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About Lake Minnetonka

A Brief History of the Lake Minnetonka area

Lake Minnetonka (meaning “Big Waters” in the native Dakota language), is located twenty miles due West of Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Minnesota. Formed by glacial melting following the last Ice Age, Lake Minnetonka is one of the largest lakes in the state, boasting 110 miles of shoreline (officially). Other estimates determine it to be much larger, but any way you slice it, it’s a BIG lake.

Various Native American tribes inhabited the area for centuries before the lake was discovered by portagers in 1822. Ancient Indian burial mounds are visible in many locations along the shoreline, and one village on the western end of the lake was originally christened “Mound City” for this reason (known today simply as Mound).

In 1852, a dam was built on Minnehaha Creek and a logger’s settlement grew into the village of Minnetonka Mills. That same year, a fellow from New York City by the name of George Bertram, after a brief visit to the lake, returned to the east coast and recruited a number of his friends to establish the “Excelsior Pioneer Association.” They returned to Lake Minnetonka in 1853 and founded the town of Excelsior on the southern shore of the lower lake.

Wayzata (Dakota for “North Shore”), was founded in 1854, followed by Deephaven, Orono, and nearly a dozen other townships and municipalities.

The years before the turn of the 20th century were boom years for the lake area. Rail lines reached Wayzata in 1867 bringing visitors from many parts of the country. To accommodate the sightseers, grand Victorian hotels sprung up in every corner of the lake. The Lake Park Hotel on the shores of Tonka Bay, erected in 1879, was one of the finest. A travel guide boasted “The long luxurious porches with their easy chairs and entrancing views cast a Circes’ spell over time” (Circes being the Greek goddess of magic). Other attractions included tennis, billiards, amateur theatricals, and a first-class orchestra which gave concerts morning and evening.

Elegant steamship lines escorted visitors on tours of the lake. The “City of Saint Louis” was a 160-foot side wheeler built in 1881. It could carry 1000 passengers and is said to have been the first inland water vessel to be equipped with electric lights. Before long, bayside casinos were a local feature. The Excelsior Casino was an impressive pavilion-style structure with a sweeping view of the lake. It was located at the North end of Water Street.

In a span of twenty five years, Lake Minnetonka was transformed from a remote outpost into a fashionable tourist destination. 150 years later, Lake Minnetonka remains a favorite playground for thousands of visitors annually. A number of cruise lines still offer tours of the lake, some even operate restored antique boats. There are dozens of beautifully maintained parks and beaches; and special events, exhibits and festivities of all kinds are held throughout the year.

For more information about towns and municipalities, visit the Government section.

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