Island study turns up artifacts

By Staff Reports

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Pictured are some of the artifacts discovered on Coney Island, including prehistoric stone flakes, a projectile point and bone fragments. (Submitted photo)

It might still be a while before the general public can roam around Lake Waconia’s Coney Island.

The results from the first phase of an archaeological and historical analysis uncovered prehistoric pottery shards, stone flakes and arrowheads. As a result, “No Trespassing” signs will remain up on Coney Island.
“We have to keep the island closed due to safety risks,” said Martin Walsh, Carver County Parks director. “And because Coney Island of the West is on the National Register of Historic Places, there are a number of considerations that need to be addressed before clean-up or development can take place.”

The discovery of the historical artifacts has prompted a second phase study, which leaves the island’s timeline for public opening up in the air. The second phase will delve deeper into the historical and archaeological significant areas of the 33-acre island, and – depending on the results – may leave the county tasked with mitigating the risks of public impact on these areas.

“This might be as simple as adjusting conceptual trail alignments slightly, or as complex as altering where we place picnic shelters or camping areas,” said Martin Walsh, Carver County Parks director. “As a result, we’re unable to say at this time when clean-up will begin or how long it will take to complete.”

This second phase is slated to begin in early April, and is expected to take 10 weeks to complete. The results of the second phase study will be sent to State Historic Preservation Office for review, with comments from the office expected by the end of July.

The archaeological study is just the latest step in opening the island up to the public.

The county purchased the island for $1 million from Norm and Pam Hoffman in February 2016, after the county became eligible to use the Metropolitan Council’s Park Acquisition Opportunity Funds. Use of those funds required a 25 percent local match, which was made up by the Hoffman’s agreeing to sell the island at 75 percent of its appraised value. In addition, the Hoffman’s foundation donated $900,000 for clean-up and improvements on the property.

After the acquisition, county staff embarked on an 18-month process of developing a master plan for the property – an endeavor that utilized public comment gathered from both online surveys and in-person informational meetings. The master plan focuses on how the island will be used for recreational activities, and lays the groundwork for historical interpretation that will explain the island’s prehistoric history and past uses. The county board approved the plan in October, and the Met Council signed off on March 8.

Coney Island’s recorded history dates back to the 1880s when it was a popular summer destination that featured private cottages and three hotels. The University of Minnesota Gophers football team held pre-season practices on the island’s football field from 1903 to 1905. Even after the resort traffic dwindled in the 1920s, the island’s popularity continued as a weekend dinner and dancing spot.

By 1960, however, the island was completely vacated. The Waconia Bicentennial Committee’s Island Committee led efforts to rehabilitate the island in 1975, and the island was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. While a study was conducted on possible uses for the island, high costs prevented development.

Coney Island can be viewed from Lake Waconia Park, which is located east of Waconia off Highway 5 at 8170 Paradise Lane. Existing facilities at the park include a sledding hill, picnic shelter, play equipment, restrooms, swimming beach, picnic tables, volleyball court and grills. Park hours are from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.