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Grosse Ile History
By Craig Hutchison, Staff Writer Discover Downriver
It is estimated that the Potawatomi tribe roamed Grosse Ile 1000 years before the arrival of European settlers. They named the island Kitcheminishen. French explorers visited the island in the late 1600s and and named it la grosse ile, meaning the big island. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac spent the night of July 23, 1701 on the shore of the island before sailing on to found Detroit. The British gained control of the area in 1763 with their victory in the French and Indian War. Throughout this time, the Potowatomi continued to consider the Island as part of their ancestral home. Tribal chiefs and elders deeded the land to William and Alexander Macomb two days after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, July 6, 1776.
While many think of Grosse Ile as only one island, the township is actually made up of twelve islands. The area began to be developed in the 1800s when many summer homes were built along the shoreline. By the late 1800s, Grosse Ile had earned a reputation as the place to go for recreational boating. Sugar Island featured an amusement park, dance pavilion and bathing beach. The beauty of the water drew a number of prominent people. Ransom E. Olds, founder of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company, which would become Oldsmobile, had a magnificent estate built on Elba Island in 1916. John Kelsey, founder and president of Kelsey Wheel Company, purchased a summer home on the main island and organized the Grosse Ile Golf Club and Country Club. The list of famous and influential people with a connection to Grosse Ile continues on as a book of who’s who: Charles and William Fisher, William Knudsen, Henry Ford, Harry Bennett, John Karmazin, Sr., John Telnack, J. Robert “Bob” Beyster, and Heinz Prechter.
A small airport was built and operated on Grosse Ile starting in the 1920s. A flying school was operated by the Curtiss-Wright Flying Service. Starting in the late 1920s, the land was used by the Navy to construct seaplanes and dirigibles and in 1929, the U.S. Naval Air Station Grosse Ile opened. The world’s first all metal airship, the ZMC-2 was built for the Navy on the grounds. During World War II, the air station was one of the primary training stations for Naval and Royal Air Force pilots. Former President George H. W. Bush and game show host Bob Barker were trained on Grosse Ile. With the advent of jet fighters, the runways proved to be too short for training. In the 1950s, the army installed Nike Ajax surface to air missiles to defend Detroit against potential Soviet bombers. During the 1960s, the base was used to train Naval and Marine Reservists some of whom served in Vietnam. The base was closed in 1969. Almost immediately, the grounds were converted and became the Grosse Ile Municipal Airport where, on average, there are 24,000 takeoffs and landings per year.
A ground connection with the mainland was established in 1873 where trains would carry freight and passengers over to the island. Bridges were built over the Detroit River to Stony Island where a ferryboat awaited to carry the train cars to Ontario where they would be placed back on tracks to travel east. Later, train service was provided between Trenton and Grosse Ile via the Michigan Central Railroad. A small depot was built in 1904 and today that structure serves as the Grosse Ile Historical Museum. The Grosse Ile Bridge Company opened a toll bridge on the west side of the island in 1913. It wasn’t long before most people were using automobiles to reach Grosse Ile and rail travel ceased. In 1931, the rail bridge was converted to a roadway by Wayne County and is free to anyone who wants to use it. It is estimated that three-quarters of the traffic that travels to and from Grosse Ile use the free bridge. Because Grosse Ile has much to offer in the way of amenities, there has been an increase in residential development since the mid-1900s. At the same time, the unique character of the island and a healthy balance between open space and development has been preserved by the Township through its policies.
There is much to see and do on Grosse Ile. The picturesque views from its shores are some of the most beautiful along the entire Detroit River. The islands history has been well preserved by the Grosse Ile Historical Society and the stories about Grosse Ile’s fascinating heritage are presented in an interesting fashion at the Grosse Ile Historical Museum. There are numerous structures around the island that have Michigan Historical Site markers. To learn more about Grosse Ile’s rich heritage, visit the Grosse Ile Historical Museum. The natural resources of the island are protected by the Grosse Ile Land & Nature Conservancy. The island offers sporting opportunities, social clubs, and a myriad of entertainment outlets. Residents and visitors find the island to be a blend of beautiful scenery, rich heritage, wonderful recreation and culture, excellent schools and comfortable living. To find out more about what Grosse Ile has to offer, visit Grosse Ile Online.
