At just under 1,000 acres, Belle Isle is one of the largest city parks in the nation. Its history pre-dates the city of Detroit, as the island was once home to early Native American tribes. In 1879, after a series of owners, the island was sold to the city. Less than a decade later, in 1881, the city hired Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), the nation’s leading public park architect, to craft a plan for the island. Olmsted designed New York’s Central Park, Jackson Park in Chicago, and the Presque Isle preserve area in Marquette. Olmsted envisioned Belle Isle as a place that was suitable for large gatherings and recreation while also maintaining the natural state of the island. Although much of his original park footprint is gone – taken over by various structures and parking areas – the system of canals he designed remains intact and one of the most beautiful aspects of the park. He saw them as “highways of pleasure,” in which boats and not carriages would carry visitors from one side of the island to another.
There are many Jewish connections to Belle Isle. David Heineman, a state representative from the city of Detroit, led the charge to build a public aquarium on the island. He retained Albert Kahn to design the building. Albert Kahn, the son of a poor German Rabbi, founded Kahn & Associates with his brother Julius in 1895. Kahn’s influence on Belle Isle can be seen in several places: the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, built in 1904, the William Livingstone Lighthouse, the only marble lighthouse in the country, and the Belle Isle Casino.
The Dossin Great Lakes Museum houses the Pilot House of the lake freighter William Clay Ford. There are two Jewish connections to this museum: the Aaron DeRoy Wing, named after Detroit’s first Jewish auto dealer; and a plaque at the Pilot House door which honors the Erwin Robinson family. The sons of Erwin Robinson donated the front section (the wheelhouse) of a Ford Motor freighter.
Belle Isle is also the site where, in 1902, two women, Ida Koppel and Blanche Hart, both members of Temple Beth El, Detroit’s first congregation and, at the time, its only Reform congregation, decided to escort a small group of these newly arrived immigrant children out of the city and into the “fresh air.” They took them to Belle Isle. That first adventure was a success and repeated several times. Soon, they formed an organization that we know today as the Fresh Air Society or Camp Tamarack.