Lake Minnetonka's Storied Hotel History
"There is a lake embosomed in the West - set like a jewel in the billowy fold of Nature's green, luxuriant drapery. Here, in midsummer, when the stately woods that skirt the sinuous borders of the lake are greenest; when the lightest breezes fan the leafy banks that top the lofty trees, and fret the buoyant surface of the waves to foamy ripples - here the wearied eye, the labored footstep, and the troubled mind live best to seek among secluded haunts the rest denied them by the vexing world. Here Nature's fingers press most tenderly on grateful foreheads, and her warmest kiss consoles the chafed, impatient heart of care. Here she pursues her own harmonious thoughts, and links her fancies in a thousand charms; not overwrought, and gaudy of device, like man's inventions surfeiting the eye, bat like the unconscious beauty of a child, as full of innocence as loveliness that wins a smile, although we know not why.
This is Minnetonka, the gem of Minnesota's coronet of lake diamonds, the most charming summer resort of the entire Northwest, and without exception the queen of inland resorts for the enjoyment of life in a practical manner during the heated term."
- The St. Paul Daily Globe, June 21, 1885
The Big Water.
Prior to being recognized as a vacation and summer destination getaway, the lake and surrounding land was known to the Mdewakanton Dakota as Minnetonka - or "big water". The land was heavily forested and prime for fishing and hunting.
Around the year 1850, small communities such as Excelsior, Wayzata, Ferndale, Lake Park (now Tonka Bay), Spring Park, Mound, Greenwood, Cottagewood, Deephaven, and Crystal Bay popped up along the shores of Lake Minnetonka. These areas were first settled for their for their proximity to forested land, suited for lumber and milling. After the civil war, the industry in this area quickly shifted to hospitality as several hotels opened their doors to the public.
By the late 1800's, Lake Minnetonka had become synonymous with vacation, comfort, and pleasure to thousands of Minnesotans and beyond. At the time, Lake Minnetonka was reached from St. Paul and Minneapolis by the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba railway to Wayzata, Ferndale, Minnetonka Beach, and Spring Park; by the Minneapolis & St. Louis railway from Minneapolis to Hotel St. Louis; and by the Minneapolis, Lyndale & Minnetonka railway to Excelsior. A network of steamboats interconnected the several towns that called Lake Minnetonka home.
Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers heavily advertised these hotels and spurred investment into the construction of vaster, more grandiose resorts along the lake. Of the great resorts, Hotel St. Louis opened in 1879 in Deephaven; Hotel Lafayette in 1882 in Minnetonka Beach; and The Lake Park Hotel in 1884 in present day Tonka Bay.
In total, there were thirty-three different hotels to choose from along Lake Minnetonka by 1885, ranging in daily rates from $1 to $3 per day. The St. Paul Globe even touted that "the rates at Hotel Lafayette have been reduced from $4 to $3 a day, though the standard of the hotel will be kept up to it's former excellence, efforts even being made to surpass it." The daily rates at the premier hotels attracted an elite clientele of guests, including two former presidents in Chester Arthur and Ulysses S. Grant.
There were various activities and luxuries to keep guests entertained at these premier hotels. The Lake Park Hotel advertised modern conveniences such as electric lights, hot water, telegraph lines, summer offices, and an amusement hall suited for orchestra concerts and guest receptions.
Other hotels of note during this time were plentiful. Excelsior was home to the Excelsior House - advertised as the "leading position among hotels of Excelsior", The Slater House, The Blue Line Hotel, Kalorama cottage, and Vineland Villa. Mound had The Chapman House, and Bartlett Place (Bartlett Boulevard's namesake). Spring Park housed James J. Hill's Hotel Del Otero. Wayzata was home to Gleason House, Harrington's Hotel, and the Minnetonka House. Some of these more modest hotels and cottages attracted lower- and middle-class Minnesotans for a quick weekend getaway.
The several towns across the lake oriented their services to cater towards visitors. Wayzata was advertised as a charming community of 200 citizens at the time. In the summer of 1885 Wayzata was home to one church, a handful of general stores, a few businesses, and connections to other communities by way of steamboat and rail.
Excelsior was marketed as the premier point of interest on Lake Minnetonka. A town of 585 citizens in 1885, Excelsior had three churches, a grade school, several business establishments, a hardware store, a newspaper, and other shops and stores typically found in resort towns.
Crane Island - now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places - was considered a landmark even in the late 1800's. Crane Island achieved prominence from the fact that it was one of two known nesting places of the blue heron. Unfortunately, Crane Island became a tourist attraction as steamboats filled with onlookers made it common practice to circle the island while blowing their steam whistle. This procedure startled the blue herons to take flight in a frenzy around the island.
As the nineteenth century waned, and the twentieth century began, the Lake Minnetonka vacation and hotel industry saw a decline. Financial downturns coupled with newly developed resort towns in other areas of the country saw a close to many of the hotels in the area. In 1897, Hotel Lafayette was decimated by an electrical fire that burned the structure to it's foundation in an hour. Hotel St. Louis's wooden structure met the same fate in 1907, and was subsequently torn down.
Interestingly, in 1910, the founder of the Quaker Oats Company built a mansion on the site of Hotel St. Louis for him and his wife, In 1912, the couple went on a trip to Europe to source furniture for their new home. They booked their return journey on the HMS Titanic. The husband, Walter Douglas, went down with the Titanic. His wife, Mahala Douglas, survived because Walter ensured that she safely boarded a lifeboat. The Douglas's home still stands to this day.
Like the Douglas's home, Lake Minnetonka became increasingly populated by small cottages and large estates. The increasing suburbanization coupled with the rise of automobiles and accessibility ultimately led to fewer people choosing Lake Minnetonka as a vacation destination. During the first half of the twentieth century, many of the remaining hotels were redeveloped into lots for private residences.
Today, boutique hotels are making a big comeback along the shores of Lake Minnetonka as tourists and visitors once again are rediscovering the charm that Excelsior and Wayzata have to offer. Hotel Excelsior opened in 2020 focusing on luxury and comfort much like it's predecessors. Hotel Landing in Wayzata proudly opened it's doors in 2017, the first hotel in over half a century to do so on the lake. Reminiscent of the previous hotels on Lake Minnetonka, these new state-of-the-art hotels again bring visitors to "the gem of Minnesota's coronet of lake diamonds."
"The Lake Beautiful" - The St. Paul Daily Globe, June 21, 1885
"Lake Minnetonka Resort Hotels" - MNOpedia
"Deephaven's Historical St. Louis Hotel" - Lake Minnetonka Magazine