William O’Brien


Man in canoe on misty river

About the park

Minnesota outline with star at William O'Brien State Park

Established in 1947, William O’Brien was the first metro area state park. It’s eastern border runs along the St. Croix River, which is a migratory pathway for birds and important habitat for many mammals. The river offers canoeing and kayaking opportunities.

In the 1970s the park expanded westward into the grasslands and forests. Many miles of hiking and skiing trails and camping grounds lie here. The visitor center is named for one of the leaders of Parks & Trails Council, Samuel H. Morgan, who was instrumental in the expansion effort.

Prior to white colonial occupation, Dakota and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) peoples called this area home. Furtraders used the river for transport in the 1600s, followed by lumberjacks in the mid-1800s. The park’s namesake comes from a lumber baron who owned the land prior to passing it on to his daughter, Alice. She donated the first 180 acres that formed the nucleus of the park.

Our Work by the Numbers



undertaken by P&TC
for this park



of land saved
for this park



of park's total acreage
P&TC assisted in adding


$4.58 M

total value of
all land projects*

*Not adjusted for inflation (i.e., could equate to much higher value amount in today’s economy)

Park Map Showing Project Sites

William O'Brien Land Project Stories

1) Major Expansion

TIMELINE: 1972-73

ACRES: 750

VALUE: $510,000 (at time of purchase)

LOCATION: Western expansion of park

In 1971, the MnDNR began a major expansion effort for William O’Brien State Park, with the intent to add a rolling, partly wooded area. However, as the DNR waited in limbo for the Legislature to authorize the expansion, a housing developer began purchasing portions. P&TC responded by launching a major fundraising campaign and securing buyer agreements within the proposed expansion area. At the same time, we lobbied the Legislature to pass the boundary expansion bill. Thanks to generous support from individuals and foundations, we acquired nearly all the land in this area in seven separate land deals. By 1973 the Legislature authorized the expansion and P&TC conveyed the land to the state. More details are recounted in Samuel H. Morgan’s Environmental Recollections book.

2) Small parcel added

TIMELINE: 1988-89


VALUE: $57,000 (at time of purchase)

LOCATION: Near campground

A small parcel along the railroad and near the campground that was notched out of the first project P&TC added to the park, was later acquired.

3) Former farmland acquired

TIMELINE: 1994-2003


VALUE: $340,000 (at time of purchase)

LOCATION: Near campground

This property was owned by a farmer who wanted to see the land become part of the park. Part of the land was an in-holding within the park and the other was outside the statutory boundaries and required legislative action to be incorporated. In December of 1994 P&TC purchased the full 80 acres but eventually, after easement and other issues were worked out, four acres were sold back to the landowners.

Farm inside park

TIMELINE: 2007-07


VALUE: $800,000 (at time of purchase)

More farmland was acquired. This land is located in the middle of the park with much of the surrounding land already within park ownership. This acquisition began to close that gap.

7) Historic 17 Springs Farm

TIMELINE: 2010-10


VALUE: $1.3 M

This property was owned by Joan Grant, who acquired it from her father-in-law. He purchased it in 1940, when it was known as the “17 Springs Farm” and was used as a trout farm. The upper springs and the stream are natural spawning areas for native brook trout. A home on the property was built in 1850 and qualifies for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. An arrangement allows the owner to retain control of the home until her death, at which point the home could potentially be retained by the park for historical interpretation, or it may be removed from the site.

4, 5 & 8) Old farm becomes part of park

TIMELINE: 2001-01 | 2001-08 | 2021-2023

ACRES: 20 | 47 | 60

VALUE: $175,000 | $340,000 | $845,00

Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota bought this incredible property and conveyed it to the park in a series of transactions ending in 2023. It was previously owned by a man who was born there and spent 80 years of his life enjoying the idyllic setting. When it was time to move on he entertained numerous offers but ultimately sold to P&TC knowing that we would preserve it for the park.

This property also provides a preferred route for the Gateway State Trail to connect to the state park.

Full Story

Land Projects at Other Parks or Trails

Tour more of the land projects we’ve undertaken for parks and trails.

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