“In the land of the Dacotahs,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his famous epic poem Song of Hiawatha, “Where the Falls of Minnehaha / Flash and gleam among the oak-trees / Laugh and leap into the valley.”
Longfellow’s poem was published in 1855 to immediate success and, though the poet never actually visited the area, his work ensured the fame of Minnehaha Falls throughout Europe and America. The falls became an international tourist destination and at various times featured a zoo, carnival, horse racing track, and a number of rowdy bars nearby. Tens of thousands of people camped at the falls each year until the 1930’s.
The same year as the Song of Hiawatha was published, the Fort Ridgely Territorial Road opened passage from Minneapolis to Wayzata, followed by a stagecoach route and train line, making Lake Minnetonka suddenly accessible to locals and tourists alike. Steamboats carried passengers, mail and goods from Minnetonka Mills to points throughout the lake.
In the years after the Civil War, tourists, including wealthy southerners and easterners began coming to the “healthy waters” of Lake Minnetonka and hotels began popping up to accommodate the influx of visitors. In a seven-year window, the summer visitors to the lake increased more than 30-fold, reaching more than 200,000 in 1883.
However, the boom did not last. Around that time, quarter-acre lots on Lake Minnetonka were sold to a growing group of summer cottage owners and transportation improvements provided access to more vacation destinations elsewhere.
A brief revival of the tourism industry came at the turn of the 20th century when the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) ran a steam-powered streetcar line from Lake Harriet in Minneapolis to Excelsior where its fleet of boats and ferries extended service across Lake Minnetonka. The TRCT opened the Big Island amusement park in 1906, and took over the Tonka Bay Hotel. The park and hotel closed five years later and the excursion boats and ferries ended service by 1914. Streetcar boat service continued until 1926 and automobiles ultimately put the streetcars out of business in 1954.
The primary economic activity in the watershed at this time was farming. Most of what the first pioneers planted they ate themselves. Wheat, oats, and ginseng were cash crops they could sell to markets near and far. Many of the remaining towns of the watershed were mainly local agricultural market centers and rail stops: Victoria, Maple Plain, St. Bonifacius, and Long Lake.
The hilly terrain around Lake Minnetonka was well suited for fruit production and a series of apple, grape and assorted berry orchards sprouted up. In 1863 Excelsior’s Peter Gideon developed the area’s first winter-hardy apple, which he named after his wife, Wealthy. In 1906, Charles Haralson established University Fruit Breeding Farm at Zumbra Heights, five miles southwest of Excelsior. The area continued to produce fruit until the extended droughts of the 1930’s. Labor and materials shortages during World War II all but finished off the area’s fruit growers. The water resources in this area have not only been nice places to enjoy, but major economic engines of our communities.