By Aaron Person
Leo Conrad Meloche was born in Escanaba, Michigan on December 17, 1931. After graduating from Washburn High School in Minneapolis in 1950, he went on to study at the University of Minnesota. He served in the United States Army for a time before embarking on a thirty-one-year career in sales at IBM Corporation.
During retirement in the 1980s, Leo eyed the hull of the streetcar steamboat Minnehaha sitting on shore near the edge of town in Excelsior. According to local lore, he and resident Bob Bolles looked at the hull after saving the former Blue Line Café ticket booth. It was then that they conspired to restore Minnehaha back to her original glory.
Leo helped form the Steamboat Division of the Minnesota Transportation Museum (the MLM’s predecessor) in 1990, which subsequently received title to Minnehaha’s hull. A barn near Excelsior public works was constructed later that year so that restoration could begin. After fifty-four years on the bottom of Lake Minnetonka and ten agonizing years on shore, Minnehaha was in rough shape. Nevertheless, the Minnehaha Restoration Project began. Leo would act as Director of the project.
For six years Leo led volunteers through the restoration effort and coordinated the entire project. Minnehaha was finally relaunched in the late summer of 1995 for a series of lake trials and re-entered passenger service on May 25, 1996. Leo served as Master of Ceremonies for the event, which included much pageantry and festivity.
As the years passed, Leo’s involvement with the steamboat diminished. Nevertheless, new volunteers would carry on his legacy for decades to come. In 2014, Leo received the MLM Hall of Fame Award for his vision and leadership during Minnehaha’s restoration – without him, she surely would not be plying the waters of Lake Minnetonka today. When accepting the award, he shared how he still liked to park his car on the hill near the Commons and watch Minnehaha, her crew, and passengers steam off onto the lake on warm summer afternoons.
In recent years, Leo would occasionally stop by the winter maintenance barn (the same used for Minnehaha’s restoration) to check up on ongoing maintenance work. Along with many other early volunteers, Leo attended the MLM’s twentieth anniversary celebration in May 2016, an event that marked the twentieth anniversary of the restored Minnehaha’s maiden voyage. This was the last time that most of us at the MLM saw him.
Leo passed away peacefully at his home on November 5, 2017, at the age of eighty-five. He is survived by his wife, Marcia, and their sons and grandchildren. The MLM will forever remember Leo for his leadership, tenacity, and determination. His legacy will surely continue to inspire for years to come.