I always thought the world was disproportioned, with its ratio of 70 percent water to 30 percent land. If it were up to me, I would have made it 70 percent land and 30 percent water, but I’m sure I would build it wrong. I’m not good at building stuff, and that’s why you won’t ever see me in an IKEA store. This fact may attribute my fascination of a small mass of land in a large body of water, by definition an Island.
The first island that caught my attention was Pitcairn Island, which is located in the South Pacific. The image of Marlon Brando or Clark Gable in their roles as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on The Bounty and being greeted by Polynesian ladies is quite adventurous. Through the years the descendants of Fletcher Christian established what is today the smallest democracy in the world, with a population of just under 60.
The marooning of persons on an uninhabited island has been the theme of many novels, the most famous being Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, an individual who landed on a remote tropical island near Trinidad. Island adventures have their comedic side as well. Several years ago a college-bound girl said to me, “I watched this funny show yesterday about these seven people who went on a three hour boat ride and got lost and ended up on some island and couldn’t figure out how to get back to civilization.” Laughing, I replied, “You mean Gilligan’s Island?”
In the Trenton Channel you will find the island of Grosse Ile, which is connected by a few smaller islands such as Elba, Hickory and Swan. Grosse Ile is 18.3 square miles and is the second-most populated island in the entire state of Michigan. Unlike Gilligan’s Island, you won’t get lost traveling to Grosse Ile over the Wayne County Free Bridge, and over the Toll Bridge the most you can lose is two and a half dollars.
Glancing to the right as one drives or bikes over the free bridge about a mile in the distance is Calf Island, which has an interesting story. When I was a kid I remember you could see from the south side of the Island very clearly the home on Calf Island, which looked very enchanting among all the forestry surrounding it.
Unfortunately, it was brought to the ground by a fire. This island is 11 acres in size, and once used as a cattle raising home site, thus the name Calf. Considering the fish population in the midst and the beef on the island, this would have been a great business enterprise for a surf-and-turf restaurant for the boating traffic.
Looking south on the free bridge, you can see a larger island southeast of Calf, Celeron Island, which was named after Pierre Joseph Céloron de Blainville. Unlike Calf, it has a beach, and is much larger at 81 acres in size and has several canals and marshes. The Island is uninhabited and governed by Grosse Ile Township. Some seasoned citizens remember two homes on the Island and remember telephone lines being very prominent during the 1940s.
Navigating our boat southeast, we arrive at Sugar Island, which also has a beach and is 30 acres. From 1900-1940, it was a booming amusement park, complete with a roller coaster, merry-go-round, dancing pavilion, baseball diamonds, and row boat rentals. Resident Doug Henry recalls his parents going to the pavilion to hear the big bands play on Sugar Island. Reminiscent of Boblo Island, Sugar Island had a steamboat, The Tashmoo, that transported people to and fro. In 1936, the large ship hit some rocks that damaged the ship and it was forced to limp to Amherstburg, Ontario, where passengers were evacuated. The boat later sank. Unfortunately, the dance pavilion burned down in 1954.
Prior to all this there was a bridge proposed extending from Grosse Ile, with plans for real estate development. Continuing our Island hopping going north, we come to Fox Island, which was once owned by the Gorno family, and served them for family functions. It’s small at 1.6 acres and is just 300 yards from the coast of Elba Island.
A short distance away from Fox is a small island named Dynamite — you would think it was named after something J.J. Walker exclaimed, but it has an interesting history. Dynamite, also known as Powder House Island, is deceptively larger than it appears. Though it looks like a mere group of brush and bushes, it is one third of a mile wide, and takes a good five minutes to walk end to end.
The Island served as a storage place for dynamite and explosives for the Dunbar & Sullivan Dredging Co. Originally the dynamite was stored on Fox, but an explosion occurred in 1879 and it was moved to the nearby Dynamite Island. In 1907, there was a huge explosion on Dynamite Island that injured some young fishermen and was so extensive it blew out some of the residents’ windows on Grosse Ile. After a bit of litigation the dynamite was removed permanently.
The final stop on our expedition is Stony Island, which is 100 acres and had a bridge/railroad that sliced through Grosse Ile to it. For decades there was plenty of activity there of dredging and excavating in the Livingston channel. There are remnants of housing still on Stony Island, and there is an interesting story a couple of decades ago of a security guard overseeing equipment on the Island as the lone inhabitant.
I still look at these Islands with wonder. It can only be theorized how they were formed. Nevertheless, they’ve been there for hundreds and thousands of years in isolation and splendor.
Tony Mazzella welcomes readers to friend him on Facebook, where he fre-quently shares recollections about some of the inter-esting people and bus-inesses in Trenton’s past.