Late last month, one of the most unique chapters in Minnesota’s transportation history was permanently enshrined in the public record through the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. The newly-listed steamboat Minnehaha is the lone survivor of the Twin City Line’s once-famous “streetcar boat” service. That’s right, the Twin Cities once had streetcar boats.
The story of the streetcar boats begins in the early 1900s. This was a time of great expansion for the Twin Cities’ transportation network. Having already electrified hundreds of miles of track under the direction of chairman Thomas Lowry and general manager Calvin Goodrich, the Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) developed a plan to expand its reach and boost ridership into the present-day suburbs. Part of this plan included building an electric streetcar line to Lake Minnetonka via the community of Excelsior, approximately 12 miles west-southwest of Minneapolis. The new line opened in October 1905.
At this time, Lake Minnetonka was transitioning from being a popular resort destination into a predominantly residential area. Many of the lake’s residents in the early 1900s were seasonal “cottagers” who only lived on the lake during the summer. Some of these cottagers were wealthy Twin City businesspeople who built grand country estates overlooking the lake, but the majority were middle-class residents of Minneapolis or Saint Paul who needed to commute to work daily.
From TCRT’s perspective, the main problem with Lake Minnetonka was its 125 miles of bizarrely-shaped shoreline – a labyrinth of interconnecting bays, islands, and peninsulas was not ideal to serve by land. Historically, the lake’s transportation needs were met with large and often unreliable paddle-wheeled steamships serving hotels and tourist-oriented communities around the lake. This worked in the 1800s, but times had changed by the turn of the century.
By 1905 many of the communities and enclaves around the lake were populated by time-strapped commuters instead of leisurely tourists. Steamboats remained the most practical way to provide transportation around Lake Minnetonka, but this demographic shift required something new: a fleet of modern steamers that would provide fast and reliable transportation across the lake on a scheduled basis. It could be called the “original” BRT – Boat Rapid Transit! These boats would then connect to land-based streetcars bound for Minneapolis, where many of Lake Minnetonka’s residents worked.
Over the winter of 1905-06, TCRT retained the services of Wayzata-based boat builder Royal C. Moore to design a fleet of six identical vessels that would officially be called the “Express Boats.” Each of these boats would feature a fashionable “launch” style hull with a sleek “torpedo” stern, would be 70 feet long, nearly 15 feet wide, and have the same windows, colors, and seating as TCRT’s streetcars. Each boat would be powered by a coal-fueled boiler and triple-expansion steam engine propelling a single 44-inch screw (propeller). Electric generators would also enable the boats to be lit with electric lights, still a novelty for inland steamboats at the time. Each boat would require three crew members to operate: a pilot, a purser, and an engineer. Passenger capacity was reported to be between 110 and 135 persons.
Parts for the new boats were cut at Moore Boat Works in Wayzata in late 1905, but Moore’s facility was not large enough to accommodate the assembly process. So, the parts were sent to the TCRT streetcar shop at 31st and Nicollet in South Minneapolis for assembly. One by one, the nearly-completed boats emerged from the Minneapolis facility on special wheelsets in the spring of 1906. From there, they were transported over the streetcar tracks to Excelsior and launched into Lake Minnetonka. Minnehaha was the first to be launched and fired up on May 2, 1906. Her sisters Como, Harriet, Hopkins, Stillwater, and White Bear soon followed.
Passenger service began on May 25, 1906, with construction of a new waiting station in Excelsior still underway. Initially, there were four routes in total all originating and ending in Excelsior. With stops at various points along the way, these routes included: Excelsior to Wayzata, Excelsior to Minnetonka Beach, Excelsior to Spring Park, and Excelsior to Zumbra Heights. Curiously, the remote and sparsely-populated Zumbra Heights terminus happened to be where TCRT’s general manager owned a country estate.
With this new Express Boat service, Lake Minnetonka residents had a frequent and reliable connection to the Twin Cities for the first time. Commuting time from any point on the lake to a streetcar stop took no more than 45 minutes, and the journey to Minneapolis took an additional 45 minutes. The Minnetonka Record newspaper noted that the ride from Minneapolis to Zumbra Heights, “almost the most remote point on the lake,” now only took an hour and a half. Streetcars ran to and from Excelsior every half-hour during the week. The service became instantaneously popular with over 309,000 passengers utilizing the service in 1907.