- Grosse Ile was named the #1 safest city Michigan’s 10 Safest Cities published on January 24, 2014.
- Grosse ile Township is actually made up of twelve islands. The main island or what residents call “The Island” is the largest island on the Detroit River.
- The main island is divided into two sections by the Thorofare Canal. This canal connects the main channel of the Detroit River with the Trenton Channel.
- The north end of the Island is named Hennepin Point in honor of Catholic priest and missionary Father Louis Hennepin. Historians believe Hennepin visited the island in 1679 when he accompanied a French exploration of the area.
- Macomb Street was named after the Macomb Brothers who purchased the island from the Potawatomi Tribe in 1776. Westcroft Gardens is still operated by descendants of the Macombs.
- Sugar Island became a destination for recreation in the late 1800s. A number of large excursion boats, including the Riverside, the Wyandotte, the Greyhound and the Tashmoo, made regular runs to the island.
- A number of channel range lights were built in the late 1800s to help ships navigate through the channel. The northernmost was the Grosse Ile Light, built in 1892. It was rebuilt in 1906 to look like it does today. It is the only lighthouse still on the island. It is no longer used by freighters for navigation.
- The outboard motor was invented by Grosse Ile resident Cameron Waterman in 1905.
- Grosse Ile was a crossing point for bootleggers during Prohibition. Some came by small speed boats, others tried to drive automobiles across the frozen river.
- The Grosse Ile Municipal Airport is used occasionally to dock blimps that visit the area for major sporting events.
- Harry Bennett, the controversial head of the Ford Service Department in the 1930s and 1940s, built the “Pagoda House” on West River Road in 1939.
- John Karmazin, inventor of the automotive radiator cap and owner of more than fifty automotive related patents, lived on Grosse Ile from 1926 until his death in 1977.
- Jack Telnack, designer of the Ford Taurus and former Vice President of Design at Ford Motor Company, lived on the island in the 1980s.
- J. Robert Beyster grew up on Grosse Ile, earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Michigan, and then established the Science Applications International Corporation which has grown to employ over 44,000 employees and has annual sales of over $8 billion.
- Heinz Prechter, inventor of the sunroof for the automobile, lived on the island from the 1970s until 2001. He founded American Sunroof Company which became one of the largest employers headquartered in the Downriver area.
- The Grosse Ile Toll Bridge has been hit twice by freighters, in 1965 and again in 1992.
- In 2009, Money magazine named Grosse Ile one of the “Top 100 Best Places to Live.”
- Grosse Ile’s community theater, The Islanders, is one of the oldest in the state of Michigan. It was established in 1925.
- The first international telephone service was installed on Grosse Ile. It connected the Canada Southern railroad office on Stony Island to Gorden, Ontario, in Canada.
- Grosse Ile is actually made up of twelve islands. Calf Island, Celeron Island, Dynamite Island, Fox Island, Stony Island, and Sugar Island are all inhabited, while residents live on the two main islands of Grosse Ile, Elba Island, Upper Hickory Island, Hickory Island, and Swan Island.
- Three flags have flown over Grosse Ile in its history: American, French, and British.
- Nearly 47% of Grosse Ile’s total area is water. It is a total of 18.3 square miles, of which 9.6 square miles is land and 8.7 square miles is water.
- Grosse Ile Parkway, which is a main street dividing the north and south ends of the island, was once railroad tracks that cut across the island.
- The Grosse Ile Lighthouse was featured in the immensely popular 1986 Calendar of Great Lakes Lights.
- Grosse Ile Schools, which are consistently ranked in the top 10 of Michigan, boast a 98.7 percent graduation rate.
- The first international telephone service was installed on Grosse Ile. It connected the Canada Southern railroad office on Stony Island to Gorden, Ontario, in Canada
Craig Hutchison is a published author with a passion for local history. He has served in various capacities with several history institutions including The Henry Ford, the Henry Ford Estate, and the Dearborn Historical Museum. Craig believes in bringing history alive by helping people make connections between the past, present, and future. His favorite medium for doing this is through the written word. Read more of Craig’s writing on various and sundry topics at Wandering Wolverine Writings.