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Minnesota has more boats per capita than any other state in the union.


Minnesota has more shoreline than any state in the continental United States.

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Lake Minnetonka, "The Big Water"

It is 1867, and the American Civil War ended just two years ago. Southerners, eager to escape reconstruction, the heat and yellow fever, ride steamboats up the Mississippi River to St. Paul, MN. From there, the St. Paul and Pacific rail line takes them to the cool, clean waters of Lake Minnetonka at Wayzata. Where, from its start in 1852 as a saw mill, quickly becomes a central conduit to the explosion of fashionable Victorian resorts, palatial summer retreats, and humble log cabins lining the shores of Lake Minnetonka.
Illustration:elektrishMedia, c.2011

In the 1860's, getting out of the city's heat carried a great imperative. We can only imagine Minneapolis in the summers of the late 1800's; treeless, dusty roads filled with tons of animal manure and carcasses, 500 tons of garbage and waste dumped daily into the Mississippi River, the air thick with cooking and trash fires, and outhouses attendant to the homes of its 46,000 residents. Typhoid outbreaks from contaminated well water are common. An affordable escape to fresh air at a nearby verdant, cool lake was irresistible.

Lake Minnetonka's popularity as an affordable resort and rural retreat was to be short- lived. Within 30 years almost all of the 60 resorts and 90 steamboats had either exploded, sunk, closed, or burned down. Although not mentioned in any official history of Lake Minnetonka, it's very likely that the 200,000 annual visitors themselves contributed to its decline as summer resort destination. At the time, "Sanitation" consisted of dumping garbage and raw sewage directly into the water, or burying it nearby. At the same time, developments in Minneapolis like street paving, electrification, and city water, sewer and trash collection had progressed, making the city more survivable in the summer heat.

Gradually, over the turn of the century, summer homes around the lake converted to year- round residences as transportation to Minneapolis expanded and improved. The grand estates of prominent Minneapolis and St. Paul families now lined the shores: Hill, Pillsbury, Bell, Searle, Northrup, Peavey, and Walker, to mention a few. In 1889, the Minnetonka and Excelsior yacht clubs were built to serve their love for watercraft and racing. From the earliest days, boats were essential transportation in the lake. Some of those built at Lake Minnetonka won worldwide acclaim; most famously, the unbeaten 23' class sailboat "Onawa". In 1941 there were 660 boats berthed on the lake, in 2008 there were 10,233.

Over the centuries, the popularity of Lake Minnetonka has waxed and waned, but its mystique has endured. The first 1852 survey price of an acre on the lake was $1.25, with a 160 acres minimum, a pledge of allegiance to the United States, and a year's homesteading. In 1860, the price had risen to $25.00 per acre; in 1869, a purchase price was recorded of $250 for one lot. Currently, lakeshore homes sell in the multi- million dollar range, a testament to the timeless, irresistible beauty and splendor that is Lake Minnetonka.

References used for this article:
The author is indebted to the exhaustive research in "Lake Minnetonka's Historic Hotels"; Ellen Wilson Meyer, Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society, 1997.

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