little island lies just off shore in the Detroit River about two
kilometres east of Belle Isle. Possibly youve noticed its
calming greenness as you hurry to work along Riverside Drive and
wondered whats over there. Perhaps you motored over on your
boat for a picnic and pondered the picturesque cement bridge. Older
readers may remember when the island was supposed to be developed
into everything from a swanky housing development to an amusement
park and wonder why all these plans fell through.
According to descendants of the French family, which once settled
the island for almost 100 years, there is a good reason why Peche,
or Peach Island, remains a virtual wilderness in the middle of an
urban metropolis: it has a curse on it.
delving into the story of the curse, it is worthwhile to reflect
on the fascinating Native Canadian legend about how Peche Island
The spirit of the Sand Mountains on the eastern coast of Lake Michigan
had a beautiful daughter whom he feared would be stolen away. To
guard against this, he kept her floating in the lake inside a wooden
box tethered to the shore.
The South, North and West Winds battled over this maiden, throwing
up a huge storm. The girl drifted away and washed up at the shore
of the Prophet, the Keeper of the Gates of the Lakes, at the outlet
of Lake Huron. He was happy to find the beautiful castaway.
The Winds soon found her again and teamed up to destroy the Prophets
lodge. The maiden, the box, parts of the lodge and the Prophet were
swept into the water and drifted through Lake St. Clair to the Detroit
River. The remnants of the box formed Belle Isle and the old Prophet
was lodged further upstream forming Peche Island.
From Legends of Detroit, Marie Watson
The French Connection
the earliest French maps of this region, the island was named either
Isle au Large, or Isle du Large. Possible meanings include at
a distance, since Peche Island is the farthest island upstream
from Detroit before entering Lake St. Clair or keep your distance,
because of dangerous shallows on the north side.
The island was next called some variation of Peche Isle, including
Isle aux Pecheurs and Isle a la Peche, the French word for fish
the island was once used as a fishing station.
In 1789, what is now Ontario was divided into five administrative
districts for the regulation of the land. The Board of the Land
Office for the Windsor region needed title to the island, which
was mostly in the hands of the Indians in order to issue land grants.
A treaty with the Indians was accomplished in 1790 for lands in
the western Ontario peninsula, but it excluded Peche Island possibly
because the Ottawas, Chipewas, Pottawa-tomies and Hurons who signed
the treaty wished to retain the island as a fishing ground.
Local businessmen possibly did not notice that Peche Island was
not among the lands transferred to the Crown and began petitioning
for grants for the land. Alexis Maisonville was among them and it
seems that he eventually obtained some sort of title to the island
and it even became known as Maisonvilles Island for a time.
Perhaps the first permanent residents of the island were a French
Canadian family named Laforet dit Teno. Evidence suggests that the
family moved to the island somewhere between 1800 and 1812 and possibly
earlier an entry in surveyor John A. Wilkinsons notebook
for December 27, 1834 says the family had been living on the island
for 34 years.
Irvin Hansen Dit Laforet, a descendant, believes the family settled
the island even earlier. In his article, Peche Island: Occupancy
and Change of Ownership 1780-1882 he describes how Jean Baptiste
Laforest was granted the island in 1780 for his service in the British
military as a guide and interpreter and for his familys steadfast
support of the Crown. (No deed was ever found, however, nor was
there any evidence of a grant recorded in the land office.)
Jean moved to the island with his wife and his five-year-old son
Charles. Jean built a homestead to verify his claim and passed the
title onto Charles. In January 1781, Jean Mary Laforest was the
first Laforest to be born on Peche Island. They had seven other
Apparently, they shared the island with a group of local natives
who occupied the western portion, keeping the eastern side for themselves.
According to Laforest family legend, Jean bartered with the natives
to gain ownership of the island, closing the deal with the exchange
of some livestock. The Laforest family lived on the island confident
of their ownership for almost 100 years.
By 1834, Charles and Oliver Laforet (the s had been
dropped by this time) maintained their large families on the island.
At that time about 25 acres had been fenced and were under cultivation.
The settlers had constructed a house and a barn, but there is no
further information about their petition for a grant to the island.
