STEAMBOAT MINNEHAHA HISTORY
Welcome aboard the historic steamboat Minnehaha. Today Minnehaha sails from the communities of Excelsior and Wayzata, Minnesota, every weekend from late May through early October, providing 10,000 annual passengers a glimpse of Lake Minnetonka’s storied past. But it wasn’t always this way… for more than fifty years she lay on the bottom of the lake. This is the tale of “the little steamboat that could.”
1906 - 1926
Minnehaha’s story begins during the turn of the Twentieth Century, when the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul 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 the lakeside community of 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. Designed by Royal C. Moore of Wayzata and built in TCRT’s South Minneapolis streetcar shops, 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. They are even named after popular Twin City streetcar stops: Como, Harriet, Hopkins, Stillwater, White Bear, and Minnehaha. Thus, they are nicknamed “streetcar boats.”
Between 1906 and 1926 the streetcar boats provide fast and reliable transportation for the residents of Lake Minnetonka, operating on hourly circuits along an initial total of four different routes. The boats prove to be immensely popular, prompting TCRT to add a seventh vessel to the fleet in 1915. Ridership on the streetcar boats continues to grow until it peaks around 1921.
The streetcar boats’ success comes to an abrupt end, however. With improved roads and rising interest in automobiles, Lake Minnetonka’s middle-class residents essentially stop riding the boats. TCRT suffers financially as a result of this and cuts steamboat service on the lake from four lines to two early on in the decade. Still, the company struggles to turn a profit and makes the decision to discontinue all steamboat service on Lake Minnetonka in 1926. Three of the streetcar boats, including Minnehaha, are scuttled (purposely sunk) in deep water north of Big Island that summer. Three others are scrapped. One of the boats, Hopkins, is sold to a private entity and used as an excursion boat until it, too, is scuttled in 1949.
1979 - 1980
The scuttled streetcar boats lie mostly forgotten in the depths of Lake Minnetonka until 1979, when the owner of an underwater construction company named Jerry Provost locates one of the wrecks approximately sixty feet below the surface. Despite being submerged for more than fifty years, the wreck is in good condition.
Provost and his crew, with the help of a local dredging company, work tirelessly to raise the wreck back to the surface the following summer in 1980. The salvage operation takes several days to complete and requires the use of three cranes, three barges, and eight airbags. Once surfaced, the name gradually begins to appear on its side: Minnehaha.
Provost’s vision for the salvaged vessel is to have it restored and returned to passenger service. However, due to state regulations and a lack of organization, Minnehaha sits in dry dock for the next ten years with an uncertain future. Eventually legal litigations are sorted out, and ownership is transferred to the Minnesota Transportation Museum in 1990. A complete restoration is begun later that year.
1990 - 1996
For six years volunteers work to restore Minnehaha back to her original glory. All of the rotten wood is replaced. A new keel and keelson are installed. Original split cane seats are recovered and returned to the main cabin. Steamfitters, electricians, and engineers bring the propulsion and navigation systems back to life. Among the most difficult tasks is lowering a vintage steam engine and a modern boiler – a combined weight of approximately twelve tons – into place.
A series of trial runs are held in 1995 to test all mechanical systems, and minor adjustments are made the following winter. Finally, in 1996, the restoration is complete. On May 25, with thousands of onlookers cheering her on, Minnehaha returns to passenger service for the first time in over seventy years, signaling the rebirth of a bygone era on Lake Minnetonka.
Today Minnehaha is owned, maintained, and operated by the Museum of Lake Minnetonka, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization founded in 2004. Every winter, Minnehaha’s mechanical systems, woodwork, paint, and fittings are rehabbed in order to keep her in pristine condition. In the summer and fall, Minnehaha sails regularly from the communities of Excelsior and Wayzata on a variety of scheduled routes. It is practically impossible for today’s visitors to miss her bright, yellow hull as she plies the waters of Lake Minnetonka, acting as perhaps the most vivid reminder of the area’s colorful past.