Each of the local isometry groups arising in three-dimensional (3d) gravity can be viewed as a group of unit (split) quaternions over a ring which depends on the cosmological constant. In this paper we explain and prove this statement and use it as a unifying framework for studying Poisson structures associated with the local isometry groups. We show that, in all cases except for the case of Euclidean signature with positive cosmological constant, the local isometry groups are equipped with the Poisson-Lie structure of a classical double. We calculate the dressing action of the factor groups on each other and find, among others, a simple and unified description of the symplectic leaves of SU (2) and SL (2,R). We also compute the Poisson structure on the dual Poisson-Lie groups of the local isometry groups and on their Heisenberg doubles; together, they determine the Poisson structure of the phase space of 3d gravity in the so-called combinatorial description. © 2008 American Institute of Physics.