See more of the story

Over the centuries, the island has held a Native American maple syruping operation, a steamboat stop, an amusement park, a music casino, a game farm, a veteran's campground, and the homes of two uncles of Lizzie Borden.

Now Big Island in Lake Minnetonka holds a newly upgraded public park.

The renovated park features wooded trails, seats made of limestone blocks, plaques with information about the island's history and, here and there, subtle concrete remnants of its storied past.

The city of Orono, which owns the 56-acre property, developed the trails and installed the plaques and restrooms in the park, which occupies the eastern end of the 273-acre island.

"This is probably the biggest piece of property in Orono that does not have a house on it," Orono Mayor Denny Walsh said at a ribbon-cutting event in September celebrating the park's official opening to the public. "It's been a lot of years in the making."

The $740,000 project included $300,000 from the Legislature's bonding bill, $200,000 from the Department of Natural Resources, $130,000 from the city and $82,000 in private donations. In-kind donations from the project's design and engineering firm made up the rest.

The island lies about halfway between Orono and Excelsior in Lake Minnetonka, the Twin Cities' largest and most popular recreational lake. The park's new ADA-accessible trails wind through woods, an open grassy area and a beach with long views of the lake.

"You can walk around and enjoy the views that are worth — well, they're priceless," Walsh said.

Although the island is part of Orono, the park is intended for use for everyone who enjoys Lake Minnetonka, he said. "It's not Orono, it's not Excelsior, it's everybody."

The history of Big Island's use goes back about 10,000 years to when the glaciers receded, leaving behind the sprawling 14,500-acre lake. Indigenous people occupied the area, hunting, fishing and tapping the island's numerous maple trees for syrup and sugar. The Dakota called the island Wíta Táŋka — that is, Big Island (Wíta means "island," and Táŋka, "great, large or big").

White settlers arrived in the 1800s. When Minnesota became a territory in 1849, the U.S. government pressured the Dakota to sign over their land and the Indians were eventually forced from the area.

Judge Bradley Meeker claimed the island in 1856 after exploring it with Minnesota territorial governor Alexander Ramsey. He named it Meeker's Island but abandoned the land two years later. Brothers William and John Morse bought the island in 1861 and renamed it Morse's Island.

"William owned the east side of the island, including the present-day park, and John owned the west side of the island," said Aaron Person, president of the Wayzata Historical Society. John Morse moved after a few years, but William and his wife stayed on the island for decades, operating a beer garden on the northern tip of the present-day park, Person said.

"They also let people camp on their property, which was a very popular thing for upper- and middle-class people to do after the Civil War," Person said.

The Morses were uncles of Lizzie Borden, a woman famously tried and acquitted of the 1892 ax murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Mass.

"John even testified in the trial," Person said.

The property continued to change hands over the years. In 1905, the Twin City Rapid Transit Company, which operated streetcar systems throughout the metro area, built an amusement park on the island, hoping to increase streetcar traffic to Excelsior.

The park drew thousands of visitors, who were taken to the island on steam-powered ferryboats. Big Island Amusement Park included a nearly 200-foot water tower near the center of the park, according to city records, with a 186-foot-high beacon with electric lights that could be seen from all points on the lake. The park also featured a music casino that seated 1,500.

Still, with its high operating costs and lack of winter revenue, the attraction was not a success, lasting only six seasons and closing in 1911. By 1917, most of the buildings had been dismantled and the rebar melted down for use in World War I, city records show.

"Remnants of the grandeur of the Big Island Amusement Park can still be found on the site, including the grand entry portal stairway and old foundation remnants hidden among the Island's wooded glens," the city's records say.

Although legend has it that the island's roller coaster was moved to the Excelsior Amusement Park, which opened in 1925, that is not the case, Person said. The coaster was demolished along with the rest of the park. (Nor, for that matter, did John Philip Sousa play in the island park, another widespread misconception, Person said.)

Next, the island became home to a wild game farm. Minnesota's game-bird populations were declining in the early 1900s. Game farming had been conducted successfully in other states but the farm on Big Island, which opened in 1915 with 50 ring-necked pheasants, was Minnesota's first. They were soon joined by native birds, including quail, prairie chickens, and pairs of teal, mallard, and pintail ducks.

Thanks to the farm, the ring-necked pheasant became Minnesota's iconic game bird, according to city records.

The farm moved to Mound in 1920, when the state's pheasant population had grown to more than 400,000, and eventually grew enough to support pheasant seasons.

The property became the Big Island Veterans Camp in 1923, with a large dining hall and a variety of cabins and campsites. Veterans and their families continued using the camp until 2003, when the city of Orono partnered with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District to get a state grant to buy the property for park purposes.

A majority of the site was placed in a conservation easement to preserve its open space and natural character.

After its many identities, its many names and occupants and visitors and the many ways in which it has been developed over the centuries, the island will now return to something close to what it would have looked like long ago.

"No matter what happens," said Walsh, as he stood on concrete remnants of the long-ago amusement park, looking out over the island's docks and the waters of Lake Minnetonka sparkling in the early autumn sun, "this [property] will never be developed."

Katy Read • 612-673-4583