As we all anxiously await ice-out on Lake Minnetonka, I find myself reflecting on the rich history of our wonderful lake area. I think back to the heyday of Lake Minnetonka (1880s-1890s) when there were over 90 steamboats and 60 hotels along its 125-mile shoreline.
Nearly 20,000 tourists visited the Lake Minnetonka each year during this time. Many southerners came here to escape the heat, while others believed the lake breezes could help with health ailments. Others from across the country appreciated it for its simple beauty.
James J. Hill was instrumental in the development of the lake area as a tourist destination. Many tourists arrived to the Lake Minnetonka area on Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. Not only did he help tourists get here, he also provided transportation on the lake and accommodations.
In 1882, James J. Hill’s steamboat, the Belle of Minnetonka, was launched on Lake Minnetonka. With a length of 300 feet (the length of a football field) and a beam of 60 feet, it was the largest boat ever on the lake. The Belle had a capacity of over 2,500 people with a first-class restaurant on the upper deck, a 60-piece dinner band, and 40 sleeping cabins.
On July 4, 1882, Hill’s Hotel Lafayette opened in Minnetonka Beach. It was located near the railroad tracks facing Lafayette Bay. The 300-room hotel, which measured 750 feet by 90 feet, was built for $350,000. It was the only hotel on the lake with an elevator. In the hotel’s two large ballrooms, two orchestras were always playing. Some visitors arrived with their own carriages, horses and servants. Coincidentally, Hill’s farm on Crystal Bay provided milk and butter to his hotel.
In 1897, the Hotel Lafayette was destroyed by fire. Unfortunately, the water had been turned off for the winter and there was no way to put out the fire. Hill sold 38 acres of land for $10,250 on the condition that a private golf club and hotel be built. Hill didn’t want it to compete with his other nearby grand hotel. Hotel Del Otero, which means “hotel on the mounds” in Spanish, was located in Spring Park. Built on Indian burial mounds, the 50-room hotel had a casino, bowling lanes, a dance pavilion, and huge picnic grounds. It burned down in 1945.
In 1899, the private Lafayette Club opened. It was built closer to Crystal Bay than Lafayette Bay. Many famous people, including Presidents Chester A. Arthur and Ulysses S. Grant, stayed there. In 1910, President William Howard Taft spent the summer at Lafayette Club and made it his summer White House. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald was an honorary member. In 1922, the clubhouse burned to the ground. The current building was dedicated in 1925. Today it is still a private club with a 9-hole golf course.
Sadly, once the automobile became the preferred mode of transportation, tourists to the lake area dwindled and there were fewer riders on the steamboats. More than half of the steamboats blew up and sank. Others were stripped down to help with dredging efforts and were later sunk in the lake. In fact, the remains of the Belle of Minnetonka sit at the bottom of St. Albans Bay. Its bell sits outside the Excelsior Library. Many of the hotels were destroyed by fire and others were torn down.
Despite these sad facts, it’s amazing to realize how much James J. Hill did for the development and growth of the Lake Minnetonka area. He may have been a bit controversial in his time, but without his efforts I’m not sure our lake area would be as wonderful as it is today.
Stephanie Larsen grew up in Minnetonka and now lives on Lake Minnetonka with her husband and two children. She loves sharing information about the rich history of the Lake Minnetonka area with others. In 2009, Stephanie co-authored “Historic Lake Minnetonka,” which provides an overview of how Lake Minnetonka was discovered, developed, and settled.
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