Forbidden Fruit: The Curse of Peche Island

September, 2011.
Brace yourselves for a bit of reading today; photos begin below.

On a balmy summer’s day, the birds chirped and the grasses and leaves of the trees on the quiet wilderness island rustled in their wispy wordless language. Suddenly this natural stillness and solitude was broken by the sound of something that had never before been heard in these lands--the loud “flap!” of canvas. All the animals and birds now stopped and paid heed as a great, billowed white sail moved behind the green mesh of the arched boughs of the ancient trees whose leaves trailed in the calm waters. The dull wooden creaking of the ship’s hull could be heard clearly as the deer and foxes stared in confusion at the great shape moving against the current. Across the bow of the proud barque read the name, “Le Griffon”…the date was 12 August, 1679. The white man had arrived in the Great Lakes.

Peche Island is a small, marshy thing at the northernmost extent of the Detroit River, marking the entrance into Lake St. Clair. It is a Canadian holding, as the international border threads in and out among the many islands and sandbars that inhabit the whole of the massive Detroit River like a test driver weaving through a line of orange cones. Though it is 86-acres in size, Peche Island has never been settled….

As fate would have it, the intrepid voyageur, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s ship would eventually be lost somewhere in the upper lakes--it was the first commercial ship to ply these waters, but also the first shipwreck. Just where in the cold deeps her bones truly lie is a matter of legend, though many men have searched for her. Many more still claimed to see the ghostly tatters of the Griffon’s apparition, still searching the forlorn coasts on moonless nights.

When the first white man went ashore in his canoe to set foot upon Detroit in the year 1670, it was to desecrate a stone formation that he thought was a heathen idol, and to erect in its place a wooden cross adorned with the French coat of arms, nine years before the Griffon’s wake would lap these shores. That white man was Father François Dollier de Casson. Though there is evidence that Samuel de Champlain was the first European to have seen the site of Detroit in 1610, Fr. Dollier (and his companion Fr. Galinee) are the first ones to have actually set foot on its soil. It was said that they found a rock formation in the shape of a human figure that had been decorated, and were so offended by this that they broke it to pieces with their hatchets and took the pieces in their canoe to the middle of the river and dumped them before continuing on their journey north. This stone idol sat near the mouth of the Rouge River where a number of large, ancient burial mounds lay. Antoine Cadillac would not arrive to found the City of Detroit until 1701.

Since the time of LaSalle’s passing of Peche Island aboard Le Griffon, the island has remained essentially unchanged, and even today--three and a half centuries later--it is a quiet, people-less atoll of solace in the very midst of one of the world’s greatest industrial and commercial centers. But let me first reach even further back into North American prehistory. The oldest known evidence of human habitation in Michigan (found at the “Gainey Site” near Flint), dates to 9,000 BC...eleven millenniums ago. The native Anishinaabe people of this region have legends about Peche Island that go back before recorded time, tales that come to us only by the passing of sacred story from mouth to ear. As desolate and cast aside as this place is today, it has perhaps the deepest and most fascinating history of any island in the Detroit River, as you will soon see; perhaps of any in the Great Lakes.

I never saw myself as ever going to Peche, since it was a Canadian island, and my not having a passport or a boat (until recently) pretty much kept me from being concerned about ever setting foot there. Until one night, when Sloop and I were chillin’ on the roof of the Metropolitan Building one late summer’s evening partaking in a few beers. Somehow the topic of Peche Island came up. Sloop said that he had been there once while fishing with his brother, and had noticed there were some ruins to be found there.

Ruins? My attention now firmly arrested, I sat riveted as he explained that the old Canadian whiskey baron, Hiram Walker, had once owned a summer mansion on Peche Island--whose ruins still existed, including a very fancy stone bridge that spanned one of the many canals he had cut through the island for his personal use. I decided to make Sloop bust out his canoe to take me there at once.

Not only is there a Native American legend about the isle, but it is one of the most well-known of their legends of this region. Ancient Ottawa mythology says that long, long ago, Chief Sleeping Bear had a daughter who was so beautiful that he kept her hidden in a covered boat, tied up on the banks of what is now called the Detroit River. If you know your lore, you will recall that the Detroit River was the “Third Fire” along the great migration of the Anishinaabeg (the “Original People” of the Great Lakes, consisting mainly of the Pottawatomies, Ottawas, and Ojibwa).

The chief hid his daughter to keep her from being ogled by mortal men, who he thought would be unable to handle seeing her beauty. One day as the chief was bringing her food, the wind spirits caught a glimpse through the flaps of the covered boat, and were so taken by her beauty that they decided to whip up a storm in order to blow the cover off of her boat and get a better view. They blew so hard however that it broke free of its mooring and went adrift down the river.

