Lake Minnetonka

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For other uses, see Minnetonka (disambiguation).
Lake Minnetonka
Lake Minnetonka aerial.jpg
Location Hennepin / Carver counties, Minnesota, United States
Coordinates 44°56′00″N 93°34′00″W / 44.93333°N 93.56667°W / 44.93333; -93.56667Coordinates: 44°56′00″N 93°34′00″W / 44.93333°N 93.56667°W / 44.93333; -93.56667
Primary inflows Six Mile Creek
Primary outflows Minnehaha Creek
Basin countries United States
Surface area 14,528 acres (59 km2)
Max. depth 113 ft (34 m)
Shore length1 125 mi (200 km)
Surface elevation 929 ft (283 m)
1 Shore length is not a well-defined measure.

Lake Minnetonka is a 14,528-acre (59 km2) inland lake in the U.S. state of Minnesota. It is located west-southwest of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis–Saint Paul and is lies almost entirely within Hennepin County, with only its southernmost extension, Smithtown Bay, reaching into northeastern Carver County. The lake is also irregularly shaped with numerous bays, peninsulas, and islands that form approximately 125 miles (200 km) of shoreline.[1]


Early History[edit]

The first known inhabitants of Lake Minnetonka are referred to as the Mound Builders, an ancient civilization which encompassed much of Midwestern America between 3500 BCE and 1500 CE. The Mound Builders were known to construct large land features which served religious, ceremonial, burial, and elite residential purposes. The civilization reached its apex circa 1150 CE and ceased to exist circa 1500 CE.

By the 1700s, Lake Minnetonka was inhabited by the Mdewakanton People, a sub-tribe of the Dakota. Although their primary settlements lay within the Minnesota River Valley, the Mdewakanton frequented Lake Minnetonka for hunting, fishing, and collecting maple syrup. Spirit Knob, a peninsula near present-day Wayzata, also held spiritual significance for the Mdewakanton. Following the Dakota War of 1862, however, most Dakotas (including the Mdewakanton) were forced to flee the State of Minnesota.

The first known Euro-Americans to have visited Lake Minnetonka were two seventeen-year-old boys named Joe Brown and Will Snelling, who canoed up Minnehaha Creek from Fort Saint Anthony (later renamed Fort Snelling) in 1822 after hearing rumors about the existence of a large body of water from local natives.[2] For the following three decades, however, very few other Euro-Americans visited the lake or even knew of its existence.

Lake Minnetonka was officially named by Minnesota's territorial governor, Alexander Ramsey, in 1852. He had been informed that Native Americans in the area used the phrase Minn-ni-tanka (meaning “Big Water” in the Dakota language) to refer to the lake. The following year, the first settlement of Excelsior was established along its shore and the first local hotel was constructed at Minnetonka Mills (in present-day Minnetonka). The first steamboat on Lake Minnetonka, a small side-wheel steamer named the Governor Ramsey, was launched in 1861. A rail line operated by the St. Paul & Pacific Co. was later extended to the village of Wayzata in 1867, making travel to Lake Minnetonka easier and more practical.

Glory Years[edit]

Lake Minnetonka experienced a boom in the construction of hotels and boarding houses in the 1870s and early 1880s. The first large hotel on the lake, the Hotel St. Louis in Deephaven, was built in 1879 and boasted 150 guest rooms with private verandas. The larger Lake Park Hotel was built the following year in Tonka Bay. In 1882, the Hotel Lafayette was built in Minnetonka Beach. At nearly 800 feet long and five stories tall, the Hotel Lafayette was the largest hotel ever built on Lake Minnetonka with over 400 guest rooms. Throughout the 1880s, the hotels of Lake Minnetonka hosted affluent visitors from around the world (but particularly from the Deep South) who came to spend summer-long vacations on the lake for its natural beauty and cooler climate.

Large steamboats also became prevalent on Lake Minnetonka during this time. The first inland steamboat ever to be equipped with electric lights, the City of St. Louis, was assembled in Wayzata in 1881 and began servicing lakeside communities and resorts later that year. The largest vessel ever to operate on Lake Minnetonka, the Belle of Minnetonka, was launched and put into service in 1882. At 300 feet (91.44 m) long, the Belle of Minnetonka could purportedly accommodate up to 2,500 passengers.

