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Solving the Mystery of a 150 Year Old Photo

As this history blog has grown, I frequently have individuals reach out with historical questions. Most of these exchanges are quick in nature - questions about historical dates, timelines, buildings, locations, and a few historical corrections (let's be honest I'm bound to miss some details here and there). However, a message came to my inbox earlier this month that piqued my interest. A fellow history lover reached out asking me to pinpoint the location of this picture taken in 1873.

The photo in question, two sources list this photo as a scene at Lake Minnetonka and Lake Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska

The email read “I don’t know if this is something you can supply any info on, but the historians around Lake Minnetonka have been trying to analyze the attached photo of some watercraft…” The email further went on to explain that this photo appeared in a historical book about Lake Minnetonka called A Directory of Old Boats. The author of the book believed this image of the several skiffs was taken at Lake Minnetonka in 1873.

However, the writer of the email explained that he is an experienced sailor at Lake Minnetonka; he isn’t aware of a swath of shoreline on Minnetonka that would match the location of the above photograph. The curious historian presumed that this could be a scene at Lake Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska, but wasn’t quite sure that could be correct either. To make matters more complicated, this image appears in archives at both the Excelsior Lake Minnetonka Historical Society as a scene at Lake Minnetonka and the Hennepin County Digital Library archives where the photograph is labeled at Bde Maka Ska. Hoping to solve the mystery of the photo’s elusive location, the historian asked for my partnership in determining the location of the photo.

The process of elimination: throwing out Bde Maka Ska

I initially discarded the presumption that this scene took place at Bde Maka Ska. The shoreline of the lake was drastically altered during the Minneapolis Park Board dredging project that created the lakeshore we know and love today. However, even before the lake was dredged, there were neither any islands nor peninsulas at the lake that would line up with the shoreline of the photograph.

I had a second thought that this image could have been at Cedar Lake. Cedar Lake once housed a skiff livery known as the Dingley Dockhouse from the 1890s through 1940s. However, of the many photos taken at Dingley’s, I didn’t see any sailboats or other boats similar to the ones pictured.

Could this be Lake Minnetonka?

I next enlisted the help of one of my favorite tools, Google Maps, to scour the shoreline of Lake Minnetonka to help spot potential locations that this photograph could’ve taken place at. I used two focal points in the above photo: the small island off the shore, and the raised hill in the far right background.

If this was Lake Minnetonka, the location would have to be near an island close to shore. This brought me to Bug Island, a small island in St. Louis Bay that serves as a mooring compound for the nearby Minnetonka Yacht Club on Light-House Island. If this was correct, the hill in the distance would be Chimo Hill. However, the sightlines didn't add up for this location to be correct; Bug Island is further from shore than the island pictured, which threw out this idea.

My second presumption was that this scene could have taken place at St. Albans Bay, the southeastern most bay at Lake Minnetonka. On the eastern shore of this bay is the location of the abandoned village of St. Albans. Although there aren’t any remnants of the ghost town today, St. Albans once contained a sawmill, an inn, and several dwellings. For a few short years in the 1850s, the village of St. Albans appeared to be mildly prosperous and once rivaled the nearby town of Excelsior. However, the financial panic of 1857 and a fire at the sawmill in 1859 resulted in the death of the village of St. Albans; with the majority of the townsfolk moving on to other nearby communities.

1855 plat map of the city of St. Albans

If my second hunch was correct, the island in the background would be St. Albans Island, which was converted into a private island in 2004 with a whopping 14,000 square foot mansion with nine bathrooms and six fireplaces. (And could be yours for the low, low price of $9 million!) If this guess was correct, the hill pictured in the far right background would be none other than Beacon Hill, known today as the Oak Hill Cemetery in Excelsior.

However, this hunch didn’t quite add up either. With the abandonment of St. Albans Village in 1859, this nook of the lake remained uninhabited until the early 1900s. The fence on the shoreline looked too manicured for an abandoned ghost town of 14 years by the time the photograph was taken.

A New Clue

After some back and forth, my partner in history then sent me a more decisive photo a few days later. This second photo was taken approximately at the same time as the first photo, and was featured in the quarterly magazine, Hennepin History, in the summer of 1996.

This second photo appears to be taken a few steps back from the first photo, yet this second photograph unveils striking new clues to the mystery. First, there are nine people pictured, these individuals are wearing clothing that would synonymously be worn with the middle class during this period of time. The two lefternmost people in the frame appear to be holding a guitar and another musical instrument. We are also introduced to a wooden clad building on the bluff overlooking the lake. This home has a farmer’s porch, six windows on the second story, and a singular chimney in the center of the gabled roof. We can also see the far right background more clearly as a ridge along the shoreline rather than a singular hill.

