Welcome aboard the streetcar steamboat Minnehaha. Today Minnehaha sails from the communities of Excelsior and Wayzata, Minnesota, every weekend from late May through early October, providing a glimpse of Lake Minnetonka’s storied past for an average of 10,000 annual passengers. But it wasn’t always this way… for more than 50 years she lay on the bottom of the lake. This is the tale of “the little steamboat that could.”
Streetcar Boats: 1906—1926
Minnehaha’s story began during the turn of the twentieth century, when the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul became 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 the lakeside community of 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. Designed by Royal C. Moore of Wayzata and built in TCRT’s South Minneapolis streetcar shops, 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. They were even named after popular Twin City streetcar stops: Como, Harriet, Hopkins, Stillwater, White Bear, and Minnehaha. Thus, they were nicknamed “streetcar boats.”
Between 1906 and 1926 the streetcar boats provided fast and reliable transportation for the residents of Lake Minnetonka, operating on hourly circuits along an initial total of four routes. The boats proved to be immensely popular, prompting TCRT to add a seventh vessel to the fleet in 1915. Ridership on the streetcar boats continued to grow until it peaked in 1921.
The streetcar boats’ success came to an abrupt end, however. With improved roads and rising interest in automobiles, many of Lake Minnetonka’s middle-class residents stopped riding the boats. TCRT suffered financially as a result of this and made cuts to steamboat service on the lake after 1922. Still, the company struggled to turn a profit and made the decision to discontinue all steamboat service on Lake Minnetonka in 1926. Three of the streetcar boats, including Minnehaha, were scuttled (purposely sunk) in deep water north of Big Island that summer. Three others were scrapped. One of the boats, the Hopkins, was sold to a private entity and used as an excursion boat until it, too, was scuttled in 1949.
The scuttled streetcar boats remained mostly forgotten in the depths of Lake Minnetonka until 1979, when the owner of an underwater construction company named Jerry Provost located one of the wrecks lying approximately 60 feet below the surface. Despite being submerged for more than 50 years, the wreck was in good condition.
Provost and his crew, with the help of a local dredging company, worked tirelessly to raise the wreck back to the surface the following summer in 1980. The salvage operation took several days to complete and required the use of three cranes, three barges, and eight airbags. Once surfaced, the name gradually began to appear on its side: it was the Minnehaha.
Provost’s vision for the salvaged vessel was to have it restored and returned to passenger service. However, due to complicated circumstances and a lack of organization, Minnehaha sat in dry dock for the next 10 years with an uncertain future. Legal litigation’s were eventually settled, and in 1990 ownership was transferred to the Minnesota Transportation Museum. A complete restoration was begun later that year.
For six years volunteers worked to restore Minnehaha back to her original glory. All of the rotten wood was replaced. A new keel and keel-son were installed. Original split cane seats were recovered and returned to the main cabin. Steamfitters, electricians, and engineers brought the propulsion and navigation systems back to life. Among the most difficult tasks was lowering a vintage steam engine and modern boiler – a combined weight of approximately 12 tons – into place.
A series of stability trials were held in 1995 to test all mechanical systems, and minor adjustments were made the following winter. Finally, by 1996, the restoration was complete. On May 25, with thousands of onlookers cheering her on, Minnehaha returned to passenger service for the first time in 70 years, signaling the rebirth of a bygone era on Lake Minnetonka.
Today Minnehaha is owned, maintained, and operated by the Museum of Lake Minnetonka, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization founded in 2004. Every winter, Minnehaha’s mechanical systems, woodwork, paint, and fittings are rehabbed in order to keep her in pristine condition. In the summer and fall, Minnehaha sails regularly from the communities of Excelsior and Wayzata on a variety of scheduled routes. It is practically impossible for today’s visitors to miss her bright, yellow hull as she plies the waters of Lake Minnetonka, acting as perhaps the most vivid reminder of the area’s colorful past.