In 1857, Peche Island was finally transferred to the Crown by the
Chippewa Indians, but there was no great rush to acquire grants
perhaps because local people believed that the island legally belonged
to the Laforet family.
In 1868, someone did attempt to purchase it, but because of the
belief that it belonged to the Laforet family, no further action
They and their ancestors having been in possession for a long
series of years, and having always regarded the place as their home,
and considered that they would be awarded at least squatters
privileges in respect of the said Island.
the island may if
sold, be sold to the said Laforet or Teno family, provided they
are willing and able to pay a fair price therefor.
Essex County Council, Minutes, June 1868
- June 1873
The last Laforets on the island were Leon (Leo) Laforest and his
wife Rosalie Drouillard.
was the grandson of Jean Baptiste and had been born on the island
in 1819. He and Rosalie, who had been born on Walpole Island and
was the daughter of a Native interpreter, had 12 children, the last
being born in 1880.
They raised livestock, grew crops and engaged in commercial fishing.
Rosalie supplemented their income by weaving straw hats and selling
them in Detroit.
When a deed for the land could not be found, Leon staked out four
acres in 1867 when it became part of Canada. He paid taxes on this
property until he died in 1882.
In 1870, Benjamin and Damase Laforest, cousins of Leon had entered
into an agreement with a local Windsor businessman named William
G. Hall concerning commercial fishing. Benjamin filed a quit claim
deed at the local township office giving him squatters rights.
Many years later, an affidavit confirmed that Leon LaForest had
agreed orally to the commercial fishing contract, but he had never
signed his name to anything. Hall applied for a land patent of 106
acres in 1870, which included the whole island except for Leos
four acres. Hall eventually received title to the island, minus
the four acres for a payment of $2900 to the Crown.
After Halls death in 1882, his executor advertised that Halls
estate would sell the island, with fishing privileges and this sale
raised the question of title.
Laforet (r.) was involved in a lawsuit with
Hiram Walker over land on the island
Walkers sons purchased the property from the Hall estate on
July 30, 1883, as a summer home for their father. Benjamin Laforet
filed a claim on the 1st of August stating that he and his brother
Damase had a one-third interest in a certain parcel of land that
was described in the patent from the Crown to Hall.
The case was settled and the Hall Estate was authorized by the Supreme
Court of Canada to give the Laforets a one-third share of the $7000
that Walkers sons paid the estate.
Leo Laforet died on September 26 of that year. According to the
Laforet descendants, a group of Walkers men forced their way
into Rosalies home and made her and the oldest boys sign the
deed over to the Walkers. In Laforets article, he writes,
They [Walkers men] threw $300 on the table and told
Rosalie to be out by spring of 1883.
That winter, while Rosalie and her family were away in Detroit on
business, someone came onto their property and ruined the winter
stores. Because Rosalie was knowledgeable in the ways of the Natives,
they were able to survive until spring.
When it was time to leave, Rosalie got down on her knees and cursed
the Walkers and the island. No one will ever do anything with
the island! were her apparent words.
his sons hopes that he would use the island as a retirement
spot, Hiram Walker occupied himself for many years attempting to
develop it. For five years, he had canals dug to allow boats to
bring in supplies and to ensure the flow of fresh water through
the island from Lake St. Clair. Two yachts were purchased
the Pastime and the Lurline for travelling
to the island from Walkers office and for cruises and parties
on the river and lakes.
Walker built what has been described as a 54-room or 40-room mansion.
He planted hundreds of trees, put in an orchard, and built a green
house to cultivate flowers. He also put in a golf course, stables
a carriage house and he installed a generator for electric lights.
It was widely thought that this was no summer home for
Walker but an attempt on his part to create a resort. The only problem
was, his intended market, the society people of Detroit, all went
to nearby Belle Isle.
The Curse Takes Hold
Walker, a lawyer who had handled the purchase of the island, died
soon afterwards at the tender age of 28.
Hiram did not enjoy the island for long. In June of 1895, he transferred
the land to his daughter Elizabeth Walker Buhl because of ill health.
