I learned something that day. It is often better to accept the pretty good deal in front of you than to count on the possibility of a great deal at some future date, especially when greed is involved.

Years later, I was living in Kansas. The local papers were advertising that the hydroplane races were coming to a lake nearby. I excited my neighbors with stories of the thunder boats on the Detroit River and Belle Isle, the roar of the engines, boats traveling a hundred miles an hour, the vibration through your entire body, the 20 foot rooster tails. Well, I got them all fired up and we went as an entire neighborhood caravan to watch them race. What a surprise to learn that hydroplane racing had gone the way of advanced technology. Turbines had replaced the Royce jet engines! They didn’t roar as they passed, they whined! Ugh, how embarrassing.

The Lady in White

One other thing Belle Isle had was deer. I have no idea how big the herd was, but there were plenty to be seen on nearly every trip to the island – especially if we left around dusk or dark. There was an inland drive, Tanglewood, that was a short cut to the bridge and it ran deep into the wooded area of the island. It was in there that the deer lived. But it was also in there that resided the ghost of the Lady in White!

Legend has it that a woman had been killed on the island and her body abandoned by her ex-lover who was never captured. People swore that on warm summer nights she walked the woods seeking her lover in the quiet lanes of the inland drive. Sometimes as your headlights came to the crest of a small one-lane bridge over a canal, she could be seen moving between the trees. I don’t know that I ever saw her clearly but I told that story to every girlfriend I ever rode through the woods with. It sure made them snuggle a little tighter. Belle Isle was very tranquil and the place of many fond memories. In my teen years when driving Belle Isle with my girl friends, we would park along the shoreline, put a blanket down at night and watch the submarine races. You might say it was romantic.

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