Belle Isle Park is located in the middle of the Detroit River. It’s a large park; close to 1,000 acres. Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect that created New York’s Central Park, designed its current layout in the 1880s. On the south side of the island, Canada is across the river. The city of Detroit is on the north side. There is a road that circles the outer shoreline of the park. It is a 5-mile loop around, a leisurely ride on a bicycle. Other roads and woodland pathways snake their way through the center of the island, the largest park of its kind in the United States. Connecting Belle Isle to Detroit is the MacArthur Bridge. It consists of five-traffic lanes and pedestrian walks line the outer edge on both sides.
The bridge, with 19 arches, was built in 1923. It rises gently from the mainland and crests at the center, before sloping down to the island. Driving across the half-mile span in a car, the rise seems subtle and gentle. Pedaling across the bridge on a bicycle is a much different story. As I found out early on while riding to the island, it is a formidable major climb and a true test of leg strength.
Having ridden across the bridge hundreds of times, I’ve never paid much attention to the four-foot pedestrian guardrails. That changed one recent afternoon. On that particular day, I was slowly pedaling along the west side walkway, enjoying the view of the Detroit skyline. Rolling along, I noticed a shadow of the railing design framed on the sidewalk just ahead. The interesting black and white outline was symmetrically shaped and had unusual vertical lines. Because of what I saw, I decided to take a closer look.
The unassuming railings and their support structure feature remarkable detail. The long, horizontal, rounded top steel railings are locked into place by small caps that conform to the roundness of the rail. The vertical supports are evenly spaced and have small arches at the top and bottom. The arches seem to match those of bridge below. The open centers of the supports are stepped and come to a nice peak on both ends. The center of each features an architectural medallion similar to a four-leaf clover.
The hundred or so light poles lining the bridge are anchored with sloping “J” shaped decorative supports. The supports also incorporate the four-leaf clover piece and include simple round, ornate elements as part of the overall design. The light posts rest gracefully on the simply designed base that flows to the bridge below.
Belle Isle is full of treasures, and I’ve overlooked this one for many years. I recommend taking a close look at the railings next time you find yourself crossing the Belle Isle bridge.