The keeper of the water gates saw the drifting boat and rescued her. He was so enthralled by her beauty that he took her to his lodge. But the winds saw this and became angry, and they buffeted him so fiercely that he was killed. The wind spirits guided the girl back to her father, Chief Sleeping Bear. They begged him not to hide her anymore, but instead place her on an island in the river where she would be safe from mortal men, but the spirits would be able to gaze upon her beauty. The chief agreed to this.

He placed her on what is now Belle Isle, and beseeched Gitchee Manitou to guard the isle with many snakes so that men would not come there. The girl lived there and was happy that she now had a beautiful place to run free instead of being hidden. In fact even the snakes of the island were charmed by the girl’s beauty and worshipped her. Gitchee Manitou was impressed by this, and made the girl immortal, to rule and dwell upon this isle forever. Later, when the white man came, he initially named this island “Rattlesnake Island.” Her spirit is referred to as the “Snake Goddess,” and is said to inhabit Belle Isle still, as an apparition of the forest. Remote places such as mountaintops or islands are usually sacred places to the native cultures, and often each sacred place will have its own spirit guardian, or genius loci. This is generally true of any ancient culture. Before organized, monotheistic religion, man interacted with nature through personification, or assigning a “spirit” to each natural feature or force he encountered.

Anyway, the girl’s would-be lover, the dead water-gate keeper, was placed nearby on what was later known as Ile aux Pêche, or “Peach Island” (see on MAP). His spirit lived in solitude on this smaller island, and it is said that braves went to this island for meditation and to seek wisdom from his spirit before going to battle. His voice sounded like the wind in the trees and could only be understood by those who had fasted and observed proper meditation. It is also said that the famous warrior Chief Pontiac went there for spiritual guidance from the “Oracle of Peche Island” prior to his famous siege of Fort Detroit in 1763 to drive out the British. Of course, this myth has several different versions, by virtue of its being so ancient, and having never been written down until the 19th or 20th century.

French explorers who first came to these shores during the 1600s brought with them the medieval European legends, such as that of le feu follet, but more importantly of loup-garou--the werewolf. In those times, the werewolf paranoia was at its height, and of course rumors perpetuated that some of them had found their way onto the ships of the voyageurs, and that lycanthropy had reached the New World. Tales of the loup-garou are perhaps the oldest lore of the city of Detroit, aside from the ancient Anishinaabeg myths.

I assert this is where the folklore of the white man and the red man connected; it was said by the old French families that “witches” inhabited Belle Isle in those dark early days of white settlement. Remember, a “witch” usually refers to any distrusted person who still conforms to the spiritual ways of whatever pagan culture was lately supplanted from an area, and is therefore a good candidate for blaming misfortune upon. The French believed the “witches” were actually the offspring of the ancient Snake Goddess from the old Indian tales, and had the power to turn men into loup-garou.

In his journal LaSalle describes the Detroit area from the deck of Le Griffon in 1679:
The islands are the finest in the world. They are covered with forests of nut and fruit trees, with wild vines loaded with grapes. From these we made a large quantity of wine. The banks of the Strait are vast meadows and the prospect is terminated with some hills covered with vineyards, trees bearing good fruit, and groves and forests so well arranged that one would think that Nature alone could not have laid out the grounds so effectively without the help of man, so charming was the prospect...The country is well stocked with stags, wild goats, and bears, all of which furnish excellent foods.
Not indeed, seeing as in all likelihood LaSalle was naively stealing all these fruits and things from the vineyards of the Potawatomie who lived nearby. On the feast day of Sainte Claire, LaSalle broke a bottle of this new wine over the bow of the Griffon and christened the open body of water above the river "Lac Ste. Claire." Most contend that Le Griffon was lost in the freak storm that reportedly kicked up sometime after they had departed the Green Bay, Wisconsin area with a cargo hold full of valuable furs bound for the French nobility.

*  *  *

Anyway, the real reason why Peche Island remains undeveloped today is because it is cursed.

I’m not joking, actually. Aside from the aforementioned Anishinaabeg myths of banished snake-goddesses and oracles, and the medieval European superstitions of witches and werewolves that had hitherto reasoned the island’s ongoing solitude, there was an actual curse as well. According to an article in the Walkerville Times by Elaine Weeks,
On 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 à la Pêche, the French word for fish.
…which is on point, because Ojibwe, Ottawa, Potawatomie, and Huron tribesmen had used it as a fishery since time immemorial. Then again, “keep your distance” might also warn of evil pagan spirits…? Some have also mistaken the name for the French word péché, which translates "sin," and may have earned the island a reputation as a place where duels or romantic trysts were carried out.

When Ontario was formed as a province by the British Crown, the island was excluded from the treaty because the tribes wanted to retain it for fishing. However, the fact that it was never officially ceded to the Crown somehow got lost along the way, and when Ontario was being subdivided, local settlers began applying for titles to the land. The first known reference to anyone living there was when Alexis Maisonville somehow acquired use of the land (perhaps by personal treaty with the tribes?), and it became known as “Maisonville’s Island” for a time. But the first known official record of anyone permanently living on Peche is when French-Canadian named Jean Laforet (or “Laforest”) dit Teno moved there sometime after 1780 with his wife and five year old son Charles. At this time, Detroit was a tiny village within primitive fortified walls made out of sharpened logs.

