Archaeologist Kelly Wolf made her way along a path of freshly excavated black earth, still muddy from the previous night’s rain. The path, on an island in Lake Waconia, cut through what at first glance appeared to be ordinary undisturbed forest. But it’s lined with evidence of a much livelier past.
She walked past some visible remains, some more than a century old: a nature-overgrown staircase, a partial stone foundation, a collapsed building. “We would call them ruins,” said Wolf, an archaeologist for Blondo Consulting, a Kettle River, Minn.,-based firm that provides expertise on archaeological and heritage resources.
Far less visible were small signs of human activity that occurred at least several centuries ago, possibly as many as 1,500 to 2,000 years.
Work began this month on the first phase of construction for Lake Waconia Regional Park, a $3 million project funded with $1.5 million in state bonding matched by $1.5 million from Carver County.
The park, to become part of the metro area’s 55,000-acre regional park system, is being developed by Carver County’s Parks and Recreation Department along with the Metropolitan Council and the state Natural Resources and Transportation departments.
The island in Lake Waconia, called Coney Island of the West, is being developed as part of the 135-acre park. The county acquired the island, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, in 2016 through the Trust for Public Land.
“This park has been in the making for many, many years,” said Marty Walsh, Carver County’s parks director. “It takes us quite awhile to complete things.” In fact, the project has been underway since 1996, as the county waited for private landowners in the area to sell their property for the park.
In the meantime, roads were rerouted — including Hwy. 5 — to make room for the park, which will encompass about 100 acres on the southeast shore of Lake Waconia, the second-largest lake (after Lake Minnetonka) in the metro area.
Long-term plans, which await legislative approval for more matching funds, call for amenities including picnic areas, restrooms, a boat launch, fishing pier and improvements to the lake’s existing beach.
For now, the county is grading the site, removing trees and vegetation, laying down roads and parking lots, building a stormwater system and extending water, sewer and electrical utilities. County officials hope to have the work done by next June.
On the 35-acre island, land is being prepared for nature trails and picnic areas. In addition, workers are removing old buildings containing asbestos. Interpretive signs eventually will be installed with information on the island’s history.
Back in the 1880s when trains served the area, Coney Island was a popular resort destination. It reached its heyday in the 1920s, according to Heidi Gould of the Carver County Historical Society.
“At one point in the early 1900s they tried to change the name to Paradise Island,” which happened to be the slogan on the masthead of the weekly Waconia Patriot, Gould said.
Nobody’s exactly sure how it came to be called Coney Island; possibilities include a play on the name Waconia or the then-common nickname for rabbits, or a reference to the famous New York City destination.
The island featured hotels, cabins, a dance pavilion, even a bowling alley. Hotel guest books show that visitors included Sarah Bernhardt, a stage actress famous in the late 1800s. The University of Minnesota football team held training retreats there from 1903 to 1905.
Evidence of the rollicking era exists in buried pieces of glass, ceramics, jars and other relatively familiar castoff items, Wolf said. But she’s also found artifacts that are older, smaller and harder to spot, signs of much earlier activity on the island.
The tiny pieces, no larger than a quarter, are clues to the presence of indigenous people who occupied the island before Europeans arrived in the area. There is evidence that humans inhabited Carver County as far back as 7,000 B.C.
The chips come from pottery, the remainders of stone tools and food remains such as animal bones, Wolf said. Hundreds have been collected, and Blondo experts will analyze them over the winter to determine their ages.
Subtle distinctions between the shapes of indigenous pottery pieces and tools distinguish the merely old — several hundred years — from the really, really old of a couple thousand years ago. Analysis will include “breaking the artifacts down by stylistic elements,” Wolf said.
County workers have found no evidence of human remains indicating the presence of burial grounds, Wolf said. If they did, Minnesota law would require them to leave the area undisturbed.
“It’s always a possibility,” she said. “That’s partly why were here — to make sure.”