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TRAINS, TROLLEYS AND STEAMBOATS

By Aaron Isaacs, Minnesota Streetcar Museum

The first public transportation to Lake Minnetonka in 1860 required a stagecoach ride from Minneapolis to Minnetonka Mills, where passengers transferred to a little side-wheeler steamboat called the Governor Ramsey. It traveled up Minnehaha Creek, then navigable, to the lake.

The St. Paul & Pacific Railroad reached Wayzata from Minneapolis in 1867, on its way to the Red River Valley via Willmar. For the next 14 years, Minnetonka-bound travelers took the train to Wayzata and transferred to a growing group of steamboats to reach other points on the lake.

Direct rail service to the lake’s south shore arrived in 1881, when the Minneapolis and St. Louis reached Excelsior from Minneapolis and Hopkins via Deephaven. But it did more than serve Excelsior. A short branch line reached Tonka Bay, bringing rail service to the door of the Lake Park Hotel, which had opened in 1879.

The 1880s were the peak years for Lake Minnetonka as a tourism destination and more railroads were built to compete for the traffic. The narrow gauge Minneapolis, Lyndale & Minnetonka, better known as the Motor Line, arrived in Excelsior in 1882, having built out from Lake Harriet. It was the most unlikely of the rail competitors, because within Minneapolis it was a served as a steam powered streetcar line on Nicollet Avenue.

In 1882 the Great Northern Railway opened the enormous Hotel Lafayette in Spring Park on the north shore and extended a branch line to serve it. The GN also launched the 300-foot steamboat Belle of Minnetonka, the biggest ever on the lake. This was the peak of steamboating on the lake. Each morning, three big boats would meet the Great Northern’s train at Wayzata and race each other to Excelsior, while other boats delivered passengers to numerous other points on the lake.

The Motor Line's Excelsior extension only lasted until 1886, when it was cut back to Lake Calhoun in south Minneapolis. The Great Northern purchased the Motor Line right of way from Hopkins to Excelsior in 1886, relaid it with standard gauge track and extended it through Excelsior and around the south side of Lake Minnetonka to St. Bonifacius and Hutchinson.

The Milwaukee Road entered the lake competition in 1887. It built a branch line from Hopkins to Deephaven to serve the Hotel St. Louis directly. Before that, hotel guests took the Minneapolis & St. Louis to its own Deephaven station at the upper end of Ccarson Bay and transferred to carriages for the last mile to the hotel.

The 1880s boom was a classic bubble. By the mid-1890s it was over. The construction of transcontinental railroads opened up more interesting resorts out west and lake Minnetonka tourism, while it didn’t disappear, shrank considerably. Many of the resort hotels went out of business, as did most of the steamboats that connected them with each other and the connecting trains.

In 1900, the GN built from Orono through Mound to St. Bonifacius and abandoned its track from Hopkins through Excelsior.

When the Hotel St. Louis closed after 1900, the Milwaukee Road ceased running on its Deephaven branch. This set the stage for the last act--streetcars to Lake Minnetonka.

Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) decided the time was right to develop Lake Minnetonka as a resort for the general public, not just tourists. It bought the ex-GN, ex-Motor Line right of way from Lake Harriet through Hopkins to Excelsior, and extended its electric streetcars to Excelsior in 1905. Along the way, it straightened the line and expanded it to double track capable of 60 mph running. TCRT also purchased the Milwaukee Road’s branch line from Hopkins to Deephaven and electrified it for streetcar service. In 1907 it leased and electrified the Minneapolis & St. Louis’ Tonka Bay branchline.

TCRT did much more than run trolleys to the lake. It leased the Lake Park Hotel at the end of the Tonka Bay branch and renamed it the Lake Park. It built Big Island Park on Big Island, two miles off Excelsior. The park held picnic grounds, a roller coaster, and served as a concert venue. To transport the public, three large side paddle wheel ferry boats were built.

TCRT purchased five older Lake Minnetonka steamboats for excursion service and tours of the lake. In its own shops it built six 70-foot express boats, often called “streetcar boats” because they resembled the streetcars both inside and out. A seventh boat was added in 1915. These met the streetcars at Excelsior, Deephaven, Tonka Bay and the Wildhurst dock on the Tonka Bay branch. They operated four hourly routes that touched most of the docks on the lake. Not only did they connect with the streetcars, they connected with each other, providing reliable transportation between any two points on the lake.

Big Island Park and the renamed Tonka Bay Hotel were unsuccessfull, and both closed in 1911. The excursion boats quit running as well. The express boats continued until 1927, when competition from the private automobile put them out of service. All were stripped of their engines and hardware and sunk off Big Island, except the Hopkins. Renamed the Minnetonka, it survived in private ownership as an excursion boat until 1948.

The boat docks and the Excelsior Dock Station became part of the new Excelsior Amusement Park which opened in 1926. The Great Depression and automobile competition killed off the streetcars in 1932. They were cut back to Hopkins. Highway 7 was built on the streetcar right of way between Excelsior and Minnetonka High School.

The Minneapolis & St. Louis was abandoned from Hopkins to Norwood in 1980. The right of way was purchased for future light rail use by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority. A trail was opened along the right of way in the mid-1990s.

The Great Northern from Wayzata through Mound to Hutchinson was abandoned in about 2000. It has also been purchased by Hennepin County and a trail is under construction.

The steamboat Minnehaha  was discovered on the bottom of the lake and raised in 1980. The Minnesota Transportation Museum began rebuilding it in 1990 and it entered scheduled service on Lake Minnetonka in 1996. It was decided to build a streetcar line so that passengers could transfer between the streetcar and steamboat like they used to. At the time, the Minnehaha loaded passengers at its home dock. The Minneapolis & St. Louis trail passes a very short distance from the dock, so the plan was to build the trolley line along the trail. Federal funding was secured, along with permission to use a portion of the county right-of-way. The track was laid in a half mile arc from Water Street on the west to Excelsior Boulevard on the east. A new carbarn was built next to Highway. 7. To see photos of the carbarn construction, click here.

These streetcars are located at Excelsior:

Duluth #78, built in 1893
Twin City Rapid Transit streetcar #1239, built in 1907
Winona, MN #10, built in 1913 and currently being restored
Mesaba Railway #10, awaiting restoration

In 2005, ownership of the streetcar line was transferred to the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. Streetcars run every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday during the summer. Ownership of the steamboat Minnehaha is now with the Museum of Lake Minnetonka. The Minnehaha carries the public on Saturdays and Sundays between Excelsior and Wayzata.

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