An article by a descendant of Laforet claims that the island was awarded to Jean “for his service in the British military as a guide and interpreter and for his family’s steadfast support of the Crown.” He built a homestead there, verifying his claim, and had seven more children. They supposedly shared Peche with natives who occupied the western side of the island while they stayed on the eastern end, and according to the family history, eventually bartered for ownership of the whole island. The Laforet family lived there for 100 years, and by the time of the Patriot War, or "Rebellions of 1837-38," they had a 25-acre farm going, including some cattle and a barn, and had produced many more descendents. In 1857, the tribes officially deeded the land to the Crown, though no challenge was brought against the Laforet family’s claim to ownership, as they had been there for so long it was generally assumed that it belonged to them legally.

The last Laforets to inhabit Peche Island were Leon and his wife Rosalie, who was of the tribespeople of Walpole Island (between Lake St. Clair and Lake Huron--not part of the U.S. or Canada, it remains tribal land today). They had 12 children, farmed, and fished commercially, and for extra money Rosalie made trips to Detroit to sell straw hats she made.

The trouble began in 1867 when Canada was confederated. Once again, the question of the Laforet clan’s legal claim to the island was raised. There was a string of contests to ownership of the property over the next two decades, and over time Windsor businessman William G. Hall seemed to muscle his way in on the Laforets through some shady dealing. In 1882 Hall died however, and his attorney put the land up for sale, though the bamboozled Laforets still lived there. Hiram Walker became interested in the island and purchased it from the Hall estate. Though Leon Laforet filed suit against this, he died in September of that year. Hiram Walker reportedly then sent a gang of “toughs” from his distillery to the island to coerce the widowed Rosalie Laforet and whatever children remained at that time to be off the island by spring. The men allegedly entered the house, threw $300 on the table, and forced them to sign the deed over to the Walkers. They reportedly came back while the family was away in Detroit and destroyed their foodstuffs just before the onset of winter. However, because Rosalie “was knowledgeable in the ways of the Natives,” they were able to survive until spring. When she was finally sent from the island, she dropped to her knees and placed a curse upon both the island and the Walkers. “No one will ever do anything with the island!” That was supposedly what she said.

Overjoyed by the new island he had just stolen, Hiram Walker began developing it by digging canals through it to ensure fresh water flow through the marshes, and to allow small boats to bring in supplies. He had two yachts, the Pastime and the Lurline, which he would use to jaunt from his offices at the distillery, or entertain guests. Originally a Detroit grocer, Walker bought land in the Windsor area for his distillery and named the company town that sprang up around it “Walkerville” after himself. He was their Henry Ford, so to speak; he took charge of every aspect of planning the town. Canada’s laws on distilling were much more lax than those of America, hence his move across the river. This would prove to be a stroke of incalculable luck when the Prohibition Era began in the 1920s, though Hiram would not live to see it. Further, the living heirs of his empire sold everything off by 1926 to avoid the unseemly appearance of being American owners of a Canadian distillery.

The mansion Hiram constructed on Peche Island consisted of 54 or 40 rooms (depending on the source you read), and he spent great sums of money on this pet project, which also had a greenhouse, orchards, stables, carriage house, ice house, golf course, and a generator house for electric lighting. Speculation existed that this was not merely to be Walker’s summer home or retirement home, but intended to be a resort for the rich society of Detroit. It also seems that the island project was a bit of a secret, as oddly enough no pictures exist of it or the house. Everything was going swimmingly for Walker at this point, but the curse was about to take hold.

Clarence M. Burton, Detroit’s first historian, notes that in the colonial days hogs and cattle were placed on Belle Isle for safe keeping; the original French name of Belle Isle was Ile. Ste. Magdelaine, but during Cadillac’s time took the name Ile. Au Cochons (which is French for “Hog Island,” but also mysteriously close to the Ojibwe word kookoosh, which also means “hog”). Similarly, the name Peche Island (alternatively called Peach Island) has an equally mysterious etymology; the word peechee in Ojibwe means “bird,” while the Ojibwe word for “peach” is miishiijiimin, so it is unclear if there is a definite connection there, but eerily enough, the isle was also known for its luxuriant peach orchards.

