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. 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: 8000 BCE—1862 CE
Lake Minnetonka’s story began about 10,000 years ago, when the melting Laurentide Ice Sheet formed a sprawling body of water covering approximately 14,500 acres. The region was originally inhabited by Ancestral Natives who were known to hunt large game animals. Later inhabitants of the region were known to construct massive land features used for ceremonial, burial, and domestic purposes. Thus, they are often referred to collectively as the “Mound Builders.” This ancient culture, which encompassed much of Midwest America, reached its apex circa 1150 CE. It ceased to exist by 1500 CE.
By the time Euro-Americans reach Minnesota in the early 1800s, the region was inhabited by the Dakota people. The Mdewakanton band of Dakota, who primarily resided in the Minnesota and Mississippi river valleys, frequented Lake Minnetonka to hunt, fish, and collect maple syrup. Spirit Knob, a peninsula near present-day Wayzata, was an especially sacred place.
Several unfair treaties were signed between the Dakota and the United States government during the 1850s, which led 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 were killed. The Dakota were ultimately defeated and over 300 of them were sentenced to death, though 264 were pardoned by President Abraham Lincoln. Most Dakota were exiled from Minnesota in early 1863.
Frontier Period: 1822—1867
Lake Minnetonka was “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 named the lake Minnetonka, a rough translation of the Dakota name meaning Big Water. The first white settlement on the lake, Excelsior, was established the following year in 1853.
Early pioneers settling near Lake Minnetonka in the 1850s and 1860s made a living by clear-cutting the land for farming. However, the area’s agrarian economy saw a radical change when the railroad reached the town of Wayzata in 1867. With its pristine waters and “curative climate” now within reach, Lake Minnetonka saw an influx of hotel and boarding house construction. Tourists who spent entire summers at the lake began to arrive in droves.
“Glory Years”: 1867—1897
By the 1880s Lake Minnetonka was a world-renowned destination for wealthy tourists. Three of its grandest hotels – Hotel Saint Louis, Lake Park Hotel, and Hotel Lafayette – were all built early in that decade. The Hotel Lafayette, which stood five stories tall and boasted more than 300 guest rooms, was the largest structure ever built on Lake Minnetonka’s shores. With these large hotels came large steamboats as well. The Belle of Minnetonka, the largest vessel ever to ply Lake Minnetonka’s waters, spanned a length of 300 feet and could purportedly carry up to 2,500 passengers.
With the opening of the Minnetonka Yacht Club in 1882, sailing became a popular activity on Lake Minnetonka. One of the club’s co-founders, Hazen Burton, debuted a new type of sailboat in 1893 called a racing scow. Gliding over the water rather than through it, Burton’s boat, the Onawa, won practically every race it entered and revolutionized the sport of inland sailing.
By the end of the 1890s the “Glory Years” of Lake Minnetonka had begun to fade. A number of factors including new railroad regulations, new vacation spots, and a national economic depression contributed to this decline. Lake Minnetonka’s hotels and steamboats suffered tough economic losses, and many of them closed down only to be demolished or razed by fire. During this same time, however, the lake saw a surge in the construction of private residences. Lake Minnetonka had become a place to actually live, rather than vacation.
“Golden Years”: 1906—1926
By the turn of the twentieth century the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul had become a large metropolis of more than 600,000 residents. The local economy was driven by the flour milling industry, and many of the moguls who owned the mills built grand country estates on Lake Minnetonka. A large number of middle-class families were 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 struggled to find a viable way to commute to work. Workers employed by the lake’s wealthy residents experienced a similar struggle. Under the direction of Thomas Lowry, the Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) constructed an ambitious streetcar line from Minneapolis to Excelsior in 1905. Commuting time from Lake Minnetonka to downtown Minneapolis was cut down to approximately 45 minutes.
With its many bays, islands, and peninsulas comprising 125 miles of shoreline, Lake Minnetonka was not a practical place to serve by rail. TCRT overcame this by constructing six “Express Boats” in 1906 that would make scheduled stops at 26 different landings around the lake. These vessels were each 70 feet long, nearly 15 feet wide, and resembled TCRT’s streetcars in every detail: split cane seating, pocket windows, and a yellow and red color scheme. Thus, they were nicknamed “streetcar boats.”
Also in 1906, TCRT constructed Big Island Park on Big Island to promote streetcar ridership on weekends and holidays. With manicured landscapes and beautiful buildings designed by a locally-renowned architect, the park was a bold expression of TCRT’s achievements. Three large, double-ended side-wheelers were constructed to ferry visitors directly to the park from Excelsior. Most of the park’s visitors were day tourists hailing from the Twin Cities.
This era was short-lived, however. Operating at extreme deficits, TCRT closed Big Island Park in 1911, only five years after opening it. The park was demolished several years later. The streetcar boats, on the other hand, performed very well until 1921, when the fleet reached peak ridership. However, their success also came to an abrupt end. With improved roads and rising interest in automobiles, many of Lake Minnetonka’s middle-class residents stopped riding the streetcar boats, thus ending their viability. TCRT made the decision to discontinue all steamboat service on Lake Minnetonka in 1926, and three of the streetcar boats were scuttled (purposely sunk) that summer. Three others were scrapped.
Twentieth Century: 1926—2000
Although the streetcar boats ceased to exist after 1926, the streetcar line to Excelsior remained in operation until 1932, when service was cut back to the suburb of Hopkins. The entire streetcar system was finally replaced by buses in 1954.
With the opening of Excelsior Amusement Park in 1925, Lake Minnetonka continued to be a popular destination among day tourists. As one of the most well-known attractions in Minnesota, Excelsior Amusement Park operated with great success and played host to several notable guests over its lifetime. Among these guests were The Rolling Stones, who performed at an adjacent dance hall in 1964. The park continued to entertain the masses until its closure in 1973. It was demolished shortly thereafter.
One of the most destructive events in Lake Minnetonka’s history occurred on May 6, 1965, when two F4 tornadoes caused widespread damage in the area. Hundreds of homes and several lives were lost during the episode. Today the event is remembered as the Tornado Outbreak of 1965.
During this same period, Lake Minnetonka saw a surge in property subdivisions with large estates being broken down into smaller parcels of buildable land. Older cottages were either torn down or retrofitted for year-round use. With highways and shopping centers being constructed nearby, Lake Minnetonka had essentially been absorbed by post-war suburbia.
Lake Minnetonka Today
In 1979 the owner of an underwater construction company located the wreck of a scuttled steamboat lying on the bottom of Lake Minnetonka. The wreck was raised back to the surface the following summer. Once surfaced, the name gradually began to appear on its side: it was the streetcar steamboat Minnehaha. After a $500,000, volunteer-driven restoration, Minnehaha was returned to passenger service in 1996 and has been a cherished icon of Lake Minnetonka ever since.
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, tourists, and local residents with shops, dining, and historic charm. With one look it is easy to understand why the lake has attracted so many since the dawn of time.