By the turn of the Twentieth Century the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul have become a large metropolis of more than 600,000 residents. The economy is driven by the flour milling industry, and many of the moguls who own the mills build their summer “cottages” on Lake Minnetonka. However, a number of middle-class families are able to move out to the lake as well.
With their jobs located in downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul, many of these new middle class residents struggle to find a viable way to commute to work. Contrarily, servants employed by the lake’s elite residents experience a similar struggle. Recognizing this, the Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) ambitiously constructs a streetcar line from Minneapolis to the lakeside community of Excelsior in 1905. Commuting time from Lake Minnetonka to downtown Minneapolis is cut down to approximately forty-five minutes.
With its many bays, islands, and peninsulas, however, it would not be practical to construct streetcar lines around Lake Minnetonka’s 125 miles of shoreline. TCRT instead constructs six “Express Boats” in 1906 that can stop at twenty-seven different landings around the lake. Designed by Royal C. Moore of Wayzata, these vessels are each seventy feet long, nearly fifteen feet wide, and resemble TCRT’s streetcars in every detail: split caned seating, pocket windows, and a yellow and red color scheme. They are even named after popular Twin Cities streetcar stops: Como, Harriet, Hopkins, Stillwater, White Bear, and Minnehaha. Thus, they are nicknamed the “streetcar boats.”
Between 1906 and 1926 the streetcar boats provide fast and reliable transportation for the residents of Lake Minnetonka, operating on hourly circuits along a total of four different routes. The boats prove to be immensely popular, prompting TCRT to add a seventh vessel to the fleet in 1915. Ridership on the streetcar boats continues to grow until it peaks at approximately 220,000 in 1921.
After 1921, however, their success comes to an abrupt end. With the automobile finally made affordable for average people, many of Lake Minnetonka’s middle class residents essentially stop riding the streetcar boats. TCRT cuts steamboat service on the lake from four lines to two lines early on in the decade, but still struggles to make a profit.
It was the beginning of the end for Lake Minnetonka's steamboats.
Finally, in 1926, the decision is made to discontinue all steamboat service on Lake Minnetonka. Three of the streetcar boats, including the Minnehaha, are scuttled (purposely sunk) in deep water north of Big Island that summer. Three others are scrapped. One of the boats, the Hopkins, is sold to a private entity and used as an excursion boat until it, too, is scuttled in 1949.
The four scuttled streetcar boats lie mostly forgotten at the bottom of Lake Minnetonka for several decades until 1979, when a professional diver named Jerry Provost locates one of the wrecks approximately sixty feet below the surface. Despite being submerged for more than fifty years, the wreck is in good condition due to the low oxygen levels found in deep water.
The discovery had been made . . . Now what?
The following summer Provost and his underwater construction company, with the help of a local dredging company, work tirelessly to raise the wreck back to the surface. The salvage operation takes several days to complete and requires the use of three cranes, three barges, and eight airbags. Once surfaced, the name painted on its side gradually begins to appear...It was the Minnehaha!
Provost’s vision for the salvaged vessel is to have it restored and returned to passenger service. Due to State of Minnesota regulations, however, the Minnehaha sits in dry dock for the next ten years with an uncertain future. Legal litigations are eventually sorted out, though, and ownership is transferred to the Minnesota Transportation Museum in 1990. A complete restoration is begun later that year.
For six years volunteers work to restore the Minnehaha back to her original condition. All of the rotten wood is replaced. A new keel and keelson are installed. Original split cane seats are recovered and returned to the main cabin. Steamfitters, electricians, and engineers bring the propulsion and navigation systems back to life. Among the most difficult tasks is lowering a vintage steam engine and a modern boiler into place, which combined weigh approximately twelve tons.
A series of lake trials are held in 1995 to test the boat’s mechanical systems, and minor adjustments are made the following winter. Finally, in 1996, the restoration is complete. On May 25th, with thousands of onlookers cheering her on, the Minnehaha returns to passenger service for the first time in over seventy years, signaling the rebirth of a bygone era on Lake Minnetonka.
Ownership of the Minnehaha has since been transferred to the Museum of Lake Minnetonka, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization founded in 2004. Today the Minnehaha sails regularly from the lakeside communities of Excelsior and Wayzata throughout the summer and autumn seasons, acting as perhaps the most vivid reminder of Lake Minnetonka’s colorful history.
What had started as an impossible dream was now a reality!