Soon after Hiram Walker began developing his Peche Island paradise, Willis Walker, the lawyer who had handled the purchase of it from the Hall estate, suddenly died. He was only 28. Hiram himself became very ill around the same time, and eventually suffered a minor stroke. He fell so ill in fact that he transferred the title of the land in June 1895 to his daughter Elizabeth, when the house was barely completed. Regardless, Hiram died soon after, in 1899. He never got to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Elizabeth Walker Buhl was supposedly a bit of a witch herself, or perhaps a madwoman. She forbade the fruit of the abundant peach orchard that Hiram had maintained there to be picked by anyone. In fact, she routinely ordered all the fruit to be dumped into the river. In the fall, the waters downstream from her island could be found mysteriously full of bobbing peaches. Locals would reportedly scoop them up in their boats and harvest them that way. Evil women, snakes, forbidden fruit…this is starting to sound fairly biblical. Elizabeth did not stay in the house very long, and abandoned it to the mercy of the elements.

Another descendant, Edward Chandler Walker died young, in 1915.

Elizabeth got rid of the doomed property in 1907, selling it to Walter E. Campbell, president of the Detroit, Belle Isle, & Windsor Ferry Company, which also owned Boblo Island Park. Campbell had dreams of his own for Peche Island. His company announced their plans to turn it into another amusement park and provide ferry service, essentially connecting an empire of island paradises under their control. Campbell also intended to turn the Walker Mansion into the central pavilion of his new project, and that Peche would be “one of the finest island summer resorts in America,” according to an article in the November 11, 1907 Detroit News. Campbell was actually living in the mansion during this planning stage. Silly pale-face. Less than a year later he suddenly died there.

The house now fell into serious disrepair, development plans ceased, and no one inhabited the island. For the first time in centuries, Peche Island was completely alone again. In 1929, the decaying mansion was consumed in a massive fire, some say from being struck by a lightning bolt. It burned to the ground, eerily lighting up the night like a Viking pyre. Peche remained under ownership of the Detroit, Belle Isle, & Windsor Ferry Company, who shunned the island, and essentially let it go back to nature. Du Large…“keep your distance…”

In 1939 ownership transferred to their successors, the Bob-Lo Excursion Company, who likewise did nothing with it until 1956 (some say this move was to prevent anyone else from turning it into an island park to compete with their Boblo Island). However they did pay an employee to “guard” the island, though he reportedly spent much of his time duck hunting, sturgeon spearing, and muskrat trapping there. It was then sold off, to “Peche Island Ltd.,” who intended to fill in all the lagoons, build homes, and make it a residential island. They demolished most of the Walker mansion but the plans fell through however, supposedly due to a lack of suitable landfill supply. In 1962 it was sold off again to Detroit investor E.J. Harris, who envisioned a $30 million resort. The island by this point had sat in desolation for over half a century, and this naïve johnny-come-lately developer likely knew nothing of the curse.

The Peche Island Rear Range Lighthouse was erected just off the east shore of the isle back in 1908, though it was merely an unmanned, steel-tower beacon similar to that of Windmill Point Light nearby. It stood lonely guard over the reef for 70-some years. However, not even the U.S. Lighthouse Service was exempt from the curse of Peche Island, and by 1980 the light’s cribbing had failed, and the tower had taken on a severe lean, threatening to topple over into the lake, as seen in this 1980 photo by R. Texter. The light had actually been deactivated by 1965, but in 1983 it was removed to Marine City, Michigan by preservationists.

E.J. Harris and Sirrah Ltd.’s plans were to dredge out the isle’s canals, build a ski hill, a hotel, golf course, ice rink, restaurants, and an elaborate park connected to Detroit's Grayhaven Island via cable-car. despite strong Windsor-community resistance to overdevelopment. The plan was partially completed--several buildings were even finished, and for one season they began operation with ferry service from Dieppe Park. But Sirrah suddenly declared bankruptcy in 1969, also losing their Grayhaven holding in Detroit. R.C. Pruefer of Riverside Construction then bought Peche with similar plans, but was also forced to sell it by 1971. The province of Ontario bought it, but later found that it didn’t have sufficient funds to develop it. Today the island is designated a Windsor municipal park, though there is no ferry service. If you have a boat you can go there, but the city of Windsor wisely has no further inclination to mess with Peche Island than that.

Sloop and I swiftly dismounted his canoe from his pickup truck, unloaded all our gear, and made ready for sailing. The cold rain made this feel more like November than September. However, our forecast said that the rain would cease in a few hours. In the meantime we worked in our raingear, tolerating the damp chill, anxious to reach our destination and pop the caps of a few brews in honor of our fallen comrade. It was the five-year anniversary of Dev’s death, and in part, that was why we had made a point of getting together today; to observe our tradition of exploring and drinking Newcastles in his honor on September 23rd.

During the Prohibition years there was clandestine bootlegging activity on Peche, at least on a small scale. Between Peche Island and Windmill Point (at the foot of Alter Road, which is Detroit’s eastern borderline with Grosse Pointe), “an electronically controlled cable hauled metal cylinders filled with up to 50 gallons of liquor under the river,” according to an article in the February 11, 1997 Detroit News by Jenny Nolan. There is also a cute hand-drawn map posted online by the Walkerville Times, showing the northern tip of the island to be the place where barrels of booze were stashed by the rumrunners who operated the cable-pulley system:

Click for full size.
In fact, it was with this highly detailed map neatly folded up in my pocket that Sloop and I set out on the high seas in search of TREASURE! YARRRR!!!