(Apparently, she was not a benevolent Walker; legend has it that
she did not let the locals pick the islands abundant peach
crop, as had been the case for many years. She had them dumped into
the river; they came in their boats to scoop them up.)
ruins of Hiram Walker's island mansion
was quite ill while he worked on his Peche Island project, suffering
a minor stroke before dying in 1899.
Edward Chandler Walker died relatively young in 1915. Prohibition
caused embarrassment for sons and grandsons who are American but
operating a Canadian based distillery. They didnt want to
be seen as bootleggers so they sold their fathers empire in
1926 only 60 years after he established it.
Hiram Walker & Sons distillery was purchased by Torontos
Cliff Hatch in 1926 ending the Walker dynasty. The Walker family
leaves Walkerville and abandon the town their father founded in
1858. Some remain in the Grosse Point area. At the time of amalgamation
with Windsor in 1935, no Walkers lived in Walkerville
How It Affects Island Development
Buhl sold the island to the Detroit and Windsor Ferry Company in
1907. At that time, the president of the company, Walter E. Campbell
stated that the island would be made into one of the finest
island summer resorts in America, and that the big house
the upper end of the island
has 40 rooms and will be easily
converted into a temporary pavilion at least according to
the Detroit News, Nov. 11, 1907
Mr. Campbell apparently died in the home on the island that same
year. The property fell into a state of disrepair. In 1929, the
house burned to the ground. Some say a huge lightning bolt hit it.
Needless to say, nothing ever came of Campbells plans to create
a park on the island. Although the island still legally belonged
to the Detroit, Belle Isle and Windsor Ferry Company and after 1939,
to its successor the Bob-Lo Excursion Company, the island remained
deserted except for picnickers, young lovers and probably rumrunners
during Prohibition in 1920s and 30s.
It is believed that the Bob-Lo Company bought the island to deter
development of another Bob-Lo Island (an island further down the
river near Amherstburg that had was developed as an amusement park
until the latter part of the last century).
Peche Island was so neglected that as late as 1955, the employee
who guarded the island for the Bob-Lo Company spent his spare time
there fishing for sturgeon, trapping muskrats, and hunting ducks.
Despite vigorous efforts by local groups to have the island purchased
by some government agency for use as a park, the Bob-Lo Co. retained
the island until 1956 when it was sold to Peche Island Ltd. Their
plans included filling the islands water lot in to create
a residential area. With this aim in view, the remains of the Walker
house were removed in 1957.
The scheme was abandoned that same year, reportedly because of a
lack of suitable landfill. Local rumour has it that the plan was
in some way connected to the fact that Detroit was short of space
for a garbage dump.
Other proposals for the island followed quickly but nothing concrete
happened until 1962, when Detroit lawyer and investor E. J. Harris
purchased it. His plan included dredging the canals and creating
a ski hill and protective islands. A few years later, Sirrah Ltd.
purchased the island and its water lot. This despite strong resistance
by many Windsor delegations and groups who wished to see the island
turned into a public park. Under the direction of E. J. Harris,
Sirrah planned and actually began work on an extremely elaborate
park area for the island. He constructed several buildings and sewage,
hydro, water and telephone were connected to the mainland. The project
operated for one season with ferry boats from Dieppe Park and barges
from Riverside. Due to financial difficulties and mismanagement,
Sirrah declared bankruptcy in 1969 also losing the 50-acre Greyhaven
estate in Detroit.
R. C. Pruefer of Riverside Construction purchased the island around
that time with the view of developing it into a residential area
or commercial recreation park that would have included a marina
but due to financial restrictions and other commitments, was forced
to sell the island.
In 1971, due to tremendous lobbying by various local conservationist
groups, the island was purchased by Government Services with the
department of Lands and Forest as the managing agency. The island
was also to be used by nature study students. The government planned
to spend a couple of million dollars on nature trails, picnic shelters,
etc. but there were no funds. In 1974, the property was designated
a Provincial park for administrative and budget purposes.
Currently the island is a Windsor municipal park, and the city has
no immediate plans to develop it, apart from bathroom facilities.
Other than part of the foundation of Hiram Walkers home, a
bridge, some dried up canals and a piles of old bricks here and
there, it is pretty much the way it was before the Laforets were
forced off the island.
Did Rosalies curse come true? (With
thanks to Henry Shanfield)