More telling than these details though is the caption of the photo, "from an advertising card for Lake Calhoun House (“A Delightful Resort for Boating, Fishing & Hunting”) J. A. McKenzie, Prop., ca 1873."

This caption raised two immediate questions; what was the Lake Calhoun House and where was it located?

The Lake Calhoun House

Approximately 1870s photograph of the future location of the Lake of the Isles canal. The Lake Calhoun House is in the distance between the trees

I went down a rabbit hole trying to find out more about the Lake Calhoun House as the location of this building would be a huge clue to solving the puzzle. Hoping to find a definitive photo of this house, I took to databases and other resources to hunt for this house without any luck.

Next, I turned to old newspaper archives to turn up any information I could find on the elusive Lake Calhoun House. These archives proved to be a bountiful source of information, which is compiled here.

On August 28, 1874, William Ivory, the initial proprietor of the Lake Calhoun House - which operated as a modest bed and breakfast for travelers going to Minneapolis from the western cities of St. Louis Park and Minnetonka - sold the property to an entrepreneurial hotelier by the name of Frank Lawrence for $10,000. Mr. Ivory and his wife had been in the hotel business for years, previously operating a small hotel at Minnetonka Mills. The Ivorys were ready to retire and move to be closer to family near Seattle.

Frank C. Lawrence, his wife Mary E. Lawrence, their daughter Ida and their 19-year-old son hailed from the St. Anthony Falls neighborhood (present day Marcy Holmes) off of 4th Street SE. Expecting his new hotel venture to be prosperous, Lawrence sold his St. Anthony Falls property for $3,000 to his neighbor, Herman Leighton.

The finalized sale of the Lake Calhoun House included the seven acres of land, the house, the outbuildings, the boats, and the furniture within. After the Lawrences moved their belongings to the new house and made some minor improvements to the property, they hosted a grand re-opening of the Lake Calhoun House on September 9 of 1874. At the Lawrence family’s grand reopening, neighbors and the community were invited to a night of dancing and dinner at the re-opened bed and breakfast.

I was hoping that this could be a happy ending for Frank Lawrence and his family at the Lake Calhoun House, but things quickly took a turn for the worst. Just two weeks after the house changed ownership Frank’s seven-year-old daughter, Ida Lawrence, drowned at Bde Maka Ska. Ida’s brother witnessed the event as Ida took one of her father’s new boats into the lake.

As Ida was sailing some distance offshore at the lake, her shawl blew off the boat into the water. In attempting to reach for the shawl which had fallen from the boat, Ida lost her balance and fell into the lake. Her brother watching from the shore immediately plunged into the lake to swim for Ida, but before he could reach the place of the accident, Ida bobbed underneath the water and did not surface again. Mr. and Mrs. Frank Lawrence were in downtown Minneapolis at the time of the accident, the parents were met with the devastating news when they returned to the Lake Calhoun House later that evening.

Despite the tragic passing of Ida, the Lawrence family continued as hosts at their modest bed and breakfast. The Lawrences attempted to keep activities at the Lake Calhoun House entertaining, hosting a horse race across the frozen lake on New Year's Day of 1875, clearing a swath of ice for ice skating, and hosting quartet bands on their property in the warmer months for guests to enjoy.

It wasn’t long before tragedy struck again for the Lawrence family on July 28, 1875 as a fire broke out at the Lake Calhoun House. Within thirty minutes, the Lake Calhoun House and the accompanying barn had completely burnt down. Consumed by the fire included the family’s prized piano, their cash savings, five sets of bedroom furniture, clothing, and artwork.

Mr. Frank Lawrence again was in the city for business purposes at the time of the fire. He was not aware of the calamity which had taken place until he was back within sight of the smoke from the ruins of his famed Lake Calhoun House.

Within less than a year at the Lake Calhoun House the Lawrences lost their daughter, the house, and their life savings. The insurance payout for the fire was modest, but the family was unable to rebuild. They returned to St. Anthony Falls eleven months later empty-handed and mourning.

Putting the Location of the Photos to Bed

But where exactly was Frank Lawrence’s Lake Calhoun House? We know that Ida drowned at Bde Maka Ska, but this doesn't solve the mystery of the location of the photos.

