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Before Minnesota's Coney Island reopens, there'll be some digging into its past

The island in Lake Waconia once drew tourists from around the country – and also has a prehistoric past.

A part of Minnesota that was once known as "the Paradise of the Northwest" will be getting new life soon. But not until we learn a little more about its old life.

Americans from near and far used to ride trains to Lake Waconia to spend summers out on Coney Island. But what was a bustling vacation hotspot in the 1880s had become a ghost town by 1960.

Now Carver County is working on reviving Minnesota's Coney Island and making it part of a regional park southwest of the Twin Cities. The county's plan for restoring the island took an important step forward last week, but officials now say some more archaeological work will happen before it gets cleaned up for use as a park.

It's not just historic – it's prehistoric

In Coney Island's heyday its 31 acres were home to three hotels and several summer cottages.

In the days before air conditioning, lots of Southerners beat the heat by heading to Minnesota. And since those were also the days before cars, taking the train to Waconia and then a boat to Coney Island was how you got away from it all.

While that history is pretty well documented, a company hired by Carver County last year found evidence of much older life on Coney Island: prehistoric arrowheads and bits of pottery. Those artifacts are being sent to the Carver County Historical Society, the county says, but since last year's digging only went one meter deep, it has inspired a follow-up archaeological study that may start in early April.

The county says this new study will probably take about 10 weeks. They'll send the findings to the State Historic Preservation Office and expect to get comments back from them by the end of July.

Reopening the island

Depending on what the next round of digging turns up, the county may adjust its planned locations for trails, picnic shelters, or campgrounds.

Carver County spent 18 months putting together a master plan for making Coney Island part of Lake Waconia Regional Park. That plan finally got approval from the Metropolitan Council last week.

Cleaning up the island is the next step toward a park, but that's now on hold until after Phase II of the archaeological study.

What needs cleaning up?

The county says there are remnants of building foundations, collapsed buildings, and debris piles. There's even the shell of an old car that must have come over to the island on a ferry.

County officials say a lot of the public comments about Coney Island have described it as a spooky, mysterious place. But that's part of what makes it worth exploring.

Once it's redone, there will be fishing, swimming, camping, and picnics. But there will also be interpretation of the history that gives Coney Island that ghost town feel.

County parks director Martin Walsh tells the Star Tribune the idea is to grab onto the sense of adventure and exploring on the island.

Norman and Ann Hoffman, who sold Coney Island to the county for $1 million (25 percent less than its assessed value) have also used their foundation to donate $900,000 for its cleanup, Carver County says.

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