Group works to restore Big Island park and its history.
It’s almost impossible to think of Lake Minnetonka without considering Big Island. A popular gathering spot in the summer for boats and other recreators, the island has witnessed many changes and recently saw another as a group has worked to restore the island for the next generation of visitors.
First inhabited by the Dakota and other indigenous tribes, the island ended up being divided into parcels, one of which was owned by the Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT). By 1906, the TCRT completed Big Island Park, featuring an amusement park, concert spots and more. The TCRT shuttled people (locals and visitors from around the country) to the island via steamboats, one of which was named The Minnehaha. “My grandfather explained to me how awestruck he was to go out there in 1907,” says Dennis Libby, Big Island Legacy board member.
The amusement park made it only five years. It was then turned into a game farm, which was later developed into the Big Island Veterans’ Camp. The camp served as a getaway for veterans and their families until 2003, when the city of Orono purchased the camp. In 2019, the Big Island Legacy organization decided to turn the area into a more visitor-friendly site. “The park was a diamond in the rough,” Libby says. “It just needed the time and effort to bring it back.”
With private donations, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources grant and city funding, the Big Island Legacy group went to work. A new concert pavilion was built in the same place as the old one. The trails were made ADA compliant as best as possible, and historical markers were placed to show where parts of the veterans’ camp and amusement park were once located. “People can enjoy this park just like any other park,” Libby says. “But they can also see these markers and imagine what used to be there.”
In addition to the markers, there are still some remnants of the amusement park and the veterans’ camp throughout the park. There are also markers that explain the history the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community had on the island. Tribal representatives reviewed the materials for accuracy.
The park features boat docks for visitors to use while on the island. There are hopes that The Minnehaha will be brought out of retirement to shuttle people to and from the island. For now, it’s only accessible by personal boats.
While there will always be necessary upkeep and attention for the Big Island Park, the Big Island Legacy is going to turn its focus to all area parks in hopes of restoring some more beauty in the region.
If you’re looking for Memorial Day weekend plans, exploring Big Island Park is a great way to spend the day. “I invite people to go and see what an extraordinary place it is,” Libby says. “Between the natural beauty and the history, it is just really cool.” Additional information is available at bigislandlegacy.org.