BELLE ISLE EARLY HISTORY:
Belle Isle is a 2½ mile-long, one-half mile wide, 983-acre island park that's located right in the middle of the Detroit
River. The island lies just to the east of downtown Detroit, between the United States mainland and Canada.
To the original Chippewa and Ottawa Native Americans, the island we know today as Belle Isle was known as Wah-
na-be-zee (Swan Island), but to the early French settlers, who used the island to house their pigs and chickens to
protect them from coyotes on the mainland, it was known as Ile au Cochons (Hog Island). Ownership of the island
changed hands over the years after the arrival of the French, but was eventually purchased by Barnabus Campau (son
of Joseph Campau) in 1817 for $5,000. In 1845, Barnabus Campau renamed the island "Belle Isle" (French for
"Beautiful Island"). Rumor has it that he named it in honor of Isabelle Cass, daughter of Michigan territorial governor,
and later U.S. Senator, Lewis Cass.
In 1879, the City of Detroit purchased the island from the descendants of Barnabus Campau for nearly $200,000, as
part of a "Beautify Detroit" initiative that began in 1876. Local planners wanted the island to complement the
construction of a proposed 11.3-mile peripheral boulevard, originally intended to run through open country circling the
edge of the city. In 1884, construction of that "Grand Boulevard" would begin, which would run from the entrance of
Belle Isle at E. Jefferson to River Road (W. Jefferson) on the west side. The city's newly acquired island was "officially"
named "Belle Isle Park" by a Detroit Common Council ordinance on Aug. 29, 1881.
During the 1880s, the island was designed into a park by Frederick Law Olmstead, the same designer who designed
Central Park in New York City. It was during this period between 1884 and 1908 when the island saw the
development of most of its roads, bridges, lakes, shelters, and plantings. Belle Isle would soon become Detroit's first
major city park. The island opened to the public in 1884.
In 1889, a wooden bridge was constructed that connected the island to the city's mainland. However, that first bridge
was accidentally destroyed by a fire on April 27, 1915, and was replaced the next year by a temporary bridge built just
to the west. A new 2,193 foot long concrete and steel arch designed bridge — located at the foot of East Grand Blvd.
— was constructed at a cost of $2,635,000. The nearly one-half mile long bridge opened on Sept. 1, 1923. Known
originally as the Belle Isle Bridge, it was renamed the "Douglas MacArthur Bridge" in 1942, in honor of U.S. Army
General Douglas MacArthur.
Originally, streetcar service to the island had been planned by city officials, with 2,159 feet of double streetcar track
built into the pavement along the east side of the newly constructed bridge. The city also built a Roman motif style
streetcar waiting station near the entrance to the bridge. However, the streetcars were never implemented, and the
unused rails built into the bridge remained exposed until eventually paved-over during the early 1950s. The city's
streetcar loading station instead became known as the Belle Isle Coach Station.
BELLE ISLE FACTOID:
Did you know that portions of Belle Isle were actually man-made?
Originally, the size of Belle Isle was only 768 acres, but during the 1920s material was added to the ends of the island, increasing
its land size to nearly 985 acres. Some of this material came from the construction of new streetcar lines built by the city under its
former Municipal Operation — the short-lived predecessor to the DSR. The excess material taken from the streets to form the track
base was hauled away by truck, and by horse and wagon, and used to enlarge the island. The James Scott Memorial Fountain,
which was completed in 1925, sits upon one of these man-made land base areas.
(Detroit's Very Own Island Park, & its Bus Route)
PRINTER–FRIENDLY TEXT VERSION: MOST PHOTOS, IMAGES AND CHARTS HAVE BEEN REMOVED FROM THIS PAGE
D.S.R. Route #5
BELLE ISLE BUS ROUTE:
Although the streetcar service planned for Belle Isle never materialized, bus service across the bridge to the Belle Isle
Casino began as far back as the early 1900s. In 1909, the Detroit Department of Parks and Boulevards began
providing bus service to the island. Although primarily intended for the park employees, the public also utilized the
service. Ticket prices were 1¢ each and were sold in books of fifty.
For the most part, a fleet of eight 32-passenger "open-sided" Packard buses were used to operate the service.
However, two standby 65-passenger Packard semi-trailers were available for busy days.
On June 11, 1924, the city-owned Department of Street Railways (DSR) took over the operation of the Parks and
Boulevards' buses — extending the service to the east end of the island. Although DSR employees operated the
buses, Parks and Boulevards furnished the garage and continued to fuel and maintain the fleet. They also charged
the DSR 12¢ a mile for the use of its buses.