The lake's first yacht club, the Minnetonka Yacht Club, was founded in 1882. Among the club's original founders was Hazen Burton, who is often credited with developing a type of sailboat called the racing scow. When he debuted his first such vessel, the Onawa, in 1893, it was disqualified for winning nearly every regatta it entered. The rules were eventually changed, however, and scows became very popular within the sailing community. The Onawa is currently on display in Excelsior.

When the railroad expanded westward in the 1890s, many of Lake Minnetonka's visitors began finding new places to vacation such as Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park, as well as the American West Coast. This caused most of the hotels and steamboats on Lake Minnetonka to suffer financial losses and cease operations. Many hotels and steamboat began to subsequently disappear; some burned, most were demolished. During this same period of time, however, an increasing number of families began to construct private summer cottages on the lake. Permanent homes also began to appear as the metropolitan area of Minneapolis–St. Paul grew outward. Many of these early homes and cottages still exist today, including the Thompson Summer House in Minnetonka Beach.

Golden Years[edit]

Express boat Hopkins on Lake Minnetonka circa 1912.

In 1905 the Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) extended a streetcar line to the village of Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka's southern shore. The lake saw dramatic change in 1906 as the TCRT also opened Big Island Park on Big Island and debuted its revolutionary Express boat system.

The Express boats, informally known as “streetcar boats,” were merely treated as floating streetcars that served the lake's summer residents. Six (and later seven) of these steamboats connected twenty-seven landings around the lake to Excelsior, where passengers could transfer onto streetcars bound for the Twin Cities. Many streetcar boat passengers were lake residents commuting to their jobs in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Tourists, on the other hand, could board one of three large ferry boats bound for Big Island Park, where they could enjoy a day of relaxation and ride several attractions. Due to excessive operating and maintenance costs, however, Big Island Park closed only five years after opening. The streetcar boats, on the other hand, proved successful and remained profitable until the 1920s.

After roads and automobiles became more prevalent in the area in the early 1920s, ridership on the Express "streetcar" boats plummeted, prompting TCRT to rid itself of the vessels. In June 1926, three of the seven streetcar boats were scuttled in deep water north of Big Island. Three of the others were scrapped, and one was sold and used as an excursion boat until it, too, was scuttled in 1949. Streetcar service to Excelsior became evermore limited and was eventually discontinued in 1932.

Crane Island, an island on the western side of the lake, was organized as a summer cottage retreat in 1907. The Crane Island Association platted a number of lots around the perimeter of the island and dedicated a commons area at its center. Crane Island had originally been a heron rookery until a storm blew down many of its trees in 1906. Crane Island is now a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[3]

Late 20th century[edit]

The Excelsior Amusement Park (not to be confused with Big Island Park) opened in Excelsior in 1925. Attractions included a fun house, the Silver Streak, the Scrambler, a carousel, picnic accommodations, and a roller coaster called the Cyclone. The Rolling Stones performed live at the park's "Danceland" pavilion in 1964 for a crowd of approximately 300. Excelsior Amusement Park was a very popular tourist destination until its closure in 1973. Today the site is occupied by a condominium complex and two restaurants.

In 1946, Mound Metalcraft was established in Mound, a town in an area known as "Westonka." It later changed its name to Tonka Toys. The company is no longer based in Minnesota.

The steamboat Minnehaha, one of the "streetcar boats" that had been scuttled in 1926, was raised from the bottom of the lake in 1980 and completely restored by 1996. Now operated by the Museum of Lake Minnetonka, the Minnehaha once again carries passengers between the communities of Excelsior and Wayzata as she did over a century ago. The Minnehaha is currently the only authentic steam powered passenger vessel home-ported in Minnesota.


Boats of all sizes and horsepower may be legally launched on Lake Minnetonka, although speed and noise restrictions apply. Some of the larger bays are used by several yacht clubs for sailing, but motorboats are in the clear majority in regard to quantity.[4] Lake Minnetonka is also home to a thriving antique boat community known as the Bob Speltz Land O' Lakes chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat Society. There are also dozens of larger cruise vessels on the lake, the largest of which is 83 feet long.


