Efforts are underway to resume the services of the Minnehaha on Lake Minnetonka.
Take a step back in time. The year is 1906, and its summertime in Minnesota. The hot, dry air in the Twin Cities begins to take hold, making the cooler water of Lake Minnetonka a desired escape. Along the lake, a fleet of six boats functions as part of the streetcar system on the water. Among them is the steamboat Minnehaha. Shuttling people around the lake, the boats gained popularity that lasted until the service was shut down in 1926.
Fast forward to 2023. Nearly 100 years later, the Minnehaha is shipshape and could be in the water if a launch ramp existed to accommodate her. Solutions are far and few between, and a limited timeline doesn’t do the effort any favors. Tom McCarthy, president of the Museum of Lake Minnetonka, which owns the Minnehaha, says as a nonprofit organization, the mission is to operate the vessel, which cannot be done unless a launch site and funding are secured.
“We have a limited time frame to get the boat back in the water,” McCarthy says. “We’re going to have to raise significant money to build a new ramp and potentially a new building to house the boat.” There’s where the challenge rests. The Minnehaha is a 70-foot-long boat that needs a ramp to support her weight and that of a trailer, which is about 65 tons. “There is no other boat that has this type of unique need … We can’t just go to any other launch site on the lake that currently exists,” McCarthy says. “There was only one ramp on the lake that fit that need, and we were granted year-by-year access from 1996 to 2019 to use it.”
The Minnehaha has a track record of defying the odds. When the vessel was retired in 1926, she was stripped of valued parts and intentionally sunk to the bottom of Lake Minnetonka. After 54 years, she was raised and brought to shore in 1980. From 1990–1996, she was rebuilt with about $500,000 of public donations and nearly 100,000 man hours and put back into service.
“This was an audacious idea, but these community members persisted, and they achieved it,” McCarthy says. He’s confident the new challenges can be overcome. “We believe we can do this, but it is taking time and time is one thing we don’t have a lot of,” he says.
After searching a shoreline that is almost fully developed, a potential site on George Street in Excelsior might work, but different government approvals and permits will need to be secured. “This is a situation where we’re in control of only one thing: We own the boat,” McCarthy says. “Even if this site works, the permitting process alone will take about a year, construction will follow, so we wouldn’t be in the water in 2023 and not very likely even in 2024. We have a fixed amount of funds to continue the insurance on the boat, and our pool of volunteers is dwindling over time.”
Still, McCarthy is optimistic. “We have a community icon that we are blessed to have, and we’re in danger of losing [it]. We’re in danger of losing it for reasons we can solve, but it has challenges,” he says. “We need the community to come together to vocally and financially support this project. If any community can do this, we know the Lake Minnetonka community can, and I hope they will respond to this challenge.”