The History of Lake Minnetonka

Native Peoples
8000BCE – 1862CE

Lake Minnetonka is formed and inhabited immediately as the last glacial ice sheet melts circa 8000BCE. The early inhabitants of the region are known to construct large landscape features which are possibly used for ceremonial and astronomical practices; thus they are referred to as the “Mound Builders.” This ancient civilization, which encompasses much of Midwest America, reaches its apex around 1150CE. By 1500CE, however, it ceases to exist.

By the time white settlers reach Minnesota in the early 1800s, the region is inhabited by the Dakota Peoples. The local Mdewakanton Band, who primarily reside in the Minnesota and Mississippi River Valleys, use Lake Minnetonka as a place to hunt, gather and collect maple syrup. Spirit Knob, a peninsula at the edge of Wayzata Bay, is the most sacred place on the Lake.

Many unfair treaties are signed between the United States and Dakota throughout the 1850s, which leads to the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. During this war, over eight-hundred settlers in the Minnesota River Valley are killed. By the end of the year, however, the Dakota are defeated, and over three-hundred of them are sentenced to death, though 265 are pardoned by President Abraham Lincoln. After the execution, the Dakota are banished from Minnesota... back to timeline.

"Glory Years"
1862 – 1900

Lake Minnetonka is “discovered” by white settlers several times in the early 1800s; first in 1822, but not made official until 1852, when Minnesota’s then-territorial Governor, Alexander Ramsey, proclaims the Lake’s name “Minnetonka”, a rough translation of the Dakota term for Big Water. The first community on the lake, Excelsior, is established the following year.

Early pioneers settling near Lake Minnetonka in the 1850s typically pursue prospects in lumber and agriculture. When the railroad is extended to 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.

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

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

By the end of the 1890s, however, 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 consequently 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”
1900 – 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 economy is driven by the flour milling industry, and many of the moguls who own the mills build their summer “cottages” on Lake Minnetonka, though 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 these new middle-class residents struggle to find a viable way to commute to work. Servants employed by the lake’s elite residents experience a similar struggle. Recognizing this, the Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) ambitiously constructs 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, however, it would not be practical to construct streetcar lines around Lake Minnetonka’s 125 miles of shoreline. TCRT instead constructs six “Express Boats” in 1906 that can stop 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 the “streetcar boats.”

TCRT also constructs Big Island Park on Big Island to promote streetcar ridership on the weekends, when no one is commuting to work. With manicured landscapes and beautiful buildings designed by a renowned architect, the park is a bold expression of TCRT’s achievements. The streetcar boats rarely stop at the park, however; instead, three large side-wheelers are constructed to ferry visitors directly to the park from Excelsior. Most of these 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 at approximately 220,000 in 1921. However, their success also comes to an abrupt end. With the automobile finally made affordable for average people, middle-class lake residents essentially stop riding the streetcar boats, thus ending their viability. In 1926 the decision is made to discontinue all steamboat service on Lake Minnetonka. Three of the streetcar boats are consequently scuttled (purposely sunk) that summer, and three others are scrapped... back to timeline.

Mid-Twentieth Century
1926 – 1980

Although the streetcar boats cease to exist after 1926, the streetcar line to Excelsior remains operational 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. This conversion is primarily a result of corruption within TCRT’s board of directors.

With the opening of the Excelsior Amusement Park in 1925, Lake Minnetonka continues to be a popular destination for day tourists. As one of the most well-known attractions in Minnesota, the Excelsior Amusement Park operates with great success until the 1970s 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. Unfortunately the park closes in 1973 and is demolished shortly thereafter.

During this same period of time, 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 converted to year-round use. With highways and shopping centers being constructed nearby, Lake Minnetonka has essentially been integrated with suburbia... back to timeline.

Minnehaha’s Resurrection
1980 – Present

In 1979 a professional diver locates the wreck of one of the streetcar boats that had plied the waters of Lake Minnetonka in the early 1900s. The wreck is raised back to the surface the following year. Once surfaced, the name painted on its side gradually begins to appear; it is the Minnehaha. After an extensive restoration, the Minnehaha is returned to passenger service in 1996 and today sails regularly from the communities of Excelsior and Wayzata just as she did over one-hundred years ago.

Lake Minnetonka continues to be a desirable place to live for its natural beauty and close proximity to the Twin Cities. The lakeside communities of Excelsior and Wayzata in particular continue to be popular destinations for boaters, day tourists, and local residents alike seeking to shop, dine, and enjoy historical charm... back to timeline.