By George Kissinger
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.
In 1906 TCRT built six “Express Boats” to better serve residents around Lake Minnetonka. These boats, which included Minnehaha, were designed to efficiently transfer streetcar passengers to twenty-six designated landings around the lake. Also at this time TCRT developed Big Island Park to promote weekend ridership and purchased the Lake Park Hotel, renovated it, and renamed it the Tonka Bay Hotel. TCRT’s hope was to reconfigure Lake Minnetonka as a weekend excursion destination. They also offered commuter service to and from downtown Minneapolis during the week. This plan worked for a time, but ultimately the popularization of the automobile and improved roadways led to the end of the streetcars and the Express Boats. Big Island Park and the Tonka Bay Hotel proved unprofitable and both closed after the 1911 season. Express Boat service ended in 1926, and Minnehaha and two of her sister vessels were scuttled in June of that year (three others were scrapped soon thereafter and one other was scuttled in 1949). The streetcar line to Excelsior lasted until it was cut back to Hopkins in 1932.
It is remarkable how such a wonderful, almost magical, era came and went within a generation. Today the 1906 steamboat Minnehaha remains perhaps the most vivid reminder of those days.