The History of Lake Minnetonka

Welcome to Lake Minnetonka, “the most famous lake of the Northwest.” Located approximately fifteen miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and composed of numerous bays, islands, inlets, and peninsulas, Lake Minnetonka has long been one of the Upper Midwest’s most popular summertime destinations. Although its history is varied, the lake’s allure has transcended the past 10,000 years, from the earliest Native peoples to the vacationers and suburban dwellers of more recent times. “Like the net of Heaven,” one local resident wrote in 1957, “Lake Minnetonka gathered all kinds. People have written poems and songs about Lake Minnetonka; almost everyone has loved it.”

Native Peoples
8000BCE – 1862CE

Lake Minnetonka’s story begins circa 8000 BCE, when the melting Laurentide Ice Sheet forms a sprawling body of water covering approximately 14,500 acres. The region is almost instantly inhabited by Paleo-Indians who are known to hunt large game animals. Later inhabitants of the region are known to construct massive land features used for ceremonial, burial, and even domestic purposes. Thus, they are often collectively referred to as “Mound Builders.” This ancient civilization, which encompasses much of Midwest America, reaches its apex circa 1150 CE. It ceases to exist, however, by 1500 CE.

By the time white settlers reach Minnesota in the early 1800s, the region is inhabited by the Dakota Peoples. The Mdewakanton Band of Dakota, who primarily reside in the Minnesota and Mississippi River Valleys, frequently visit Lake Minnetonka to hunt, fish, and collect maple syrup. Spirit Knob, a peninsula near present-day Wayzata, is an especially sacred place.

Many unfair treaties are signed between the Dakota and the United States government during the 1850s, which leads to the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. During this war, a purported six-hundred civilians, seventy-seven U.S. soldiers, and an estimated 150 Dakota warriors are killed. By the end of the year the Dakota are defeated, and over three-hundred of them are sentenced to death, though 264 are pardoned by President Abraham Lincoln. After the execution, the Dakota are exiled from Minnesota.

"Frontier Period"
1822 – 1867

Lake Minnetonka is “discovered” by Euro-Americans several times during the early 1800s – first in 1822, but not made official until 1852, when Minnesota’s territorial Governor, Alexander Ramsey, formally names the lake Minnetonka, a rough translation of the Dakota name meaning Big Water. The first settlement on the lake, Excelsior, is established the following year in 1853.

Early pioneers settling near Lake Minnetonka in the 1850s and 1860s typically pursue prospects in ginseng, lumber, and agriculture. When the railroad reaches the village of Wayzata in 1867, however, Lake Minnetonka is opened to the world. With its pristine waters and “curative climate” now within reach, the lake sees an influx of hotel and boarding house construction. Tourists who spend entire summers at the lake begin to arrive in droves.

"Glory Years"
1867 – 1897

By the 1880s Lake Minnetonka is a world-renowned destination for wealthy tourists. Three of its grandest hotels – Hotel Saint Louis, Lake Park Hotel, and Hotel Lafayette – are all built early on in the decade. The Hotel Lafayette, which stands five stories tall and boasts four-hundred guest rooms, is the largest structure ever built on Lake Minnetonka’s shores. With these large hotels come large steamboats as well. Belle of Minnetonka, the largest vessel ever to ply Lake Minnetonka’s waters, spans a length of three-hundred feet and can purportedly carry up to 2,500 passengers.

With the opening of the Minnetonka Yacht Club in 1882, sailing becomes a popular activity on Lake Minnetonka. One of the club’s cofounders, Hazen Burton, debuts a new racing boat named Onawa in 1893. Sailing over the water rather than through it, the new boat wins practically every race it enters and revolutionizes the sport of inland sailing.

By the end of the 1890s the “Glory Years” of Lake Minnetonka begin to fade. The railroad expands westward, and tourists begin to vacation elsewhere. Lake Minnetonka’s hotels and steamboats suffer tough economic losses, and many of them close down only to be demolished or razed by fire. During this same time, however, the lake sees a surge in the construction of private residences. Lake Minnetonka has become a place to actually live, rather than vacation... back to timeline.