The point in our driving all the way to Canada instead of merely embarking from the American shore is that Sloop’s boat, the S.S. Pay Pay--even equipped with its trawling motor--was not formidable enough to safely cross the strait of Detroit. Though it can definitely be done, the wisdom of this is questionable; the chances of getting run over by an asshole in a power craft, or even a lumbering 1,000-foot iron ore carrier are not worth the risk--not to mention the added complication of the Detroit River’s surprisingly swift current. The crossing from the Walkerville area of Windsor is much shorter and safer than attempting the full breadth of the mighty strait. In fact, as we stepped out of the reeking muck on the shore and into our vessel, the curious aroma of malt from the old Hiram Walker distillery mingled in our nostrils with that of the murky grey river. Just down the street from where we launched, the makers of Canadian Club whiskey still continued the thriving business in their massive plant.

Again, the Hiram Walker & Sons dynasty came to an end during Prohibition when the entire family business was sold off to avoid the impropriety (and potential legal complications) of being American owners of a Canadian distillery. The remaining Walkers then left the town their father founded 70 years prior. Some descendents still supposedly reside in the Grosse Pointe area today, but at the time of its annexation by Windsor in 1935, none lived in Walkerville anymore.

I sat in the bow position and paddled as Sloop took the helm and gave us added thrust with the trawling motor. We made a swift crossing, and soon approached the haunted shores of this mysterious islet. There have been a few shipwrecks in Peche Island’s long history; the first was in 1865 when the schooner Eugenie wrecked there. The steamer Oneida ran aground there in 1871. In fact, even the 730ft. freighter Tadoussac foundered off the nearby reef as recently as 1998. Maybe the Coast Guard should have kept the Peche Island Lighthouse lit after all.

The deep, dark eaves of the forest loomed nearer:

More than one old book says Peche Island was Chief Pontiac's favorite summer home. Landmarks of Wayne County and Detroit says that in spring of 1763 the island was a "center of great activity," as the chief built his alliances with other tribes and sent runners far and wide to collect reconnaissance on the many British frontier forts of the Great Lakes region with intent to simultaneously overthrow them all.

Looking back at Windsor:

An interesting series of connections also lies between Peche Island and Detroit’s oldest surviving graveyard, Elmwood Cemetery. The Parent Creek trickles through this cemetery, often called “Bloody Run,” because during “Pontiac’s Rebellion” it was the site of a battle between Chief Pontiac’s forces and the British. Captain J. Dalzell led a force of 260 British reinforcements to Fort Detroit under the cover of night on July 21, 1763 in order to try and lift Pontiac's siege. But Pontiac had been tipped off, and waited in the darkness with his warriors for Dalzell to cross the Parent Creek. The brutal moonlight massacre that followed nearly wiped out Dalzell’s entire force.

Another spooky echo of the past is that reports of loup-garou in Elmwood Cemetery have persisted even up to 1939. Numerous residents living in the area of the cemetery made a rash of complaints that a wolf was running loose in the expansive cemetery, heard howling at night. While sifting through old debris in the wreck of the Farwell Building in 2005 I kept a news clipping that detailed another similarly unsettling incident there on Devil’s Night of 1976, though I’ll be damned if I can find it now. But more importantly, guess which important person is buried in Elmwood?

Hiram Walker.

Is it fate that the Indian-cursed owner of Peche Island would be buried under the same soil upon which Chief Pontiac had fought after consulting with the “Oracle” of Peche Island?

I could see the crumbling ruins of Hiram Walker’s former seawall come into view, and became excited. I hardly paddled now, mostly rifling off shots with my camera as Sloop navigated us into the protective arms of the island’s southern edge. We entered the main lagoon area, and coasted to a much slower speed. Sloop took out his fishing rod and made a few casts. Dead silence.

We were alone in the midst of a strange otherworld; no one else was on this island except for the ghosts. All I could hear was the beads of water dripping from the blade of my paddle as I listened to the tense stillness of the island.

The shock of going from an urban environment to this wilderness one was a jarringly more abrupt transition than usual. I felt my brain grinding its gears as it ham-fistedly shifted from “downtown mode” to “up-north mode.”

One acts, or at least perceives differently when he is in either of these kinds of environments, but rarely is one ever confronted with having to switch between them so suddenly. My senses of smell and of hearing quickly came up to speed, registering my surroundings with increased sensitivity.

We cautiously glided deeper into the maze-like lagoon.

