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Welcome to Grosse Ile, Michigan

Deeded July 6, 1776

Grosse Ile is home to about 10,000 people who feel very fortunate to live on these beautiful and unique islands situated in the Detroit River south of Detroit. Grosse Ile is the name of the main island, but other smaller islands are also inhabited: Elba, Upper Hickory (Meso), Hickory, and Swan. The fact is that the main island is actually two islands created by the Thoroughfare Canal which runs on a diagonal course from east to west. In all, more than a dozen islands comprise Grosse Ile Township, providing superior habitats for humans, birds, mammals, and fish. The inhabited area is often called simply "The Island." The uninhabited islands include Calf, Celeron (Tawas), Fox, Stony, Sugar, Round, and Dynamite.

Grosse Ile historians trace island history back to July 6, 1776, when the original owners, Potawatomi Indians, deeded the land to prominent Detroit merchants, William and Alexander Macomb. A monument commemorating the day the tribal chiefs and elders signed the deed is located on the river at the foot of Gray's Drive. The original deed is in the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Three flags have flown over Grosse Ile - French, British, and American. The early French explorers identified the island as la grosse ile (the large island). The British, whose influence around Detroit became established in 1763, Anglicized the spelling to Grosse Isle. This form persisted until early this century when local residents persisted in an effort to re-establish the historical name. (Residents have been spelling and explaining the name Grosse Ile to out-of-town relatives and visitors ever since.)

Grosse Ile residents and visitors can travel to the island by land, air, and sea. Those who drive over must cross one of two bridges. The north end bridge is the privately owned Grosse Ile Toll Bridge which opened in 1913 to traffic which included sheep and horse drawn wagons as well as early versions of the automobile. The Wayne County bridge (a.k.a. "free bridge") opened in the 1930's to accommodate the rapidly expanding island population.

If visitors come by air, they land at the Grosse Ile Municipal Airport at the south end of the main island. During the 1920's, this small airport was the scene of early aviation activities. Curtis Wright operated a flying school, and the first all-metal dirigible, the ZMC2, was built for the Navy in an enormous hangar. In 1927, work started on a Navy seaplane base, and several years later the Navy acquired a majority of the property. The site developed into a vital center for military flight training during World War II. In 1942, it was designated the U.S. Naval Air Station and expanded considerably to accommodate large numbers of American and British fliers who trained on the island. (President George Bush was stationed at the base for a month shortly before the end of WWII.) Naval operations continued until the base was closed officially in 1969. The following year, it was deeded to the township and converted to civilian use.

During the first half of this century, all ships using the waterway between Grosse Ile and the Canadian shore, were guided by the Grosse Ile Lighthouse. Established in 1894 at the north end of the island, the structure was rebuilt in 1906. Although the light was turned off in the 1940's, the lighthouse stands today as a sentinel of the river and landmark for small boaters. An old kerosene lamp used before electrification - back in the days when the lighthouse keeper lived on Grosse Ile and kept the fire burning - is on display in the Grosse Ile Museum.

For about fifty years, visitors to Grosse Ile were able to come by train. From 1873-1883, the Canada Southern Railroad carried both passengers and cargo from the mainland, over the railroad bridge (now the county bridge), across Grosse Ile (now Grosse Ile Parkway), and over a small bridge span which led to Stony Island. At that point, the cars were transferred to a ferry boat and taken to Gordon, Ontario, where they were put back on track to continue the journey to Buffalo. The customs house which served the international route now stands behind the museum and houses antique furniture and artifacts.

The Canada Southern went into receivership in the early 1880s and the Michigan Central Railroad took over. In 1904, the railroad built a new depot. The route to Canada was discontinued, but commuter service to Detroit was used by many residents who worked or attended school in the city. Vacationers came to Grosse Ile by train to enjoy summer cottages, camping, or a stay at the popular Island House resort hotel. The trains continued until the mid-1920's when the automobile became the preferred mode of travel.

Residents and visitors alike appreciate the architectural diversity of Grosse Ile. Although recent years have been characterized by ongoing new housing construction, there are many older homes located throughout the islands. Six homes, built 1840s to 1860s, are in the National Historic District on East River at Parkway. A dozen 1920s era homes, in an area known as Jewell colony, are listed on the Michigan Register of Historic Places. They were built "to provide country living for professionals," and comprised the first planned subdivision on Grosse Ile. An 1867 Episcopal church, built in part with funds provided by a freed slave, is on the National Register of Historic Places. A magnificent Tiffany window can be seen in St. James Chapel.

Several of Detroit's automotive pioneers had summer homes on Grosse Ile early this century. R.E. Olds (Oldsmobile) built a magnificent summer estate on Elba Island in 1916. His home has been converted to apartment living, but three other houses on his estate are now private residences. Charles and William Fisher (Fisher Body) built mansion-type summer homes at the north end of Parke Lane. One remains today. General William S. Knudsen (General Motors) spent summers at an old remodeled farm home near the county bridge. It later became the clubhouse for Water's Edge Country Club, owned and operated by the township. Henry Ford and his wife bought a substantial piece of land on West River Road in the 1920s. Although they never built a home, they did sell pieces of their property to Ford employees. One unique structure on the water, known as the "Pagoda House," was built in 1939 by Ford's personnel director, Harry Bennett.

Michigan Historic Site markers on West River Road south of Church designates the home of descendants of the Macomb brothers who purchased Grosse Ile in the 1700s. The adjoining acreage, Westcroft Gardens, is a Michigan Centennial Farm. Operated by Macomb descendants, Westcroft comprises a botanical gardens and nursery known for hybridizing and growing azaleas and rhododendrons.

Nancy G. Karmazin 4/5/94


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