Remnants of ancient civilizations indicate Coney Island has been home to humans for centuries.
A vibrant tourism industry on Lake Waconia already dates back to the 1880s. However, discoveries last year indicate American Indians lived — or at least frequented — the 300-acre island long before European settlers.
“People have been coming there for the last 1,500 years,” said Registered Professional Archaeologist Jeremy Nienow. “People have been living in Minnesota for 10,000 years.”
“There can be any number of reasons prehistoric people were using the land,” he said, adding that the island allows for people to see a great distance outward and former inhabitants would have access to fish, birds and other mammals.
Nienow is one of lead archaeologists on the site from Nienow Consultants. The firm is one of two that Carver County officials hired to perform archaeological investigations before parts of the island are turned into a recreational area as a part of Lake Waconia Regional Park. County officials have discussed implementing walking trails and designated picnic areas.
However, before plans can be executed, archaeological excavations must take place. The results of the discoveries will determine where recreational activities may occur and sites that should be preserved.
“This is all part of the process, the county wants to develop this as part of its parks program,” Nienow said. He added that the island is already on the National Registry for its historical tourism, however the investigations will look as to if there are any other significant artifacts that should be added to the island’s national profile.
The Waconia Bicentennial Committee led efforts to rehabilitate the island in 1975, and the island was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
The Carver County Board and Metropolitan Council approved of a master plan for the island and Lake Waconia Regional Park last year. The plan was based on public meetings and online surveys.
Much of where and how early civilizations lived is a mystery to historians, due to the lack of written records recovered. It's a mystery archaeologists are slowly uncovering.
Findings — including stone tools and remnants of ceramic vessels used to store food — have prompted further archaeological studies on Coney Island that will take place this spring. The first investigation was conducted in October 2016 and evaluations from the State Preservation Office were released last week.
Nienow estimates there were about 300 archaeological remnants found, and most were smaller than a quarter in size.
“Some of the stuff could be thousands of years old. It’s only a real small subset of what people would have used,” said National Register Archaeologist David Mather.
“You have to think about what you are finding and the missing stuff you aren’t seeing,” Mather said.
Remnants of animal bones in villages may illuminate how ancient people hunted and what they ate. In rare occasions, preserved seeds would also help tell how they ate.
“They convey a lot of information. It does take a careful approach to find them in the first place,” Mather added.
During the first phase of the study, a team of 5-7 archaeologists excavated holes that were approximately 1 foot wide by 3 feet deep and sifted through the soil two inches at a time.
Holes in the next round of investigations will be approximately 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep. The study will take about 10 weeks.
Many of the former hotels and vacation homes on the island are now ruins.
Old cars, baking pans, broken bottles and other debris can be found scattered throughout the island. Some may be saved and stored with the rest of the artifacts at the Carver County Historical Society. Others may be deemed junk and disposed.
“We would hope that a good number of historic items get preserved and observed and put into the Carver County Historical Society,” said Nienow. “That’s up to the county.”
There were paint cans, broken glass and plates that were found over the edge of a cliff. The six-inch pile, along with other debris on the island, may be a safety hazard if the island is opened to the public and would likely need to be removed, he added.
The amount of debris counted as junk can increase, if people who visit do not respect the property. Nienow noted that there’s ample evidence that shows people making fires on the beach and makeshift benches from items they find on Coney Island.
“They are destroying archaeological features to make these,” he said. “To see those ripped apart so you can toast your marshmallow makes you want to cry. It’s sad to see that.”
"No trespassing" signs will remain on the island, while a second study takes place.