Grosse Ile Riverfront

Image Number: 00129
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Sunrise over Detroit River with Ice in Foreground from Grosse Ile Riverfront
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--Grosse Ile Township, Michigan Image Number: 00130
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Sunrise over Detroit River with Ice in Foreground from Grosse Ile Riverfront
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--Grosse Ile Township, Michigan Image Number: 00131
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Sunrise Reflecting on Ice in Detroit River from Grosse Ile Riverfront
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--Grosse Ile Township, Michigan Image Number: 00168
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Sunrise over Ice-Covered Detroit River from Grosse Ile Riverfront
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--Grosse Ile Township, Michigan

Location Name:  Grosse Ile Riverfront (Grosse Ile Township, Michigan)

Location Type:  City Area / District

History:  

Grosse Ile is a community that is strongly shaped by its riverfront. The name itself is French for ‘Big island’. Grosse Ile Township consists of fourteen islands in the Detroit River. The largest of these islands, ‘Grosse Ile’ is actually two islands separated by the Thorofare Canal. The remaining dozen islands are a collection of four residential islands, seven uninhabited islands and one submerged island that only appears during low water levels. All of the township’s islands combined total 9.6 square miles.

Grosse Ile’s recorded history begins with the 1679 visit of Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and Father Louis Hennepin. Historians disagree upon the details of their visit, but the journals of Father Hennepin describe the fruit orchards and wild animals on the island. What we can be sure of is the visit of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac on the evening of 23 July 1701. Cadillac and his convoy camped on Grosse Ile when searching the Detroit River for a site on which to build a fort. The following morning they returned to a bluff some miles upriver where Cadillac claimed French possession of what is now Detroit. From then on, Grosse Ile was destined to become a water-themed recreational escape from Detroit.

On 06 July 1776, the Potawatomi deeded Grosse Ile to Detroit merchants and brothers William and Alexander Macomb. Over the next hundred years the population was quite slow to grow; mostly due to the Macomb’s possession, the distance from Detroit and the burdens of ferry service to reach the island. In 1873 the Canada Southern Railroad built tracks across the main island, linking the Michigan mainland to Stony Island on Grosse Ile’s far east borders. From there, rail cars were loaded onto ferries and taken to the Canadian mainland to continue on their voyage. This also brought passenger rail service to the island providing an easier way to travel to and from Grosse Ile. In 1913, the Grosse Ile Toll Bridge opened, allowing vehicular access to the island for the first time. Due to the decrease in passenger use of the railroad (and the discontinuation of freight traffic across the island), the railroad stopped all service to the island in 1929. The old railroad bridge was re-purposed for vehicle traffic and opened in 1932 as the Wayne County Bridge (known by locals as the Free Bridge).

Now that transportation from the city to Grosse Ile was much improved, the islands became a summer vacation paradise for wealthier Detroiters. Many notable people built impressive summer homes on the island, including Ransom E. Olds (founder of the Olds Motor Company), John Kelsey (founder of the Kelsey Wheel Company), Charles and William Fisher (co-founders of the Fisher Body Company) and William S. Knudsen (president of the General Motors Corporation). Henry Ford (founder of the Ford Motor Company) also bought land on the island but never built a home himself. Instead he sold parcels to his executives; notably his controversial personnel director Harry Bennett who built the ‘Pagoda House’ in 1939. Grosse Ile’s location in the middle of the Detroit River has helped it become an upscale resort community.

The island’s location along the international border made it a great place for the U.S. Navy, who opened the Naval Air Station Grosse Ile in 1929. The base became an important center for military flight training during World War II. Former President George H. W. Bush was stationed on Grosse Ile in 1945. In 1954, during the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Army installed Ajax-Nike missiles at the base. The Naval Air Station and the missile site were decommissioned in the 1960s and the site is now home to the Grosse Ile Municipal Airport. Throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, as many Detroiters began to move out of the city and into the suburbs, the township’s population began to rise faster than ever before; it is now just over 10,000. Many Grosse Ile residents were becoming concerned with the increased rate of development. In the 1990s the township established the Open Space Program to purchase undeveloped property. The program ensures that some land will remain undeveloped, helping preserve the environment and protect housing values. Today, Grosse Ile’s riverfront has become one of the most favored places to live in the Detroit area. Many large homes line the island’s shores, affording owners fabulous views of the river, boats and passing ships. The beauty of the island continues to be a combination of its’ location amidst the river and its’ and the care residents have taken to ensure it remains a place where nature can thrive.

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