An article regarding the foreclosure at the Lawrence property mentions the location of the home (although in the most absurd way I’ve ever read). The article reads that “the said mortgage will be foreclosed, and the lands therein described, lying and being situated in the county of Hennepin, State of Minnesota, to-wit: commencing on the south shore of the Lake of the Isles, and running south 4 degrees west to a point on the north shore of Lake Calhoun, which point is 219 feet west of the meander post in lot 6, in section 32, township 29, range 24, where the east line of the said section crosses said shore; thence west along said shore, 460 feet; thence north 4 degrees east to the south shore of Lake of the Isles; thence east along said shore to the place of beginning, containing two acres of land, more or less; and being said part of lot 6. Also, lot 2 in said section."

Essentially, the location of the Lake Calhoun House was on the isthmus between Lake of the Isles and Bde Maka Ska - approximately where the Lake of the Isles Dog Park is situated today. In the early 1870s, the area between the two lakes was fairly remote and rather swampy. In fact, there were only six other homes on Lake of the Isles at this time grouped along the eastern shore of the lake.

1870s map that identifies the location of the Lake Calhoun House

After the Lake Calhoun House burnt down, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad purchased the property to build a new railroad track on the isthmus between the two lakes. The railroad company built an earthen causeway, filling in the land that had once formed the third and fourth islands at Lake of the Isles. For over one hundred years, the railroad used this corridor until the tracks were converted to form the Midtown Greenway in the early 2000s.

1890s image viewing the isthmus between Bde Maka Ska and LOTI. Here, the two former islands are still clearly visible as part of the causeway for the railroad

Thus, the mystery of the location of these photos can finally be put to bed. The photographs take place at neither Lake Minnetonka nor Bde Maka Ska as previous archives suggest. Rather, the images take place on the southern shore of Lake of the Isles prior to its dredging, looking west towards the Lake Calhoun House and one of the former islands. The ridge in the background exists today, now dotted by several regal mansions on West Lake of the Isles Parkway.

If you have any questions on historical mysteries, please reach out at, I can't guarantee I'll always be able to solve them. But sometimes, a 150 year old mystery can finally be put to bed.


Diamond, A.S. “Hennepin County - Lake Minnetonka Only” John R. Borchet Library, 1892.

Bordon, Benjamin G. “City of St. Albans on Lake Minnetonka” Hennepin County Digital Library, 1855.

Green, E. B. “Hennepin History, Volume 55, No. 3” Hennepin County Digital Library, Summer, 1996. P. 24.

“Ivory’s Lake Calhoun House Sold.” The Minneapolis Tribune, August 28, 1874. P .4.

“To Pleasure Seekers” The Minneapolis Tribune, June 1, 1875. P. 4.

“Real Estate” The Minneapolis Tribune, August 30, 1874. P. 5.

“Brief Mention” The Minneapolis Tribune, September 9, 1874. P. 4.

“Girl Drowned” The Minneapolis Tribune, September 15, 1874. P. 4.

“The Drowned Girl” The Minneapolis Tribune, September 16, 1874. P. 4.

“Horse Trot” The Minneapolis Tribune, December 30, 1874. P. 4.

“Fire at Lake Calhoun: The Residence and Barn of Frank Lawrence Destroyed Yesterday Morning” The Minneapolis Tribune, July 29, 1875. P. 4.

“Notice of Mortgage Sale” The Minneapolis Journal, August 11, 1880. P. 3.

Upton, B. F. “Lake Minnetonka Views” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1873.

Warner & Foote “Map of Hennepin County, Minnesota” Hennepin County Digital Library, 1874.

“Plan of the City of Minneapolis and Vicinity” Hennepin County Digital Library, 1874.

“From the Parish Archives: Lake of the Isles” Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles, October 2, 2017.

Warner, George E. "Map of Hennepin County, Minnesota, Drawn from Actual Surveys and the County Records" Hennepin County Digital Library, 1879.

"Bde Maka Ska with Lake of the Isles in the distance, Minneapolis, Minnesota" Minnesota Digital Library.

Special Thanks:

A special thanks to my historical partner, who without their information and added sources I wouldn't have known about or been able to solve the location of these photographs.

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Oct 31, 2022

Fascinating article! I'd never heard of this house nor knew about those islands. I've wlaked and rode my bike over that causeway many times; of course, after it became the Midtown Greenway. And that legal description of the foreclosed land is still the way they describe large plots of land to this day. It's referred to as "metes and bounds" and they can get ridiculously long in rural or undeveloped areas!

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Superb article and dedicated work researching the photos .

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