Belle Isle and The Park Question: 1871 – 1873 (Part I)

Belle Isle, 1893. Source


Well, after all, the opposers of the park builded better than they knew. If the tide had turned the other way we would not now, perhaps, be the owners of the finest park in the world, Belle Isle. “All’s well that end’s well.” In the light of the present, what a queer proceeding the foregoing was, to determine a question. I don’t imagine that such a thing could happen now.

Friend Palmer, Early Days in Detroit

The story goes something like this: Detroiters wanted a park. Not a little neighborhood park with a tree and a bench, nothing like Grand Circus Park, which is very old (one of the oldest in the country) and very urban, what with the busiest and most important road in the city running right through the middle of it. Detroiters wanted a big landmark park, with sprawling lawns and boulevards and maybe some waterfront.

In 1871, the city appointed a Park Board to select an appropriate site. The Park Board’s recommendation? A wooded lot across the river from Belle Isle, boasting a half-mile of river frontage. At the time, it was part of Hamtramck. The Common Council just had to authorize the issue of $200,000 in bonds (“an appalling sum of money” in that day, wrote George Catlin) to purchase the land, and Detroit could cross “get a big park” off the to-do list.

Then things got weird, and the simple city-building task of creating a park became The Park Question (1871-1873).

To be honest, I usually skip over The Park Question in my imaginary chapter book about Detroit history, because I find it boring. (Something about municipal bonds?)

But with Belle Isle causing so much calamity in our present day, I feel it a duty to dig into this, as kind of a public service.

Like most things in Detroit, Belle Isle’s history is not as simple as “Once great / Fallen on hard times / Mixed prospects for future success.” The whole place was a rough bet, nearly didn’t happen, and was an object of controversy for years after its purchase. Belle Isle, wrote Clarence Burton, was “an unimproved area, abounding in … sloughs, swales, and was very unattractive.”

We’ll tackle the Park Question in two parts, starting with the initial controversy of 1871-1873, followed by the actual purchase of Belle Isle in 1879 (which is kind of a coda to the Park Question). We’ll breeze through the pre-purchase history of Belle Isle, too, for context.

But first, let’s get back to 1871, the year of The Park Question.

Should Detroit build a park on the site the Park Board recommended? Yea or nay? The Mayor held a citizen’s meeting to decide. Wrote one eye witness — none other than General Friend Palmer —

Well, Mr. W. W. Wheaton, mayor at that time, did call a mass meeting of citizens to assemble in front of the rear entrance to the city hall, on Griswold Street, to determine the question. Those who were in favor of the park were to bunch themselves together on one side of the entrance, and those opposed on the other. The mayor, stationed at an upper window, was to decide. After all had taken their places he took a long and critical look at the assembly beneath him, and decided no park.

“I was there,” Palmer added, “and it seemed a mighty close squeak.”

People started to think maybe these citizen’s meetings weren’t working so well, and maybe there should be a better plan for deciding how to give the city permission to spend huge sums of money. The Common Council scrapped the citizen’s meetings and appointed a Board of Estimates in their place.

In 1873, the Park Board appealed to the state Legislature to have their powers expanded. (This was before the Home Rule Cities Act of 1909, so changes to city charters and matters involving municipal bonds had to go through Lansing.)  They expected to make a purchase decision, have the Council issue the bonds, and let everyone move on with their lives.

They expected wrong.

If Hazen Pingree had his Immortal Nineteen, the Park Question had its Committee of Twenty: a group of private land-owner bullies who had twenty better ideas about what the city should do about a park (ranging from “buy the land I own” to “buy something closer to my house” to “don’t buy anything because I don’t like taxes”). Led by Eber Brock Ward, the richest man in Michigan, the Committee of Twenty were “constantly attempting to create a public dissatisfaction,” quoth this 1890 Annual Report of the Commissioners of Parks and Boulevards to the Common Council.

One member of the Committee of Twenty was A. Smith Bagg, a disaffected former member of the Park Board, whose minority opinion on the park site back in 1871 was NO PARK. Because of taxes.

Oh and who else was a member of the Committee of Twenty? The f’king MAYOR OF DETROIT, Hugh Moffatt.

If you’ll allow me to embellish (and I promise this makes a dispute over municipal bonds much less boring), the entire year of 1873 goes like this:

The Park Board says: Hey, we are going to buy this land, please issue the bonds. And the Common Council says, But you’re just the Park Board, and you have no constitutional authority to make us buy the land. And the Park Board says, Okay, but you told us to pick out a park, and we did, and now you should issue the bonds, unless you have a better idea. And the Common Council says, Let’s take a vote. Oh! The vote failed. Eventually the Park Board goes to the Michigan Supreme Court and says, Please, God, make the Council issue the bonds, and the Supreme Court says, Sorry, it’s their right to vote “No” on the bonds.

Finally, in December 1873 — who knows what has changed! — the Common Council passes a resolution to authorize the bonds.

The Mayor vetoes the resolution.

The Council overrides the veto. The Controller issues the bonds. The bonds go to the Mayor’s desk.

The Mayor refuses to sign the bonds. 

And that is how the Park Question is resolved. The Mayor decides: No park.

And that might have been the end of the story — but of course, it was not. To be continued in part two.

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