“I watched the cars with their boats and campers going up north to get away for a while and find some cool spot to enjoy. This is fine for those people, but then I would come back to the cities and go [to] the Vets hospital, soldier’s home and the nursing homes. These people had no place to go and if they did, there is nobody to take them even for an hour or a day."
In June of 1971, Ed Wilmes of Fridley, Minnesota described a serious lack that he had identified in the Twin Cities community: a place for the disabled, physically handicapped, or the blind to go and enjoy nature. As a local citizen, he saw an opportunity to address that lack of accessible outdoor space in the form of three islands in the Mississippi River, located between Fridley, Brooklyn Park, and Brooklyn Center. Wilmes received support and encouragement from everyone he spoke to about his vision for the islands, from local volunteers and the three cities involved all the way up to the Governor of Minnesota and the United States Navy. In April, 1973, the Foundation for the Islands of Peace officially formed as private, non-profit organization, and from there work began to turn the islands into the park that Wilmes envisioned. By July, 1973, the U.S. Navy Seabees and the U.S. Air Force laid down a basic set of paved trails to start providing access.
Work continued over the next several years. By 1977, a Program Committee was established to expand the outdoor recreational and educational opportunities available at the park, with an emphasis on making sure that any such programming would be accessible to the handicapped. While the park is open to everyone, care was taken to make sure that all facilities would be accessible to anyone. All walkways were paved, eight feet wide, had less than a 5% grade, and had broad white stripes painted at the edges, to facilitate use by those in wheelchairs and those hard of sight. Special picnic tables, with an extra three inches of height and shorter benches, allowed for access by anyone in a wheelchair, and a special 28’ pontoon boat also allowed anyone to be ferried amongst the islands. All trail signs had Braille included, so that blind or hard-of-sight individuals could still learn about the nature of the park.
Ultimately, all three islands and an access point on the Fridley shore of the Mississippi River were developed. Chase’s Island (technically a peninsula on the Fridley side, seven acres) was fully developed with trails, camping and picnic areas, and piers for fishing. Durnam Island (Brooklyn Center, 66 acres) was developed with a minimal trail system, boat dock, and a small shelter, but otherwise left in its natural state as a flood plain forest. The smallest and northernmost island, Gil Hodges Island (five and a half acres), was left completely undeveloped as a wildlife refuge.
We are fortunate here at the Anoka County Historical Society to have the early records and a few photographs from the Islands of Peace foundation, documenting the formation of this beautiful park in Fridley. Among those papers are Ed Wilmes’ words, describing his vision for the islands. “I thought of the times that the word peace was used in demonstrations and meetings but they always seemed to be surrounded by evidence of violence. Because there is an area here that is peaceful and can offer peace to all, I decided on the name ‘Islands of Peace.’"