“Golden Years”
1906 – 1926

By the turn of the Twentieth Century the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul have become a large metropolis of more than 600,000 residents. The local economy is driven by the flour milling industry, and many of the moguls who own the mills build their summer “cottages” on Lake Minnetonka. However, a number of middle-class families are able to move out to the lake as well.

With their jobs located in downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul, many of the lake’s new middle-class residents struggle to find a viable way to commute to work. Workers employed by the lake’s elite residents experience a similar struggle. Under the direction of Chairman Thomas Lowry, the Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) ambitiously extends a streetcar line from Minneapolis to Excelsior in 1905. Commuting time from Lake Minnetonka to downtown Minneapolis is cut down to approximately forty-five minutes.

With its many bays, islands, and peninsulas comprising 125 miles of shoreline, Lake Minnetonka is not a practical place to serve by rail. TCRT overcomes this by constructing six “Express Boats” in 1906 that make scheduled stops at twenty-seven different landings around the lake. These vessels are each seventy feet long, nearly fifteen feet wide, and resemble TCRT’s streetcars in every detail: split cane seating, pocket windows, and a yellow and red color scheme. Thus, they are nicknamed “streetcar boats.”

TCRT also constructs Big Island Park on Big Island to promote streetcar ridership on weekends, when no one is commuting to work. With manicured landscapes and beautiful buildings designed by a locally-renowned architect, the park is a bold expression of TCRT’s achievements. Three large, double-ended side-wheelers are constructed to ferry visitors directly to the park from Excelsior – the streetcar boats stop at the park only on special occasions. Most of the park’s visitors are day tourists hailing from the Twin Cities.

This era is short-lived, however. Operating at extreme deficits, TCRT closes Big Island Park in 1911, only five years after opening it. The park is demolished several years later. The streetcar boats, on the other hand, perform very well until the 1920s, with ridership peaking around 1921. However, their success also comes to an abrupt end. With improved roads and rising interest in automobiles, Lake Minnetonka’s middle-class residents essentially stop riding the streetcar boats, thus ending their viability. TCRT makes the decision to discontinue all steamboat service on Lake Minnetonka in 1926, and three of the streetcar boats are scuttled (purposely sunk) that summer. Three others are scrapped... back to timeline.

Mid-Twentieth Century

Although the streetcar boats cease to exist after 1926, the streetcar line to Excelsior remains in operation until 1932, when service is cut back to the suburb of Hopkins. It isn’t until 1954, however, that the entire streetcar system is replaced by buses.

With the opening of Excelsior Amusement Park in 1925, Lake Minnetonka continues to be a popular destination among day tourists. As one of the most well-known attractions in Minnesota, Excelsior Amusement Park operates with great success and plays host to several notable guests over its lifetime. Among these guests are The Rolling Stones, who perform at an adjacent dance hall in 1964. The park continues to entertain the masses until its closure in 1973. It is demolished shortly thereafter.

One of the most destructive events in Lake Minnetonka’s history occurs in May 1965, when two F4 tornadoes cause widespread damage to the area. Hundreds of homes and several lives are lost within a matter of hours. Today the event is remembered as the Tornado Outbreak of 1965.

During this same period, Lake Minnetonka sees a surge of property subdivisions with large estates being broken down into smaller parcels of buildable land. Older cottages are either torn down or retrofitted for year-round use. With highways and shopping centers being constructed nearby, Lake Minnetonka has essentially been integrated with post-war suburbia... back to timeline.

Lake Minnetonka Today

In 1979 the owner of an underwater construction company locates the wreck of a scuttled steamboat lying on the bottom of Lake Minnetonka. The wreck is raised back to the surface the following summer in 1980. Once surfaced, the name gradually begins to appear on its side: it is the streetcar steamboat Minnehaha. After a $500,000, volunteer-driven restoration, Minnehaha is returned to passenger service in 1996 and once again sails regularly from the communities of Excelsior and Wayzata as she did over one-hundred years ago.

With its natural beauty and close proximity to the Twin Cities, Lake Minnetonka continues to be a desirable place to live and visit. Lakeside communities such as Excelsior and Wayzata continue to thrive, attracting countless boaters, day tourists, and local residents with shops, dining, and historic charm... back to timeline.