Historic steamboat on Lake Minnetonka looking for new place to launch

In the land of 10,000 lakes, few are as popular as Lake Minnetonka. On a typical day, you'll find boats of all shapes and sizes, but recently, one of the most recognizable has been conspicuously absent.

"She really is an icon for this community and a symbol of the Lake Minnetonka area," said Museum of Lake Minnetonka board member Aaron Person.

For the last 3 years, the Minnehaha steamboat has called a storage barn in Excelsior its year-round home.

"I'm connected to her on so many levels. My first time driving her, I was 3-years-old, so she's really just a huge part of my life," said Person.

Person started out as a ticket taker on the historic steamboat when he was a teenager and eventually worked his way up to captain. He says it's a shame such a well known piece of the lake's history is in drydock, instead of making waves out on the water.

"She is the only authentic passenger commercial steamboat that is homeported in Minnesota as far as we are aware. So she really is a unique experience. It's unfortunate," said Person.

The Minnehaha was built by the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company back in 1906, along with five other sister steamers called streetcar boats. They were painted yellow to match the streetcars and were used to ferry people who lived around the lake to Excelsior and other spots, where they could connect with the streetcar lines, so they could commute to work in Minneapolis and St Paul.

Pictured are three of the five sister steamboats to the Minnehaha. (Photo courtesy Museum of Lake Minnetonka)

"We talk about BRT today, bus rapid transit, and all these lines that are being proposed. But back over 100 years ago, we had BRT, boat rapid transit," said Person.

The streetcar boats operated on the lake until 1926 when ridership plummeted after more roads were built to the lake and cars gained in popularity. The company sold one of the boats and either scrapped or sunk the others, including the Minnehaha.

"It seems kind of crazy today, but that was the way they got rid of stuff back in the old days. Anything you can think of is at the bottom of the lake," said Person.

For 54 years, the Minnehaha remained underwater, unremembered and undisturbed until it was discovered in 1979. The following year, it took several days, a few barges and cranes, 8 airbags and a crew of people to bring it back from the bottom of the lake.

The Minnehaha steamboat after it was brought out of Lake Minnetonka in 1979. (Photo courtesy Museum of Lake Minnetonka)

"The plan back in 1980 was to raise it and use it as a lakeside dining venue for a restaurant in Excelsior. Sometime in the 80s, the idea to restore it to an operating steamboat became more of the idea of what to do for it," Person said.

For the next decade, the boat sat untouched until ownership of it eventually landed with the Minnesota Transportation Museum. Hundreds of volunteers put in thousands of hours to restore it to its former glory, including an original steering wheel from one of its sister boats, and original benches, until it was finally put back into service as a tour and excursion boat in 1996.

"It was a community effort. So this boat means a lot to the community because of all the sweat and tears and laughs that went into restoring her," said Person.

Since then, the restored Minnehaha has taken about 10,000 passengers a summer on a journey to an earlier age. But in 2019, the Museum of Lake Minnetonka, the non-profit that owns and operates the boat, lost access to the land used to get the boat in and out of the water, leaving the vintage vessel stuck on shore.

"I am heartbroken. I have been a captain on the boat for 5 years. Family connection goes back to great, great-grandparents who chartered the boat for my grandparent's wedding," said MLM president Tom McCarthy.

The museum is looking for another piece of land to use or buy, but lakeshore property is a pricey proposition, and the Minnehaha has a unique set of specifications required to launch the boat safely.

"This is not your ordinary vessel. 70 feet long with a draft that is more than 6 feet tall. We have to get this boat almost a half a football field out into the lake before she will float free of the trailer," said McCarthy.

The Minnehaha steamboat on a trailer near the water. 

In the meantime, the Minnehaha has been placed on the National Register Of Historic Places, which could make it easier to find funding to keep the timeless treasure afloat.

"She's part of our legacy. She connects all of the communities on Lake Minnetonka. She connects us to our past. She probably has another 50 years to go. It would be unthinkable for us to not be able to put this boat from this community back in Lake Minnetonka," said McCarthy.

To learn more about the effort to get the Minnehaha back on the water click here.