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The Evolution of Big Island on Lake Minnetonka

Once home to an amusement park and a private veteran’s camp, Big Island now has a public nature park.

In the early 1880s, the Dakota inhabited Big Island on Lake Minnetonka. The 273-acre island was discovered by settlers in 1852.

Judge Bradley B. Meeker, the namesake of Meeker County, squatted on Big Island in 1852.

In 1856, brothers W.B. and John Morse purchased Big Island. They platted the area known as Morse Island Park in 1887, and many people built cottages on the small lots.

Olaf A. Searle built a 20-room colonial-style home on a 125-acre lot in the early 1880s. His home had gas lights and steam heat. The cost of building the home is rumored to have been $250,000.

Big Island has had many names over the years, including Meeker Island and Morse Island. The names corresponded to the owners of the island at the time.

The name Big Island was used interchangeably with Morse Island from about 1860 to 1900.

The Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT), which owned streetcars and streetcar boats, decided to capitalize on those who rode their streetcar to Excelsior. 

In 1906 the TCRT bought 65 acres of land on the island and opened an amusement park. According to the Minneapolis Tribune, TCRT had a naming contest and chose Big Island Park as the amusement park’s official name.

After the TCRT streetcar delivered people to Excelsior, they could board a streetcar boat or other excursion boat to the amusement park.

Electricity was provided to Big Island by an underwater cable from land. A 200-foot electric tower stood as a beacon for those who visited. The design of the tower was based on a similar tower in Seville, Spain.

In addition to a roller coaster and carousel, the park had a music pavilion that could accommodate over 1,000 people. Many popular musical acts performed there.

Big Island Park closed in 1911 after falling into debt and was eventually dismantled.

A group of veterans’ organizations began using the park site in 1923. Minnesota war veterans and their families were able to spend time at the Big Island Veterans’ Camp.

The Big Island Board of Governors decided to sell the property in 2004 and to use the proceeds to support veterans’ needs throughout Minnesota.

In 2006, the City of Orono and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District joined forces to purchase 56 acres on the east side of Big Island for a public park.

“I spearheaded the purchase of the park,” said Orono resident and former mayor Gabriel Jabbour. “We always thought it should be in the public sector.”

Jabbour, who owns three lots and a home on Big Island, has been involved with the City of Orono since 1972.

The City of Orono paid $3 million of the total price of $5.85 million to create the Big Island Nature Park. The city also received a $2 million grant from the State of Minnesota.

The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District contributed the remaining $850,000 of the purchase price in exchange for a Conservation Easement, which preserves and protects 45 acres of the 56-acre property.

The park land has been cleaned up, and many improvements have been made.

Vandalism has been a problem on Big Island over the years, and all of the existing buildings were demolished earlier this year.

“We fought it for three or four years, but realized there’s no way to armor these buildings and still have them functional,” said Mike Gaffron, City of Orono Assistant City Administrator.

Sadly, the environmental camp offered by Orono Community Education on Big Island in past years had to be relocated because of the lack of a shelter.

“The only building left is a little guard shack by the dock,” said Gaffron.

According to Gaffron, there are about 50 private residences on Big Island. The Minnetonka Power Squadron, which is focused on safe boating practices, is also located on Big Island. Members of the Power Squadron have access to the docks and land for picnics and overnight camping.

Big Island Nature Park is open to the public. Visitors may park their boat at the dock on the south end of the park. Overnight camping is prohibited.

For more information about Big Island Nature Park, visit www. www.ci.orono.mn.us.

Steph Rigley August 18, 2011 at 04:20 PM
Fun facts, Steph. As a Lake Minnetonka transplant, I love learning about the history of my new home!
Bill Wendel February 28, 2013 at 04:23 PM
The author mentions that the Dakota inhabited the island in the early 1880s, but there is no mention of interactions between the settlers and the Indians, or how long the Indians resided there, what they did, or why or when they left, etc.. The Treaty of Traverse de Sioux (cession of Indian lands to the U.S. Gov't) was signed in 1851. How did this impact Big Island, and Minnetonka, in general. I would like to see this topic further elucidated.
Trey Peterson March 11, 2013 at 08:05 PM
I love lake minnetonka! Big Island is my summer home and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

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