The tourists of the 19th century who spent their summers relaxing on secluded Coney Island are long gone. But guests will soon return to the historic isle west of the Twin Cities.
Carver County won Metropolitan Council approval this week of its long-term plans for Lake Waconia Regional Park, which features the second-largest lake in the metro area.
The plan would add improved trails, walkways, plazas and other amenities to the mainland park area, as well as a new or rehabbed event center. But it would also breathe new life into the overgrown Coney Island, the newest addition to the park, where crumbling sidewalks, dilapidated buildings and old lampposts hint at its former life as a warm weather hot spot.
The overhaul would create winding trails for hiking, as well as places to picnic, fish and tie up a boat — the only way to reach the island.
The design is meant to “grab onto this sense of what I’ll say is adventure and exploring,” said Marty Walsh, Carver County parks director. “That’s really kind of the atmosphere that we want to create on the island.”
Visitors are prohibited for now, but if things go smoothly, cleanup could begin this fall and the island could reopen to the public in the summer of 2018. Implementation of the full Lake Waconia park plan would cost between $17.7 and $19.7 million, and will depend on how much funding can be secured.
Beginning in the 1880s, the island’s hotels, cottages and activities offered a lakeside respite for guests from Minnesota and around the country, according to the Carver County Historical Society. Over time it hosted bowling, concerts, dances, dining and even the University of Minnesota football team, which used the island for preseason practices in the early 1900s.
Prominent actress Sarah Bernhardt was among the visitors, according to the historical society. The island is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The origin of the island’s name — it’s also called “Coney Island of the West” — is a mystery. It could refer to Coney Island of New York City, a term for rabbits, or just an abbreviation for Waconia, the historical society said.
Most visitors during Coney Island’s peak arrived by train, but the growing prominence of the automobile made Coney Island a less attractive destination by the 1920s. After various attempts to bring tourism back, the island was vacant by 1960.
The process of converting it into a park began when Norm and Ann Hoffman, local residents, bought the land over several years in the 2000s. They were spurred by a proposal to build a new hotel, cabins and accommodations for conventions or weddings.
“I felt that it was economically not possible to do that because there’s no access to the island. It would have to be by boat,” Norm Hoffman said. “And I didn’t think that it should be privately owned.”
A Met Council grant paid for Carver County to purchase the land for $1 million — 75 percent of its appraised value — from Hoffman, who then donated $900,000 to the county for the cleanup costs.