Commuters who lived or worked on Lake Minnetonka in the early 1900s could ride the streetcar boats to 26-27 landings around the lake and could even be picked up or dropped off at private docks if conditions permitted. Most commuters connected to land-based streetcars in Excelsior, but they could also connect to streetcars in Deephaven (starting in 1906) and in Tonka Bay (starting in 1908). Further yet, they could connect to Great Northern Railway trains in Wayzata and Spring Park.
With the completion of a spur line to a neighborhood known as Wildhurst in 1908, the streetcar boat routes were split in two. Instead of all four routes originating and ending in Excelsior, two routes would now be dedicated to the eastern half of the lake (known as the Lower Lake) and two routes would be dedicated to the western half of the lake (known as the Upper Lake). This arrangement lasted through the 1912 season.
But all of this was only part of TCRT’s Lake Minnetonka plan. To attract additional ridership on the weekends, TCRT took the extra and equally ambitious step of constructing an amusement park on Big Island. Amusement parks were a common way for streetcar companies to increase ridership on weekends, but Big Island Park was rather unique because it was on an island. The park was 65 acres in size and featured picnicking grounds, rides such as a roller coaster and mystic river, and a large music casino. On busy weekends, streetcars transported parkgoers from Minneapolis to Excelsior every ten minutes. Parkgoers would then board one of three large paddle-wheeled ferries that would bring them to Big Island Park. A typical summer weekend would see as many as 10,000 Twin Citians flocking to the park. Most of them would only stay for the day, but some would opt to spend a night or two at the recently-renovated Tonka Bay Hotel, also operated by TCRT. The Express Boats would stop at Big Island Park on a sporadic basis to support the ferries on busy days and during special events, but this was not part of their regular assignment.
While popular, Big Island Park proved to be a financial disaster due to seasonal limitations and extreme maintenance and operating costs. The park was permanently closed along with the Tonka Bay Hotel at the end of the 1911 season. Both were demolished before the end of the decade. The Express Boats, on the other hand, proved to be viable with annual ridership consistently reported above 200,000. They became a beloved staple of the Lake Minnetonka community, earning several nicknames over the years such as “Yellow Jackets” and the very popular term “streetcar boats.”
In 1913, routing for the boats changed for the final time. Instead of maintaining four separate routes, the streetcar boats would instead operate on one continuous circuit. The circuit would begin in Excelsior, travel to Wayzata via Deephaven, return to Excelsior, then travel to Zumbra Heights via Spring Park, and return to Excelsior to start the circuit over again. The circuit would take approximately four hours to complete in its entirety and schedules were coordinated so that streetcars would connect with the boats as they were pulling up to the docks in Excelsior, Deephaven, Tonka Bay, and Wildhurst.
In 1918 and 1919, ridership on the streetcar boats dipped below 200,000 for the first time. This dip was likely associated with reduced demand due to World War I in 1918 and the influenza pandemic in both 1918 and 1919. Ridership rebounded in 1920 with more than 243,000 riders that year. However, ridership plummeted again – this time permanently – after 1921. By 1924, only 68,320 passengers rode the streetcar boats. This decline can be traced almost exclusively to major road improvements taking place around Lake Minnetonka at the time. Automobiles had also become more affordable to the general public, including the middle and working-class commuters who constituted the majority of streetcar boat passengers.
With some of the streetcar boats already out of service, TCRT made the decision to suspend all steamboat service on Lake Minnetonka at the conclusion of the 1926 season. In an effort to dispose of the vessels, TCRT put the streetcar boats up for sale that year but were only successful in selling one, the Hopkins, which went on to live as an excursion boat until 1949. With no other buyers in sight, TCRT decided to scuttle (purposely sink) three of the streetcar boats in July 1926 – an acceptable form of disposal at that time. The scuttled vessels included the Como, White Bear, and Minnehaha. Stripped of their superstructures and machinery, the boats were towed out to deep water north of Big Island and pumped full of water. One by one, they slipped below the waves to their watery graves. The Hopkins eventually joined them at the bottom of the lake in 1949. The remaining boats were scrapped around 1927.
