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A History of The Narrows

by Scott D. McGinnis

On March 5, 1853, Stephen Hull took possession of Joseph McCloud’s claim on lots 1-2 section 21, lot 1 section 22, lots 4-7 section 28, all in Excelsior Township. McCloud left a small “shanty” that Hull likely used until he completed his own log home. The new house was 20′ X 20′ with a 20′ X 25′ addition and was ready for Hull’s family in August 1853. Not far from the shanty and new house was a small stream that up to 1884 was the only outlet of the Upper Lake into the Lower Lake. Hull’s narrows would become a source of contention in future years.

At issue was whether this small stream was a navigable waterway. If it was not navigable, then the stream was the property of the landowner on either side. If it was navigable, then it was considered a public right-of-way. In 1877, Captain Charles May described the original condition of Hull’s Narrows as a “swamp and bog formed by a growth of vegetable matter upon water or soft mud of uncertain depth, and appears to be practically worthless and irreclaimable. The said stream or outlet in its natural condition and in ordinary stages of water was a small stream of water about fifteen to twenty feet in width and from 18 inches to two feet in depth.”

This stream was used as passage by dugouts, rowboats, the steamboat Governor Ramsey after its launch in 1860, and subsequent shallow-draft steamers. In 1873, Captain May and Major Thomas A. Harrow launched the May Queen, a much larger steamboat that later that year became grounded on its way to Minnetonka Mills. This precipitated thoughts of improving navigation of Lake Minnetonka, including Hull’s Narrows. The July 4, 1873 Minneapolis Tribune described the situation.

Geo. W. Cooley, civil engineer, reported that he had made a survey of Hull’s Narrows, between upper and lower Lake Minnetonka, which narrows are about 2,100 feet long, and average fifty feet in width, except at the upper end, where the width is about 25 feet, the current at that point being strong and the channel crooked, making it very difficult for boats to pass through, and, in windy weather, or during a low stage of water, almost impossible. The water in the main channel has an average depth of five feet, or from three to three and a half feet at a low stage. To straighten the channel, making it forty feet wide at high water, will require the removal of 5,000 yards of material, or 3,000 yards if the present main channel is used.

In August 1873, the Hennepin County Commissioners appropriated $1,000 to dredge the channel. The contract, including a breakwater, was given to (T. B. & Frank M.) Carman Brothers at a total cost of $1,442.56. This was an ongoing concern for Carman Brothers because the mud and silt quickly filled the Narrows. In 1880, Carman Brothers was paid $4,847 for improvements to Hull’s Narrows.

Problems began in February 1876, when the land surrounding Hull’s Narrows was purchased by John A. Armstrong, a partner of the Northwestern Fuel Company. Other Northwestern Fuel Company partners included Richard B. Angus, David C. Shepard, and James J. Hill. The Northwestern Fuel Company purchased 1,000 of acres along the shores of Lake Minnetonka to harvest the timber for lumber and fuel, transporting it to Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Purchasing the Hull’s Narrows site was Hill’s first attempt at monopolization at Lake Minnetonka. Other monopolistic endeavors included the only north shore railroad (Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad) purchased in 1879, the largest Lake hotel (Hotel Lafayette) opened on July 2, 1882, and the largest steamboat on Lake Minnetonka (Belle of Minnetonka) launched on July 3, 1882. With control of Hull’s Narrows, Hill was attempting to control all traffic from the Upper Lake from entering the Lower Lake without his permission including both passenger and barge traffic. Armstrong filed a lawsuit in March 1877 against Captain Charles May to gain an injunction against May from continued use of Hull’s Narrows. At that time, Captain May had a virtual monopoly on steamboat traffic on the Lake. Armstrong claimed that the narrows was illegally dredged and that it was not a navigable stream prior to the dredging. The suit was to prevent him from entering the Upper Lake meaning the Northwestern Fuel Company could control all timbering on the Upper Lake. At the time, there was no railroad service to the Upper Lake. All timber had to be floated to Wayzata or Minnetonka Mills to be transported to Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Charles E. Vanderbergh ruled on August 2, 1877 that although the stream was not originally navigable, “the long continued use of said stream by the public without question or objection and the public and business interests that have grown up in connection with its use and navigation have made it a highway in fact. And that an injunction should not now be allowed.”

Hull’s Narrows continued in use for seven more years. The June 11, 1881 Tourist & Sportsman provides a description. “THE NARROWS, which connect the lower and upper lakes. The narrows is a small channel of some 70 feet in width and a quarter of a mile long, with piles driven on each side to preserve a proper depth of water for the steamers.” Hull’s Narrows was not an adequate channel. The June 15, 1887 Northwestern Tourist describes the problem.

There is an echo in the old Narrows that used to be heard in former days, when the steamers pursued that route into the Upper Lake. When the water was low, it was necessary to stop frequently to let the channel fill up, and lift the boat off the muddy bottom. This was called “damming.” One day the Hattie May had a Sunday school pic-nic on board, when some one asked the captain, who had a good baritone voice, what made him stop so often. When he replied: “Got to dam her,” “Got to dam” – when the further repetition of the words were smothered by an explosion of laughter.

Hull’s Narrows continued to be used through 1884 when it was left to the elements to reclaim it. The New Narrows was begun in July 1884 and a dredge boat succeeded in creating a passage wide enough for the Hattie May in the first week of September 1884. The New Narrows still accommodates boat traffic slightly north of Hull’s Narrows. A ferry was installed at the New Narrows and continued in operation until 1910 when the first bridge was built. The bridge was tall enough to accommodate all boats that were currently on the Lake.

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