As you can see from the satellite MAP, it consists of a series of strange convoluted canals and lagoons. I lost my bearings almost immediately in this bewildering warren. The city skyline was now gone, replaced by a wall of grapevine and ivy-covered cottonwood trees. I also noticed that a lot of these trees woven into the dense jungle growth here were actually fruit trees, unkempt descendents perhaps of a long-lost orchard. Though the loneliness here was pervasive, the familiar plant and animal life was very much that of southeastern Michigan as opposed to its piney northern highlands. This place is very much just an overgrown sandbar, made up of the same mud that the rest of the city of Detroit sits on. No craggy stone formations here.

Soon we entered a much more civilized looking area, with ground that we could actually walk on if we wanted to…and it seemed like we were approaching something up ahead…

The old bridge...

Silently we continued to glide forward.

Beyond the bridge was the channel leading back out to the Detroit River where we had just come from. We decided to investigate.

The deep ultra-bass churning sound that we had been hearing for the past minute or so was the sound of the engines of the freighter American Integrity, coming around the opposite side of the isle on its way up into Lake St. Clair’s grey-blotted expanses:

It was still drizzling, but showed signs of slowing.

We turned back into the interior of the island to begin our land-based exploration of its secrets.

Under the bowers of the overhanging woods it was very dim, and it seemed like they had something to hide.

At the sound of scratching gravel under the keel of the S.S. Pay Pay I leapt out of my thwart and helped pull the boat up on shore so Sloop could get out.

By this point I was ready to start pulling tabs, and Sloop was not far behind. He unloaded his tackle box and the cooler, and the sound of two cans of beer being simultaneously breached momentarily interrupted the deep hush of the island. We were actually at a sort of an intersection it seemed, of canals:

One led back out to the Detroit River, and the other two led back into the lagoons. The lillypad-covered intersection seemed like a good place for a few more casts, so that’s what Sloop did. No luck yet however. We left the Pay Pay behind, grabbed the cooler, and set off into the dripping wet brush of Peche Island. Sooner than expected, we stumbled upon what could only be the ruins of Hiram Walker’s Mansion:

The rain had stopped now for the time being, and we fanned out to determine the extent of the ruins here. It was evident that of the original extent of the mansion’s foundation, we were looking at only a small part.

The rest must have been removed in the late 1950s when Bob-Lo Excursion Co. sold the island to the developers Peche Island Ltd., who started demolition.

Though this was obviously not the eye-popping grandeur of some of the better ruins I’ve been to in my time, I was satisfied. Sloop set the cooler down and broke out the ceremonial second round--Newcastles.

A very strange cleft tree growing from the foundation:

I did find it a little odd that for a house supposedly built around 1894 by a millionaire, it had poured concrete foundations.

There was also a bit of an almost “tri-level” thing going on it seemed…?

This outbuilding was either his stables, or greenhouse, or…something:

Here you can see how close it was oriented to the main house foundation:

…perhaps it was the carriage house? Sloop wanders farther down the street:

I followed him into the woods. Looking back:

This slime-filled canal nearby was once dredged out by Mr. Walker, and has subsequently become choked off again:

We hiked on toward the east end of the island, and along the way discovered a ruined foundation that was much more in line with the time period I was looking for:

It was piled stone, and sat on the shore close to where the hand-drawn “treasure map” shows the “Probable location of first fishing station,” which was listed as circa-1721.

Stepping down the bank a little to get a better view, its full size became more apparent:

I suppose it could just as easily be 1800s construction, perhaps one of the Laforets’ farm structures, or one of the Walker buildings. Though if he used concrete for his house, why would he use piled stone here?

Perhaps it is the remnant one of the Laforets’ root cellars, where Rosalie’s winter stores had been destroyed by Walker’s thugs; demolished when Hiram built his concrete seawall along this edge of the island?

We forged onward and popped out of the woods in the eastern edge of the isle, where I noticed the shore to be made up of a million tiny mussel shells:

Using the shoreline as our trail instead of bushwhacking the dense forest, we trod upon the countless mussel shells until we saw the slender white shape of Windmill Point Lighthouse over on the Detroit shore:

It was between these two points that the aforementioned rumrunners’ cable-pulley system had been strung. There were a few old rotted pilings sticking up above the waves on shore here:

We sat on a huge random chunk of extremely weathered, extremely old concrete and continued to drink as the sky cleared up.

Another ship passed by us in the main channel. You can see that this is a “salty,” which in Great Lakes parlance is an ocean-going vessel. This one is from a Hong Kong fleet if I’m not mistaken:

Out in Lake St. Clair the sky still looked dark and formidable:

Sloop had to go commune with nature, so he left me here with the last Guinness while he hiked off to engage in an adventure deuce. I sat and stared, crocked, out onto the calm waters for quite some time just thinking to myself. The sun began to shine. Eventually I became concerned for Sloop’s well-being, as he had been gone an awfully long time (translation: I had run out of beer). I hiked back to the Pay Pay and ran into Sloop again by the stone bridge. We decided it was time to do some more waterborne exploration, so we saddled up the Pay Pay and shoved off into the lagoon. We decided to take the passage that led to the extreme western tip of the isle.