For decades the streetcar boats lay forgotten at the bottom of the lake. Then, in 1979, a professional diver named Jerry Provost located the wreck of a streetcar boat resting about 60 feet below the surface. Despite being submerged for more than 50 years, the wreck was in good condition. After securing funds and proper legal documents, Provost and his crew worked to raise the wreck back to the surface in August of 1980 with the vague intent that it would someday be restored. The salvage operation took several days to complete and required the use of three cranes, three barges, and eight airbags. For reasons unknown, it was believed that the wreck being raised was the Hopkins, which had been scuttled in 1949. However, once surfaced, the name Minnehaha gradually began to appear in four places around the hull.
This discrepancy meant that it was Minnehaha that had been raised, not the Hopkins, and that the vessel had therefore been raised illegally. Years of litigation ensued. Meanwhile, Minnehaha sat in drydock and began to deteriorate, which is what happens when submerged artifacts are surfaced without proper conservation measures in place. Eventually, title of the boat was transferred to a nonprofit organization called the Inland Marine Interpretive Center (IMIC) in 1984. IMIC’s goal was to restore the vessel to working condition and operate it as part of a museum. However, fundraising efforts were not successful and the boat continued to sit in drydock.
Finally, title was transferred to the Minnesota Transportation Museum (MTM) in 1990. A complete restoration was begun later that year under the direction of local resident Leo Meloche. For the next six years volunteers worked to restore Minnehaha to her original glory. All of the deteriorated wood was replaced. A new keel and keelson were installed. A vintage steam engine similar to the original and a modern, oil-fueled boiler were shipped to Minnesota and lowered into place. Original split reed caned seats were recovered and installed in the rebuilt cabin. Steamfitters, electricians, and engineers brought the propulsion and navigation systems back to life. In total, the effort involved at least 85,000 volunteer hours and cost approximately $500,000 to complete.
Minnehaha was relaunched for a series of stability trials in the late summer of 1995. Minor adjustments were made the following winter, and by springtime the restoration was complete. Minnehaha was rechristened by Louise Lowry, granddaughter of Thomas Lowry, on May 25, 1996. With thousands of onlookers cheering her on, the restored vessel returned to passenger service for the first time in 70 years and began a successful second career on Lake Minnetonka.
Minnehaha operated on the lake continuously for the next 23 years, providing rides for an average of 10,000 passengers each season. In 2019, Minnehaha lost access to the ramp where she was launched and hauled out of the water each spring and fall, restricting her ability to be on the lake until a new ramp becomes available. Minnehaha is currently housed in a heated storage facility in Excelsior. She is owned and maintained by the Museum of Lake Minnetonka (MLM), an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the vessel and returning her to active service.
Minnehaha was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places on October 25, 2021. Volunteers continue to maintain the vessel, keeping her in ship-shape for her eventual return to service. While no property on Lake Minnetonka meeting Minnehaha’s unique launch requirements is currently available, it is hoped that a site for a new launch ramp can be secured – she cannot return to Lake Minnetonka until that has happened. More information on the situation and how to help can be found at steamboatminnehaha.org.
 John W. Diers and Aaron Isaacs. Twin Cities By Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007: 83, 85.
 The Express Boats were all named after popular Twin Cities streetcar stops. Minnehaha was named after the streetcar stop at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis.
 “Excelsior ‘Limited!’,” Minnetonka Record, 8 June 1906.
 Diers and Isaacs. Twin Cities By Trolley, p. 300. Exact numbers for 1906 are unknown.
 Scott McGinnis. A Directory of Old Boats: Lake Minnetonka’s Historic Steamboats, Sailboats and Launches. Chaska: Scott D. McGinnis, 2010: 74.
 High ridership prompted the addition of a seventh Express Boat to the fleet in 1915. The new, slightly larger vessel was named Excelsior.
 Diers and Isaacs. Twin Cities By Trolley, p. 300.