Lake Minnetonka contains black bullhead, black crappie, bluegill, bowfin, carp, green sunfish, hybrid sunfish, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, muskellunge, northern pike, sunfish, rock bass, walleye, white sucker, yellow bullhead, and yellow perch.[5] Some fish consumption guidelines have been placed on the lake's bluegill, carp, largemouth bass, northern pike, and walleye due to mercury contamination.[5]

According to popular legend, a sturgeon in excess of 10 feet (3 m) in length lurks beneath the surface of Lake Minnetonka and has been sighted on more than one occasion. These sightings have been persistent since the 1980s. The sturgeon is often referred to as "Lou."[citation needed]

Excelsior Beach

Environmental Issues[edit]

Lake Minnetonka's environmental issues became a concern after curly-leaf pondweed (potamogeton crispus) was discovered in its waters in 1900. Purple loosestrife was discovered in the lake in 1940 as was eurasian water milfoil (myriophyllum spicatum) in 1987. In 2010, zebra mussels were also discovered in the lake.

Lake Minnetonka experienced problems with pollution from sewage, fertilizer, and surface runoff until the 1970s. Although pollution remains an ongoing issue, conditions have improved and water quality is now closely monitored.


Lake Minnetonka was formed approximately 10,000 years ago as the last glacial ice sheets receded northward. The lake is actually a collection of multiple kettle lakes connected via channels and marshlands which, along with approximately eighteen islands, constitute its irregular shape and 125 miles of shoreline. The lake is also divided into two larger sections, the Upper Lake and Lower Lake, which correlate to the flow of water from west to east (rather than geographical location). The deepest point of Lake Minnetonka is 113 feet in Crystal Bay. The average depth of the lake is approximately thirty feet. With a surface area of approximately 14,500 acres, Lake Minnetonka is the ninth largest lake in the State of Minnesota.

There are several streams which flow into Lake Minnetonka, the largest of which is Six Mile Creek. The only outlet from the lake is Minnehaha Creek on the lake's eastern end. At the headwaters of Minnehaha Creek, the Gray's Bay Dam helps control Lake Minnetonka's water level (which averages at 929 feet above sea level). This structure is also called the Headwaters Control Structure of Gray's Bay. The flow over the dam ranges from zero to 300 cu ft (8.5 m3) per second, or a daily rate of up to 193,881,600 gallons. Evaporation from Lake Minnetonka can be as high as 50 million US gallons (190,000 m3) a day. According to the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, annual evaporation from the lake is about 30 inches (760 mm), or 11.5 billion US gallons (44,000,000 m3). This is countered by an average annual rate of 28 inches (710 mm) of rainfall, and 20 inches (508 mm) of surface run off.


On October 26, 1926, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was arrested for allegedly violating the Mann Act of 1910 while vacationing at a cottage in Tonka Bay with his mistress Olga Hinzenberg. He was quickly released after allegations against him were found untrue. Wright and Hinzenberg would later marry in 1928.

On October 6, 2005, Lake Minnetonka gained national attention due to a scandal in which members of the Minnesota Vikings allegedly performed and received sexual favors for and from a variety of individuals during a cruise on a pair of chartered yachts, leading to widespread criticism among the players and embarrassment within the organization.

In Popular Culture[edit]

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

Lake Minnetonka was mentioned in the 1984 Prince film Purple Rain during a scene in which Prince's love interest attempts to "purify" herself in the waters of the lake. After she enters the water, Prince reveals that the water she has entered is not actually Lake Minnetonka. Dave Chappelle mocked the scene in an episode of Chappelle's Show when he asked (as Prince), "Why don't you purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka?"

Lake Minnetonka was briefly featured on the reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians in 2011.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "About Lake Minnetonka". Lake Minnetonka Chamber of Commerce. Archived from the original on 2008-04-18. 
  2. ^[dead link]
  3. ^ Douglas, Marjorie Myers (1998). Barefoot on Crane Island. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press. ISBN 978-0-87351-363-0. 
  4. ^ a b "Lake information report: Minnesota DNR". MN DNR. MN DNR. 2007-06-11. Archived from the original on 2013-07-04. 

External links[edit]