Lake Minnetonka

From Academic Kids

Lake Minnetonka is a large lake in the U.S. state of Minnesota. Throughout its recorded history, the lake has been a resort destination. It is located west-southwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Map of Lake Minnetonka
Map of Lake Minnetonka

The first known Europeans to visit the lake were two 14-year-old boys from Fort Snelling, Joe Brown and Will Snelling. They found the lake in 1822 by paddling up Minnehaha Creek, though few people visited the lake in the following 30 years.

In 1852, the lake was given its name by Minnesota's territorial governor Alexander Ramsey. He had been told that American Indians in the area used a phrase sounding like minn-ni-tanka, meaning “big water,” to refer to the lake. The same year, the first settlements were constructed around it, and in 1853, the first hotel was built.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the epic poem The Song of Hiawatha in 1855, which referred to Minnesota and landmarks of the area such as Minnehaha Falls. This gave the area national interest.

1861 saw the introduction of steamboats; the first one was the Governor Ramsey, named to honor the man who named the lake. Following the Civil War, a rail line operated by St. Paul & Pacific Co. connected to the area in 1867.

The first inland steamboat to have electric lights, the City of St. Louis, was built in Wayzata in 1881. The next year, the largest ship to ever sail the lake was launched; the Belle of Minnetonka was 300 feet long and could carry 2500 passengers. The 1880s marked the steamboats' heyday as tourist destinations. By 1892, the Belle stayed moored at her dock all summer long.

In 1905, Twin City Rapid Transit first connected streetcar lines to the lake. This marked a golden age for the lake, with more rapid growth as TCRT added more resorts to the area and launched their “streetcar boats.” Actually named Express Boats, they were steamboats that shared the appearance of streetcars. At first six, and then seven such boats would take arriving streetcar passengers and steam them to over twenty different endpoints on the lake. For a time, one destination was the Big Island Amusement Park, about the same size as today's Valleyfair, but it only lasted about five years before it was shut down. Later, Excelsior Amusement Park had greater success, with seasonal operations running from 1925 through 1973.

President William Howard Taft made Lake Minnetonka his summer home in 1911, but business in the area had started going down again by that time. In 1926, most of the Express Boats were scuttled near in deep water near the lake's Big Island.

Missing image
Express Boat Hopkins on Lake Minnetonka in the early 20th century

As the century drew on, many visitors came, although some were unwanted. Environmental concerns started to become important after Curled Pondweed (Potamogeton crispus L.) was discovered in 1900. Following decades brought Purple Loosestrife in 1940 and Eurasian Water Milfoil in 1987. The lake also experienced problems with pollution, both from sewage and fertilizer runoff. Lake Minnetonka is now closely monitored.

Even with the troubles, the lake remained a fairly popular destination, with tourist boats from one company or another still operating in the warmer months. One of the old streetcar boats that had been scuttled in 1926, the Minnehaha, was even raised to the surface in 1980 so it could be restored. After many years of work, it returned to the lake in 1996 as an exhibit of the Minnesota Transportation Museum.

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