Visitors to Lake Waconia’s Coney Island of the West can now hike and picnic in a place that was a fancy resort in the early 1900s and, millennia ago, a place where Indigenous people lived, cooked and possibly traded.
The southern half of the island opened to the public in late August after a $1.5 million project that built a crushed limestone hiking trail, 10 feet wide and just over half a mile long, that winds past partial foundations and other ruins from one end of the island to the other. It will eventually loop around the island.
“It’s definitely been a long awaited day here for local patrons and regional park users,” said Sam Pertz, a supervisor in the Carver County Parks and Recreation Department.
Until last year the long unoccupied island, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was thick with vegetation and dotted with disintegrating old buildings.
Now there’s the trail, with grassy areas at either end with picnic tables that also can be used for fishing and campfires. Firewood is available, though visitors are asked to take only what they need.
“The sheer beauty is just unbelievable,” said Carver County Commissioner Tim Lynch, whose district encompasses the island. “You can have a picnic, bring a cooler and have a wonderful afternoon to share with your family and friends ... and lie about how many fish you caught.”
The island is one section of Lake Waconia Regional Park, a 135-acre park on the metro area’s second-biggest lake that’s being developed by the county parks department along with the Metropolitan Council and the state Natural Resources and Transportation departments.
Crews have started making improvements to the lakeshore side, including a parking area and utilities, in a $3 million project funded with $1.5 million in state bonding and $1.5 million from the county.
By next summer, Pertz said, the county plans to expand docking facilities on the island, most likely adding a couple more docks in other areas. The current dock is too small to allow multiple boats to tie up; visitors must unload coolers and other items at the dock and then anchor offshore. The county also wants to add restrooms since there are none on the island.
Pertz is hoping to have a ferry operating next year, so visitors who don’t have boats can visit. The island can be reached in winter over the ice but the trail won’t be maintained during snowy months, Pertz said.
The newly developed area covers only half of the 34-acre island. The other side contains crumbling but not historically significant buildings, and the county plans to remove debris there before opening it to the public.
Before that, the area will be subject to the same intensive archaeological research that ended earlier this year on the now developed side, before the trail was added.
Archaeologists found pieces of glass, ceramics, jars and other castoff items from the hotel and cabin days. More ancient bits of pottery, cooking hearths, weapons and food particles were left by Indigenous people — even traces of bone and corn likely carried to the island from elsewhere.
No one is quite sure whether Carver County’s Coney Island was named for the famous Brooklyn neighborhood of the same name or simply a play on Waconia.
Either way, some of the artifacts from Coney Island of the West will be on display this fall and winter as part of a traveling exhibit on New York’s Coney Island at the Carver County Historical Center in Waconia, said executive director Wendy Petersen Biorn. The exhibit, “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008,” is scheduled to run Nov. 10 through Jan. 7.