Anderson: Waconia folks again put out welcome mat

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 10, 2012 - 11:22 PM

The hospitable town with the rich history will play host to the governor on Saturday.

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Gov. Mark Dayton might have trouble Saturday duplicating this catch by an angler, or anglers, unknown in Carver County sometime early last century.

Photo: Courtesy Carver County Historical Society, ALL

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When Gov. Mark Dayton pushes off from a Waconia dock at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, guided by Travis Frank in search of a walleye or two, a new chapter in the history of that town and lake will begin. Then, only 24 hours later, Dayton will be gone, and another Governor's Fishing Opener will wind down.

Interesting as it is to imagine those comings and goings not far southwest of downtown Minneapolis, doing so in the context of Waconia's colorful history -- the city's and the lake's -- is fascinating, because few Minnesota communities have seen as many characters and dreamers pass through their midst.

Many of these interlopers, transient and resident alike, wanted Lake Waconia to burst with big fish, and they planted millions of little ones to try to make that happen. Others wanted the 30-acre island in the lake -- Coney Island, named for the more famous tourist destination back east -- to transport them, if not to riches, then at least to a hotel of comfort and distinction.

Fish-management efforts began early. In 1872, a guy named H.R. Denny bought 4,000 salmon from the State Fish Commission and dumped them into the lake, soon adding another batch, and four years later 10,000 more.

None of which ended up in a frying pan.

In 1912, the "State Fish Car" -- a railroad car -- was wheeled down the tracks to Waconia, containing an estimated 2.25 million northern pike fry, all of which were dumped into the lake. Ten years and millions more fry later, the effort paid off: A man named A.J. Schutz boated an 11-pounder.

Today, Lake Waconia is bearing the fruits of the Department of Natural Resources' relatively recent plantings of muskies -- big fish that have really taken off in the lake. But in the context of history, this latest fishery manipulation effort is anything but novel.

In 1922, for instance, following the successful northern pike plantings, 20 cans of bass were added to Waconia with hopes they, too, would propagate.

Not to be outdone, the State Game and Fish Department in 1939 added 25 cans of walleye fingerlings. Kicking things into high gear, in 1950, 751 northern pike females attempting to spawn in Peterson Creek were netted, stripped of their eggs and released back into the lake (near Waconia, the town, conveniently), while an estimated 9 million eggs were scattered in rearing ponds, a fraction of which were later returned to the lake as fingerlings.

Lake Waconia's fishery-management efforts continue today, not only with muskie plantings, but also with regular DNR walleye stockings.

First platted in 1857, the village of Waconia and its movers and shakers wanted fish in their lake not only for themselves, but also for the promotion of tourism. Waconia's unique geographical positioning along rail lines, and also along the Yellowstone Trail (which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year), together with the development of Coney Island as a spa-like destination, boosted the town's fortunes.

From the excellent book "Waconia, Paradise of the Northwest, the Lake and its Island," published by the Waconia Heritage Association (source also of the fishery-management history above):

"By July 1882, the M&St. L Railroad operated an excursion train to Waconia every Sunday, leaving Minneapolis at 9 a.m. and reaching Minneapolis at 6:30 p.m. on its return trip. The round-trip fare was $1.25. The company promoted their service with extensive advertising in newspapers from towns located on and off the line."

Once tourists arrived, they were transported in the earliest years to Coney Island by rowboats, then, later, by a 60-foot steamer. (This included the Gophers football team, which held preseason practices on the island from 1903-1905.)

" 'Sundaying' on the island meant conversing, swimming, picnicking, fishing, sunning, dancing, listening to music and playing sports," the Heritage Association's book reports. Band "tournaments" in Waconia also were a big deal, one of which in 1914 attracted 10,000 people and 2,000 cars.

Occasionally, visitors had too much fun, as the local Patriot newspaper reported in 1902: "The most disgraceful scenes were enacted by drunken men, women and children. Kegs of beer were tapped on the public highways, fights were of common occurrence and pandemonium was at its highest pitch. The policemen were kept busy swinging their clubs and cracking heads but it was impossible for them to preserve order. It would be well to discourage excursions to Waconia if such are to be composed of the scum of the earth."

This weekend's events featuring Gov. Dayton and, probably, a couple thousand other visitors to Waconia will be, by comparison, downright civil. And, judging by the good people I met while in Waconia the other day, fun and well-organized.

Chances are, fishing also will be pretty good.

If not, it won't be for lack of trying by a good many Waconia residents over a very long period of time.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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  • The Coney Island Hotel on Coney Island in Lake Waconia was a destination dreamed about a century ago by visitors from both coasts.

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