On Jan. 1, 1925, the DSR's Motor Coach Division began operations, and shortly thereafter — beginning Sunday, Feb.
1, 1925 — the DSR began using its own coaches on Belle Isle. During the early years, service operated under a 10
minute headway and traveled primarily along Central Avenue to the east end of the island and back.
However, according to an official DSR 1926 route map, the DSR also provided express bus service to Belle Isle on
Sundays and Holidays. The route operated from Woodward and Adams downtown via Washington Blvd., Michigan
Ave., Cadillac Sq., Congress, Mt. Elliott, Lafayette, E. Grand Blvd., across the bridge and around the outer Drive of the
island. This service appears to have been short-lived and disappeared by the end of the decade.
On June 26, 1938, the Belle Isle bus line became a branch extension of the East Grand Boulevard (Boulevard) bus
line — a former Detroit Motorbus Company bus route that operated from E. Grand Blvd. and E. Jefferson to W. Grand
Blvd. and Second. Service remained a branch of the East Grand Boulevard route until the Boulevard line was
combined with the Grand Belt bus line on June 22, 1950. Once again the Belle Isle line would become a separate
bus route. It then followed along a route around the island that would remain intact for nearly forty years.
During its heyday, the Belle Isle bus line operated under 30 minute headways during most hours of the day. Bus
service to the Island was provided seven days a week, operating from 6:30 a.m. until the last coach would leave for the
island at 12:00 midnight — every night, including Sundays. But by the time DDOT took over operations in 1974 the
service hours had already been reduced. Although the headways remained at 30 minutes, the last coach now left the
island at 6:30 p.m.
Bus service to the island was actually discontinued for a short period in 1988, after DDOT officials announced in June
of 1988 that it planned to overhaul its bus system. One of the major changes proposed included operating the Belle
Isle bus line only from April 1 through Labor Day. On Tuesday, Sept. 6, 1988 — the day following Labor Day — senior
citizens, who used the bus route to get to a senior center in the park's casino, along with employees who worked at
the park, were caught by surprise when they discovered the bus service had been discontinued. By Thursday, angry
city council members demanded that the route be reinstated. On Friday, Sept. 9, 1988, bus service was restored to
the island after DDOT officials decided that there was a need for the service after all.
Shortly thereafter, in 1989, DDOT combined its Route #4 Belle Isle with its Route #12 Conant, and service to Belle Isle
became a branch extension of the Conant bus line. After thirty-eight years of operation as a stand alone bus route,
service to the Island would once again be provided as an extension of another bus route. Conant service across the
island operated only on weekdays — from around 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Although trips during peak hours would
continue around the island, most trips would short-turn at the Belle Isle Casino. A few route adjustments — including
coaches continuing along Riverbank Drive (instead of Central) to the bridge — were also made under DDOT. During
the later years, service headways would increase to 40 minutes during peak hours, and up to an hour during off-peak
END OF AN ERA: Without much fanfare, the city's current transit provider (DDOT) has eliminated bus service to Belle
Isle after ninety-eight years of bus service to that island. Effective on April 21, 2007, the portion of the #12 Conant
route that traveled to Belle Isle was discontinued. Nearly 100 years of bus service to the island had come to an end.
Information for the above article compiled from information obtained through numerous online "Belle Isle History" related web-sites,
including articles posted at www.detroit1701.org, City of Detroit (Recreation Dept.), and Friends Of Belle Isle at www.fobi.org. Belle
Isle aerial photo taken by Don Coles form Great Lakes Aerial Photos at www.aerialpics.com. Belle Isle bus line info courtesy of various
Jack E. Schramm publications, including Motor Coach Age magazine articles "Detroit's DSR, Parts 1-3" and Images of Rail "Detroit's
Street Railways" by Ken Schramm; and local Detroit newspaper articles.
© 2007 – www.DetroitTransitHistory.info (TXV 11-02-14)
NOTE: MOST PHOTOS, IMAGES AND CHARTS HAVE BEEN REMOVED AND CAN BE VIEWED ON ORIGINAL WEBSITE PAGE
To visit original website version of this page see: www.detroittransithistory.info/Routes/BelleIsle.html
|The above map shows the route the Belle Isle bus line traveled during most of its years of operation as a
stand alone bus line under the DSR. Some route changes were later made under DDOT.