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Lake Minnetonka Regional Park is the perfect place for families to enjoy a Saturday afternoon. Bring a picnic and enjoy a lakeside lunch. Learn more...

Noerenberg Gardens

Situated on the north shore of Lake Minnetonka’s majestic Crystal Bay, Noerenberg Memorial Gardens offers a tranquil retreat to the quiet elegance and grace of days gone by. A favorite subject for local artists and an idyllic location for weddings. Learn more...

 

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Big Island Ferry docks and promenade with electric tower in background, circa 1906.

History Overview

A brief history of the Lake Minnetonka area

Lake Minnetonka (meaning "Big Waters" in the native Dakota language), is located twenty miles due West of Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Minnesota. Formed by glacial melting following the last Ice Age, Lake Minnetonka is one of the largest lakes in the state, boasting 110 miles of shoreline (officially). Other estimates have placed the figure closer to 350 miles, but any way you slice it, it's a BIG lake.

Various Native American tribes inhabited the area for centuries before the lake was discovered by portagers in 1822. Ancient Indian burial mounds are visible in many locations along the shoreline, and one village on the western end of the lake was originally christened "Mound City" for this reason (known today simply as Mound).

In 1852, a dam was built on Minnehaha Creek and a logger's settlement grew into the village of Minnetonka Mills. That same year, a fellow from New York City by the name of George Bertram, after a brief visit to the lake, returned to the east coast and recruited a number of his friends, establishing the "Excelsior Pioneer Association". They returned to Lake Minnetonka in 1853 and founded the town of Excelsior on the southern side of the lower lake.

Wayzata (Dakota for "North Shore"), was founded in 1854, followed by Deephaven, Orono, and nearly a dozen other townships and municipalities.

The years before the turn of the 20th century were boom years for the lake area. Rail lines reached Wayzata in 1867 bringing visitors from many parts of the country. To accommodate the sightseers, grand Victorian hotels sprung up in every corner of the lake. The Lake Park Hotel on the shores of Tonka Bay, erected in 1879, was one of the finest. A travel guide boasted "The long luxurious porches with their easy chairs and entrancing views cast a Circes' spell over time." Other attractions included tennis, billiards, amateur theatricals, and a first-class orchestra which gave concerts morning and evening.

Elegant steamship lines escorted visitors on tours of the lake. The "City of Saint Louis" was a 160-foot side wheeler built in 1881. It could carry 1000 passengers and is said to have been the first inland water vessel to be equipped with electric lights. Before long, bayside casinos were a local feature. The Excelsior Casino was an impressive pavilion-style structure, with a sweeping view of the lake. It was located at the North end of Water Street.

In a span of twenty five years, Lake Minnetonka was transformed from a remote outpost into a fashionable tourist destination. 150 years later, Lake Minnetonka remains a favorite playground for thousands of visitors annually. A number of cruise lines still offer tours of the lake, some even operate restored antique boats. There are dozens of beautifully maintained parks and beaches. And special events, exhibits and festivities of all kinds are held throughout the year.

Get Busy!

The spring months bring countless opportunities for wholesome family activities. To find out about happenings in the Lake Minnetonka area, visit our complete Calendar of Events!

Lake Minnetonka: An area steeped in history

From the days when Dakota Indians inhabited her shores, leaving behind ancient burial mounds which are still visible today, to the era of the steam locomotive and the paddle wheeler when grand Victorian hotels and amusement parks stood proudly on her banks, there has always been something alluring about this enchanted body of water. Learn more...