Passing with some difficulty underneath this boardwalk, I continued to paddle westerly with as much stealth as possible while Sloop made the occasional cast into the banks for smallmouth.

Reaching the end, the sun came out and turned this into a very golden evening indeed. We decided to beach our canoe in a muddy bank deep in this nether-corner of the isle to go ashore and wander on foot a little bit more. Nothing much else was found however, and we returned to the Pay Pay and shoved off again to head back to the main lagoon.

But instead of going all the way back, we veered out into the river and landed at the area where the beginnings of E.J. Harris’ amusement park were built. It was now a small marina and picnic area of the city of Windsor park however. The sun was starting to set, making for a gorgeous end to the day:

Sloop pointed out to me another derelict foundation in the brush, this one appearing to be much more modern; probably one of Harris’ aborted structures:

The type of concrete was much different than that found in Walker’s corner of the isle; this was much newer. Sloop and I decided that with the sun now quickly dipping it would be best for us to take advantage of perhaps one of the most salient features of this strange realm.

The thing that had struck Sloop most poignantly on his first fishing visit to Peche Island was the otherworldly natural isolation, yet you can paddle around a corner and suddenly see the gleaming towers of the bizarrely disembodied Detroit skyline looming in the distance, like a mirage in a desert.

We paddled out to a better vantage point as the waters of the island’s protective southern coast turned to glass.

One minute you feel a million miles from civilization, then you round a corner and there’s downtown Detroit.

What I found equally astonishing and uncanny was that when we crossed into Windsor this afternoon I could again see the familiar backdrop of downtown Detroit, but it was reversed, and the immediate streetscape I found myself within was totally alien to me. It was a very different experience to see my city from the “other side of the fence.”

A perfect way to close out the summer.

Later I of course searched for images of Peche Island in the usual places, and found at this old PHOTO in the Virtual Motor City Archives. It looks like a view of Peche from the Canadian shore. You can see the old Detroit Edison “Seven Sisters” generating station in the background.

Here’s a PHOTO I found in the Library of Congress’ online holdings from the Detroit Publishing Company (1880-1920) appears to be a view from the west, with a ferryboat docked there. If you look closely, you can see people or packages lined up by by the boat at the dock. The boat in fact looks like one of the Boblo Boats. This photo was supposedly published between 1900 and 1915, which was when the island was owned by the Detroit, Belle Isle & Windsor Ferry Co.

The History of Wayne County and the City of Detroit, Vol. 2, Clarence Burton, p. 915
Landmarks of Wayne County and Detroit, by Robert Budd Ross & George Byron Catlin; Revised by Clarence Burton (1898), p. 165 & 169
Michigan Haunts and Hauntings, by Marion Kuclo, p. 2-5


  1. Laforet dit Teno descendants (my relatives) are still alive and well in the Windsor area but dit Teno was removed from the name and the family went by the last name Laforet. I am told my grandmother Roseanna was born on Peche Island along with her sister Laura. I believe there are church records of their births on the Island (1901) There was a blessing that my father received from his father that involved drinking water from Detroit river. As a child I can remember my Dad was pleased his father was able to remember and give the blessing because my grandfather was elderly and struggling with memory loss. We were raised knowing the French name Laforet and the story of the curse and the cute drawing you referenced was drawn by my great uncle Edward. Rose married George Ouellette (my grand parents) they raised eight childrennear West Minister/Riverside (Eugene, Charles, Francis, Raymond, May, Margaret, Rita and Roland). Only Roland is still alive and resides in the US. There is a multitude of grand children, great grand children and great great grand children and well as descendants through my grandmother's siblings.

    1. funny you mention george and rose ouellette those are my great grandparents and their daughter may was my grandma. She actually told us the story of the whole thing that occured with the walkers and laforets when I was in my last year of high school

  2. The LaForet dit Tineau is a Peche Island story. The descendants of Charles Tineau and Ursule Soulliere are all part of the Tineau clan. Although many used the last name LaForest or LaForet from this union non are real blood relatives to any LaForest. Charles is baptized at Assumption and listed as an illegitimate child, his Mother Louis St..Aubin would not name the father. When he is 5 years old his Mother marries Jean Baptist LaForest son of Guillaume and Margaret Tremblay on Sept 30 1780. They have 8 children. Only Charles had the dit name Tineau. His father was more than likely native and this is how they end up sharing the island with the Ottawa Indians. There are many Teno, Tino's living on both sides of the River today that are direct descendants of Charles LaForest Tineau.

    The island was sold by Charles grand children and no child was born after 1883 when Leon and Rosalie were forced off of it by Hiram Walkers men.

    1. I am a descent of Charles still working out the linage and history. I have found Laforest and Drouillard (supposedly his mothers maiden name) on both sides of my parents.

