Big Island History


  • 1800’s - Island is inhabited by Dakota Indians.
  • 1822 - Two young boys (one a drummer boy at Ft. Snelling) paddle up Minnehaha Creek, discover Lake Minnetonka and camp on the Island.
  • 1852 - Settlers Simon Stevens and Calvin Tuttle re-discover Lake Minnetonka. They build a dam and sawmill at Minnetonka Mills. Gov Ramsey names the lake, “Minnetonka.” Island becomes known as Owens Island, then Meekers Island.
  • 1856 - The Island is acquired by brothers W.B. and John Morse. They plat, developed and sell lots.
  • 1869 - Following the Civil War, many southerners make the lake a favorite vacation spot, coming up the Mississippi by steamboat and via rail (which came to Wayzata in 1867).
  • 1880s - Many of the Morse Island (Big Island) lots are sold and several families build cottages. Tenting on the Island is popular as well. Morse rents tents to campers.
  • 1891 - Olaf A. Searles buys about 125 acres on the Island and builds a three story, 21 room mansion. He hires laborers to dig a channel separating his portion of the Island.
  • 1900 - By the end of the century, the wealthy tourists who had helped turn Lake Minnetonka into one of the regions premier resort destinations, were vacationing elsewhere. It appeared that Lake Minnetonka was on its way to becoming just another affluent suburb. Minnetonka was sleeping, but not for long!
  • 1905 - Excelsior residents awoke early one morning to the rumble of streetcars. A new kind of tourist was coming to the lake. They were coming just for the day, they were excited, they were looking for summer fun. It was the dawn of a new era. The Twin City Rapid Transit Company purchased 65 acres of land on Big Island.
  • 1906 - An Amusement Park was built and operated on Big Island. It was an ambitious undertaking. A 200 ft high electric beacon and water tower was near the center of the park. After the opening of the Amusement Park the Island became known simply as Big Island.
  • 1907 - A 1500 seat music casino is built, which featured a number of local bands. A large dock was built for three 1000 passenger ferry boats. A long dock was available on the east end of the Island for private boats. Other features of the Amusement Park were a large Roller Coaster, the “Old Mill Ride,” the “Scenic Ride to Yellowstone” and a Carousel.
  • 1911 - Big Island Amusement Park was closed at the end of August. (1910 sale document)
  • By 1917 most of the buildings and rides were dismantled.
  • In the early 1920's the state acquired the property and established a vacation camp for WWI veterans and their families. The remaining buildings became part of the Veteran's Camp. The camp operated for the next eighty years.
  • 2006 - January 5th - City of Orono and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed buy Big Island Campground from the Veteran's organizations that own it. Local officials and volunteers develop a plan to clear debris from the Island and open it as a public park.
  • June 25, 2008 The Orono Big Island Park officially re-opens to the public.






Big Island Amusement Park 1906 - 1911

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