Twin City Rapid Transit (TCRT) was, if anything, innovative and cutting edge – from developing arguably the most expansive and modern urban street railway system in the United States to developing customer base with seemingly unrelated enterprises such as hotels and amusement parks. To do the later, a fleet of six fast Express Boats had to literally be invented and incorporated into an overall system. Minnehaha was one such Express Boat. (A seventh Express Boat, the Excelsior, was built and put into service in 1915.) Furthermore, multiple crews had to be hired and trained for an essentially 24/7 seasonal operating pace.
Even with all the necessary infrastructure put in place, TCRT had the additional insight not to ignore the human factor. The Express Boats’ schedules were coordinated to meet streetcars arriving and departing at Deephaven, Excelsior, and Wildhurst. These schedules were continually refined for efficiency, the changing needs of customers, and volume of fares.
With noted and somewhat complicated variations, there were essentially three separate time periods that defined the Express Boats’ operation on the lake. From 1906 through 1907, service was started up with all Express Boats initiating their routes from the docks in Excelsior. From 1908 to 1912, after some trial and error, the service was split in two with three boats operating exclusively on the Upper lake out of Wildhurst and three boats operating exclusively on the Lower lake out of Excelsior. In 1913 the Express Boats were given continuous routes serving, via a loop, all stops on both the Upper and Lower Lake. This period lasted through the end of all operation in 1926. At the peak of ridership (approximately 220,000 in 1921), there were twenty-seven separate stops on the loop route. Ridership then began to decline and dropped to around 68,000 by 1924.
Research recently turned up an MIT engineering study on White Bear, one of TCRT’s Lake Minnetonka “Express Boats” (and sister of Minnehaha). The 1910 engineering study was written and based on scientific observations made in July of 1909, when a “Service Trial” and “Progressive Speed Trials” of the “Steam Passenger Boat Whitebear [sic]” were conducted.
White Bear was virtually identical in overall design, dimensions, weight, and propulsion to Minnehaha. As a result, the detailed study of White Bear provides key insights and confirmation of how nearly exact the historic restoration of Minnehaha truly is. Several revealing 1909 photos of White Bear were also part of the thesis.
From the study, it is now known that Marine Iron Works of Chicago, Illinois built White Bear’s steam engine. The engine is described as a vertical, condensing, triple-expansion steam engine. Although Minnehaha’s original engine was removed before the vessel was scuttled in 1926, today’s engine is of the same type, size, and style as the engine described and pictured on board White Bear.
Why have streetcar service to Lake Minnetonka in the first place? To answer that question you need to go all the way back to the mid-1860s, when one had to ride a stage coach from Minneapolis to Minnetonka Mills to reach Lake Minnetonka. There, passengers would transfer onto a small steamboat that would take them further up Minnehaha Creek (which was actually navigable at the time) and out to the waters of Lake Minnetonka.
The Saint Paul & Pacific Railroad established rail service from Minneapolis to Wayzata in 1867. In 1881 the Minneapolis and Saint Louis Railroad reached Excelsior and Tonka Bay (the right-of-way of which exists today as a regional biking trail). In 1882 the Minneapolis, Lyndale & Minnetonka narrow gauge rail line (the “Motor Line”) was extended from Lake Harriet to Excelsior. This was originally a steam powered streetcar line that ran on Nicollet Avenue, but underwent several major expansions in response to population growth in the area. The Motor Line’s Excelsior division lasted until 1886, when the Great Northern Railway purchased the right-of-way, laid standard gauge track, and ran a rail line around the south side of Lake Minnetonka out to Saint Bonifacious and points west. In 1887 the Milwaukee Road reached Deephaven and the Hotel Saint Louis. However, the Hotel Saint Louis closed by 1901, and service on those tracks subsequently ended.
At this point in time the Twin City Rapid Transit company (TCRT) and its streetcars entered the picture. TCRT bought and electrified the former Great Northern (ex-Motor Line) right-of-way to Excelsior in 1905. In 1907, it leased and electrified the Minneapolis & Saint Louis right-of-way, reaching to Excelsior, Tonka Bay and Wildhurst. TCRT also purchased and electrified the Milwaukee Road right-of-way serving Deephaven, thus completing the company’s position for doing business in the growing area west of Minneapolis.
When the Express “Streetcar” Boats first began operation on Lake Minnetonka in May of 1906, the Twin City Rapid Transit dock facilities in Excelsior were not yet completed. As a result, Minnehaha and the other TCRT boats operated out of dockage at Minnetonka Beach on Lafayette Bay, just west of an area known as Arcola.
Minnetonka Beach had once been known as the location of the famed Hotel Lafayette, the largest hotel ever to have existed on Lake Minnetonka. The Hotel Lafayette had hosted many prominent guests during its life. On one occasion in 1883, President Arthur and former President Grant visited the hotel to celebrate the connection of the Northern Pacific Railway with Seattle and Puget Sound.
By the turn of the century, however, the Hotel Lafayette was only a memory, it having been destroyed by a fire in 1897. The hotel regularly closed for the winter months, and the fire occurred shortly after the fall closing of its fifteenth season. Staff and guests had already gone home and there was no one present to fight the blaze. By the time flames were detected, it was too late, and the huge wooden structure was completely destroyed.