When Deephaven was a wild woodland with nothing more than a twisty wagon trail winding under the maple trees, Charles Gibson visited and envisioned a grand hotel on the spot. Gibson claimed to be an English knight (many called him “Sir Charles”) and was a well-known attorney from St. Louis who owned other hotels in Missouri. He knew this pristine northern lake could attract southerners eager to escape the scorching southern heat. He put cash down to purchase the peninsula of Breezy Point on the lake for his “north home” or “Northome.”
Gibson developed the first real resort on the lake, the Hotel St. Louis, and also gave the name to the bay it overlooked. Construction began in 1879 for a July 1880 opening. No expense was spared for his “Health and Pleasure Resort” that boasted not only indoor plumbing and electricity, but each floor had its own bathing room. Marble-topped dressers, elegant drapes and large brass beds filled the plush rooms that all had a large veranda overlooking either Carson’s Bay or St. Louis Bay. A five-mile system of electric bells helped the staff attend to the every need of the upper-crust guests. Evening entertainment included dances with live music, plays, musical revues and poetry readings.
No wonder the newspapers proclaimed the Hotel St. Louis “the first first-class hotel to be built on Lake Minnetonka… one of the most complete summer resorts in the Northwest,” according to The Magic Northland from 1881. This guide to the area also proclaimed that this hotel has officially “placed Minnetonka among the leading pleasure resorts of the American continent.”
Gibson’s hotel was a hit, but he was mostly an absentee owner who had to attend to his businesses in St. Louis. Southerners came up in droves to fill the 200 rooms that could accommodate 400 guests at a time. A series of white cottages was built behind the hotel for “the help” of African-Americans to take care of the rich southern children. The hotel “St. Louis proved to be something that stood for American aristocracy—not eastern, but southern,” according to Minnetonka Story.
Gibson knew that getting the guests to the front door was half the battle, so he had a horse-drawn carriage waiting at the Deephaven depot for any visitors who needed a lift. Most southerners took the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway that stopped in Minneapolis, but soon a spur of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway (later the Milwaukee Road) took them right to the back door of the hotel.
A wealthy Mississippi aristocrat, Judge Weatherby reminisced about his days at the Hotel St. Louis: “Many a night I’ve stood on one of those hotel verandas watching the moon rise… Those Minnetonka nights made me feel downright religious.”
Soon, however, Gibson had competition from none other than James J. Hill with his enormous Lafayette Hotel that cost $815,000 in 1882 dollars to build. Gibson sunk another $4,000 four years after its construction to update his hotel to keep up with his high-class neighbors. Gibson’s hotel did outlast Hill’s, which burned to the ground in 1897, but the St. Louis’s wooden structure eventually met the same fate.
On the site of the burned-down hotel, Walter and Mahala Douglas built a French-revival country manor house that still survives to this day. Walter Douglas was able to enjoy his house only for a short time because he had a one-way ticket on the RMS Titanic, but Mahala survived because Walter made sure she got on a lifeboat.