Written by Sherry White:
It is no accident that most of the world’s great cities are built around great bodies of water. Whether providing essential services like drinking water and navigation, or serving as a community gathering point, lakes and rivers underpin our sense of place around the world, and certainly in Minnesota.
In the west metro, our communities sprang up along the waterfront as well, especially Lake Minnetonka and Minnehaha Creek. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD), which manages the area that includes these and hundreds of other lakes and streams, I’m using my columns to explore some of the interesting history of the watershed and this month will look at how these two iconic water bodies shaped the settlement of our region.
As I discussed in my last column, humans arrived here sometime after the last ice age and a variety of native tribes eventually set up villages along the banks of the abundant lakes and streams. European settlers first visited the area in the late 1600’s and made the first known contact with Lake Minnetonka in 1822. European settlement of the area didn’t begin in earnest until 1851, when the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota transferred ownership of much of southern Minnesota and South Dakota from the Dakota people to the United States.
Within a few years, hundreds of immigrants had settled along Lake Minnetonka, each able to claim 160 acres at a low government price as long as they built and occupied a house, fenced their property and cultivated the land right away. Excelsior was settled by the Excelsior Pioneer Association, a colony of some 40 New Yorkers who paid dues into a settlement fund and, in return, received a house site in town and up to 160 acres for $1.25 per acre. Early residents of Excelsior also enjoyed the “Public Grounds”, currently known as The Excelsior Commons, where a dance pavilion, bath houses, boat works and other ventures have been located through the years.
In 1855, Oscar Garrison founded the town of Wayzata and where he was a partner in business with Lucius Walker on a steam-powered sawmill and other interests. The year before, the first hotel on Lake Minnetonka, the Harrington Inn, had opened in Wayzata’s woods and the first cabins were built in Mound. By 1860 the entire watershed had been claimed, most of the forest logged, and most of the prairie plowed. Agriculture became the dominant industry of the area.
Meanwhile, Minnehaha Creek – a much more powerful stream than the one we know today – became the site of several water-powered mills. The nucleus of the cities we know today formed around each mill and its accompanying roads and rail links.
The village of Minnetonka Mills was the easternmost port of Lake Minnetonka after the mill was built in 1852 two miles downstream of the lake, making the creek navigable up to that point.
With the first lumber they cut, the owners erected the Minnetonka Hotel the following year, and a furniture factory in 1855. In the mid-1850’s grist mills, which ground wheat into flour, were constructed along the creek in present day Richfield, Edina and south Minneapolis near Minnehaha Falls and the communities flourished around them. The city of St. Louis Park built out around the Globe Flour Mill where today’s Excelsior Boulevard crosses Minnehaha Creek.
The construction of the first dam at Gray’s Bay in 1897 solved many of the flooding issues on the lake and creek. The new dam tamed the stream and ended the milling era, though many had already struggled to compete with the rise of steam power and the larger flow at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.
Today most of us have less of a direct economic reliance on these water resources, but still rely on them for recreation, beauty and a sense of place. At MCWD we’re working to preserve and improve the health of these waters while integrating them into the surrounding landscape to promote vibrant, livable communities. Learn more about the history of the watershed and how you can take part in MCWD’s 50th anniversary at minnehahacreek.org/50.