    2. From 1936 - 1951 (possibly 1952) Captain and Mrs Farrow were the caretakers on Peach Island. They lived on the Island year round. He was an employee of the Walkerville Ferry company. there are still at least 3 people I know of that can verify this My mother being one of them lived on the river across from the Island and the Farrows were family friends.

  3. I am a descendant of Charles LaForest dit Tineau. To be clear, there is absolutely NO proof that the father of Charles LaForest was an Indian. His mother, Marie Louise Casse dit St. Aubin, would not reveal anything about the father of her son, Charles.

  4. There is no proof we agree on, but we have no proof his father was not a First Nation man absolutely

  5. Rosalie and Leon were my great great grandparents. Their daughter Sophia was my great grandmother. I recently found out about the island. I'm excited to learn more. The house Sophia owned actually mourns when someone in the family passes. I'm interested to know anything I can find out about my great great grandmother Rosalie.

    1. Sophie was my great grandma too. My grandma was Viola Champagne.

    2. I believe Rosalie was my great great grandmother as well. Their youngest daughter married Clovis Parent and their son Gregoire Parent was my great grandfather. I am excited to learn more both about the island but also about the First Nation's people.of.Walpole who bore Rosalie.

  6. Tina, I have been collecting family relationships to the Island forever. I know there must be more but I am starting to wonder. Your Rose and Leon and daughter Sophia who married a Champine and english spelling for certain. The CHAMPAIGNE family has many ties to the residences for sure. Rose and her brother may have left with Leon's Dad Joseph to live around Walpole Island, we see records in the Church along the Thames, still a french church today, St Peters. Leon comes back to the island late, Charles Tineau and his family have been on it since at least, more likely before since 1832, this is based on FACTS not made up. Research on the LaForest locations, land records, very few, and census also or petitions by residents, not much. All Louisa St. Aubins brothers sign a peition about the theft of belle Isle. Leon dies on one of Charles Tineau's boys farms, the sellers were his sons. Sophia did a great job trying to and did get some money for the family. I have a tax record letting Leon off of taxes on the island because he is so poor he can't pay it.

    1. Could you possibly get ahold of me via my email I am Sophie's great granddaughter. My grandmother was Viola Champagne. I would love a copy of Leon getting off of taxes on the island to ad to my documents! Thanks

    2. Hi Tineauville

      I came across this thread while researching my own family history. I carry the last name Labbe on my paternal side. My family is from the Lake St. Clair area, but I was born and raised in Alberta with no ties to family or story from out that way. I am wondering if you can perhaps help me?

      I will do my best to illustrate my understanding of my own ancestry related to Peche -

      My father is David Labbe, born to Edmund Labbe, who was the son of Bernadette Labbe (nee: Hebert). Bernadette was born to Alexina Soulliere (Sulliere?) who married Moise Hebert. Alexina was born to Mary Sulliere (nee: LaForet) who married Israel Sulliere. I believe Alexina was the last of my decendants born on the island. Mary LaForet was a daughter of Benjamin Laforet dit Tineau and Zoe Dauney who died at the age of 34. Benjamin was a son of Charles who was the son many are speaking of in this thread?

      I am wondering, if by chance, any of your documents mention any of my family members. There are questions as to where my grandfather Edmund Labbe was born (may be Walpole Island, but my dad is a poor historian), and our own ties to Indigenous groups. As I am not out that way, and is only getting my so far, and that part of my family is quite broken apart......I am wondering if you have anything at all that may help me in my search.

      Thank you

      Best email address: I never check the email associated with this account!

  7. Tineauville, do you have an email address? Could you send it to

  8. Once again I cross paths with you, Nailhead. Discovered my great-great uncle worked on one of the Walker yachts, Pastime, so I'm sure he was around this area in the 1910 era. Later he was in the US Navy. Nothing more than that but was interesting to discover his service as one photo was labeled, working on a private yacht and he had a cap on with the word "Pastime" on it. (On the other side of the family grandpa worked for Gar Wood and Edward Gray on Grayhaven.)

  9. Oops, forgot to click on 'Notify me' if anything new comes of this.

  10. My grandmother (birth 1901) played on the island growing up. They would travel there by boat from Detroit. Her great grandmother was named Pouloun, her Anglicized name was Angelela Peltier St. Bernard. Would love to know more about the band of Indians that inhabited the Island?

  11. My brother tells me that the building with the cinder block wall was where the island generator was.

  12. Would anyone have any information on Elizabeth Walker?

  13. claude thomas gastineau was the father of charles tineau

  14. And Dna proven fact. I am the great great grand son of Mr. Walker. And I am alive and live in Indiana. My grandmother was his granddaughter. Names Brandon Link I am Juanita walker grand son Wanda walker is my mother andpeche island and walkerville can know the truth the warner blood is stillhere and live in winamac Indiana as Brandon Joseph link.


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