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Across the Great Divide

“The Ghost of Belle Isle”

Prompted by the unseasonably warm weather scores of people are venturing outdoors, eager to get a jump on summer fun. For many in the Detroit area that also includes picnics and other activities on historic Belle Isle. The park, located in the Detroit River and open to the public, is the largest island city park in the United States. In 2005, the then 101-year old Belle Isle Aquarium was the oldest operating aquarium in the United States but was closed to cut costs in the city.

But unknown to few, besides some lifelong citizens of the Motor City, Belle Isle is much more than a serene picnic experience; as with many locations with such a long and varied past, it also has its share of urban legends and ghost stories.

The story goes that if you drive your car onto a bridge that’s on Belle Isle, turn your engine off and honk your car horn three times, a spirit will appear from the woods, motioning for you to follow her. I should note that there have never been any confirmed reports of anyone following her into the woods.

For generations the tales of the Belle Isle ghost lady, also referred to as the Snake Goddess of Belle Isle, has attracted adventurous midnight riders to drive through the scary woods in hopes of catching a glimpse of a woman in a long white gown. The ghost of Belle Isle has a couple different versions to the story, too. Some say that there is a certain bridge that must be approached, while others claim that any bridge on the island will call this spirit. One version even describes her as an elderly woman.

Belle Isle has historically had a rich Native American heritage that continues to this day, so it is not surprising that most of the well known tales involve local tribes.

Ottawa legend tells of the daughter of chief Sleeping Bear. Her beauty was so striking that he kept her hidden from the eyes of young suitors by hiding her in a covered boat on the Detroit River. One day when bringing her some food, the winds, awed by her beauty, blew the covers off of the boat and it floated down the river. As it floated past the lodge of the keeper of the water gates, he also was stunned by her beauty and retrieved the boat and brought the young beauty into his tent. This angered the winds and the wind knocked him around until he died. The winds, sorry for uncovering her beauty, returned her back to her father and begged the chief not to hide her from them again, but to let them enjoy her beauty. To protect her, and fearful that other men would follow, he placed the princess on an island in the Detroit River and sought the aid of the Great Spirits to protect his beloved daughter by surrounding the island with snakes to protect her from intruders.

There she could run free with the winds around her. The spirits immortalized her by transforming her into a white doe and letting her live out eternity on the island. When settlers learned of the island and the story they named it Rattlesnake Island. Shortly after, it became known as Belle Isle. To this day, the maiden’s spirit can be seen from time to time dancing in the wind on the island, and is often mistaken as a deer by witnesses.

So as you enjoy the sunny skies and warm weather, perhaps those near southeast Michigan might find themselves spending a day on this historic island. Later, as twilight nears, those of you brave enough might stay a while in hopes of catching sight of the island’s famous Lady. If you do, please share your experience.

Until next time, happy hunting to you as you travel across the Great Divide.

© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions