10 Myths About Lake Minnetonka History

By Aaron Person

Have you ever heard the story about the Excelsior Amusement Park roller coaster being moved to Valleyfair? Or maybe you’ve heard that John Philip Sousa and his band played at Big Island Park. Lake Minnetonka’s history is grand, but some of the tidbits that you’ve likely heard are not true. This fall the MLM started an ongoing series of posts on the Steamboat Minnehaha Facebook page called #MythbusterMonday. The series’ popularity has exceeded all expectations, having reached more than 34,000 people thus far. In case you missed it, here are 10 myths about Lake Minnetonka history that we “busted” in 2019.

Big Island Park steam ferry Minneapolis

Myth #1: Minnehaha and her sister streetcar boats regularly serviced Big Island Park between 1906 and 1911.

The truth: Minnehaha and the streetcar boats rarely stopped at Big Island Park. In reality, the park was primarily serviced by three side-wheeled ferries named Minneapolis (pictured), Saint Paul, and Minnetonka. Each were originally 108 feet long (later extended to 139 feet) and could carry up to 1,000 passengers. They were also double-ended so they didn’t have to turn around after each crossing between Excelsior and the park.

Bonus truth: The three Big Island ferries only sailed between Excelsior and Big Island Park. While the Saint Paul and Minnetonka were scrapped sometime after Big Island Park closed in 1911, the Minneapolis was purposely burned to the waterline and sunk in 1912.

Big Island Park music casino

Myth #2: John Philip Sousa and his band performed at Big Island Park’s 1,500-seat music casino (pictured).

The truth: There is absolutely no historical record of this. However, some other big names of the day did perform at the park. These included the band and orchestra of Frederick Neil Innes and Eugenio Sorrentino’s Banda Rossa. It is possible that some performances featured music composed by Sousa, but neither Sousa nor his band ever appeared at the park.

Great Northern Railway depot in Wayzata (photo courtesy of Wayzata Historical Society)

Myth #3: Wayzata had a streetcar.

The truth: Wayzata never had a streetcar; only trains. However, the Twin City streetcar system did famously reach Lake Minnetonka via Excelsior in 1905 (two branch lines extended to Deephaven and Tonka Bay as well). While streetcar service to Excelsior ended in 1932, passenger trains continued to stop in Wayzata until 1971.

Bonus truth: Mound and Spring Park never had streetcars either; only trains.

Rail meets water in Wayzata, August 24, 1867 (photo courtesy of Wayzata Historical Society)

Myth #4: James J. Hill built the train tracks in Wayzata.

The truth: He did not! The tracks were actually built by the Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad when they reached Wayzata in 1867 (pictured). James J. Hill did not become involved until after the SP&P went bankrupt in 1873. In 1879 he merged the railroad with several other companies to form the Saint Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway. Finally, in 1890, the tracks became part of Hill’s Great Northern Railway “empire.” Today the tracks are owned and operated by BNSF Railway.

Roller coaster at Excelsior Amusement Park (photo courtesy of Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society)

Myth #5: The roller coaster at Excelsior Amusement Park (1925-1973) was dismantled and reassembled at Valleyfair in Shakopee.

The truth: No it wasn’t! The roller coaster at Excelsior Amusement Park was demolished in 1973. Although similar in style, the “High Roller” at Valleyfair was actually built brand-new in 1976. However, two of the rides at Valleyfair did come from Excelsior: the Carousel and the Scrambler.

Bonus truth: Neither of these roller coasters came from Big Island Park. The vast majority of structures from Big Island Park (1906-1911) were demolished by the 1920s, and virtually nothing but foundations remain today.

Satellite view of Big Island

Myth #6: The Big Island Channel separates Big Island (right) and Mahpiyata Island (left).

The truth: Both sides of the channel are Big Island (Big Island is actually two separate islands)! In reality, Mahpiyata Island is the little peninsula (circled) that extends into the channel. The name Mahpiyata first began to appear over western Big Island on some maps in 1964 due to a technical bureaucratic error. Although the United States Board of Geographic Names officially corrected this mistake in 2016, it continues to appear on some maps today.

Bonus truth: Mahpiyata Island is only an island during periods of high water. It was once a part of the Olaf Searle estate. The Big Island Channel to the south was originally dredged by Olaf Searle circa 1900.

Hotel Del Otero in Spring Park (photo courtesy of Westonka Historical Society)

Myth #7: James J. Hill built the Hotel Del Otero on Spring Park Bay.

The truth: No direct link between James J. Hill and the Hotel Del Otero has ever been confirmed. In reality, the original owner was George Hopkins. However, the hotel was definitely served by Hill’s Great Northern Railway trains.

Bonus truth: The Hotel Del Otero was built in 1892 (not the 1880s, as is sometimes misstated). The 50-room hotel stood until it was destroyed by fire in 1945. Today the site is occupied by the Mist apartment complex.

The original Lafayette Club (1900) in Minnetonka Beach

Myth #8: President Taft used the original Lafayette Club (pictured) as a “Summer White House.”

The truth: No, he didn’t – but he did make a brief visit to the club in 1909. Although the idea of a Summer White House on Lake Minnetonka was proposed to Congress in 1911, the idea never came to fruition.

Bonus truth: The current Lafayette Club was constructed in 1924 on the grounds of the original club (1900-1922). Before that, the property was home to the Hotel Lafayette (1882-1897), which hosted President Arthur and former President Grant in 1883. The front door of the hotel would have been located near the northeast corner of the present-day tennis courts. It should be noted that the hotel and the club were completely separate ventures that existed at different time periods.

Streetcar boats Como, Hopkins, and White Bear

Myth #9: All seven of the streetcar boats were scuttled (purposely sunk) in 1926.

The truth: In total, only four of the streetcar boats were ever scuttled. The Minnehaha, Como, and White Bear were scuttled in 1926. The Excelsior, Harriet, and Stillwater were scrapped soon thereafter. The Hopkins was sold, renamed Minnetonka, and used as an excursion boat for many years until it was scuttled in 1949. The Minnehaha was raised from the depths in 1980, but the Como, Hopkins, and White Bear (pictured) remain on the lake floor today.

Bonus truth: No, none of these wrecks will be raised. They are archaeological sites and are protected by law. Minnehaha‘s raising was a unique case – and technically illegal act – that cannot be repeated. To learn how it was allowed to happen, please read “How Was Minnehaha Allowed To Be Raised?” We also recommend checking out the great work of Maritime Heritage Minnesota to learn more about the preservation and documentation of our underwater archaeological resources.

The Andrews Sisters (photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Myth #10: The famed Andrews Sisters trio were from Mound near Lake Minnetonka’s western shore.

The truth: Maxene, Patty, and LaVerne Andrews (pictured) were actually from Minneapolis. However, they did spend childhood summers in Mound with their uncles, local grocers Pete and Ed Sollie. The sisters often returned to Mound and Lake Minnetonka later in life as well. Today, the “Andrews Sisters Trail” commemorates their historical connections to the area.

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