The plan for Belle Isle that never was

In the research for today's feature story, we found a fair amount of material relating to the period between 1915, when the original Belle Isle Bridge burned, and 1923, when the current bridge was opened. The period involved the scrapping of the old bridge, the construction of a temporary bridge, knock-down drag-out brawls between competing engineers and ferry interests, and several fanciful plans for a new crossing.

The weirdest plan of all was the one put forward by Ford Motor Company engineer Edward Gray. It proposed building a man-made island in the middle of the river to join two spans that would connect the island park to the mainland. It was considered by the council in November, 1920.

If building a man-made island in the river sounds like an impossible task, actually, it isn't. As sailors and anglers know, there is an "underwater island" between 1 foot and six feet beneath the surface, lying between the riverfront and Belle Isle. It's called "Scott Middle Ground," and it can be easily seen from the air. Here you can see it on Google Maps satellite view. 

The 1920 plan proposed adding onto Scott Middle Ground to create a 95-acre island with bathing beaches. The actual plans for the man-made island are few. In fact, the plan proposes simply linking the bridges with a causeway and filling in the island in a more leisurely manner. It might have been completed just in time for the Great Depression. 

All in all, it's a good thing this project never saw the light of day. Detroit would have been deprived of the wonderful arched bridge it now has. It would have marred Belle Isle's sight lines to the shore. It would have deprived anglers of an interesting area to fish. Plus, who knows what rubble would have been used for fill in those pre-EPA days. 

Also, we just have a hunch that a man-made island wouldn't be held to the same standards as Belle Isle, and might have become a tacky mid-ground of parking lots, hot dog stands, and worse: Think of all the "big ticket" developments officials seem to continually propose for Belle Isle. "Gray's Island" would have been a foot in the door for those schemes. In the fullness of time, we can safely say we are better off without it.

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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