More than a hundred years ago, well-heeled winter sailors began plying the surface of Lake Minnetonka in ice yachts. The large wooden craft, some more than 30 feet long and capable of carrying eight people, were fitted with sails and iron-shod runners. The new sport satisfied a pre-snowmobile appetite for winter thrills, with daredevil turns and speeds topping 40 mph.
Danger was part of the thrill, and death, injury and narrow escapes were the stuff of breathless newspaper stories. In December 1907, an 11-year-old girl was killed by a speeding ice boat on Lake Calhoun. In February 1908, an 18-year-old woman suffered a skull fracture when two boats collided in the dark on Calhoun. And later that month, a boy strapped to the seat of his boat sailed into open water on the same lake; another sailor pulled the submerged boy – and the boat – to safety.
But some accidents were more amusing than tragic. One unfortunately named sailor, Commodore Wetmore, forgot to anchor his unattended vessel on a windy day on Minnetonka. The account of his unfortunate loss landed on page 3 of the Minneapolis Tribune.
IS KINDLING WOOD
AWFUL FATE BEFALLS THEO. WETMORE’S ICE YACHT
Handsome and Speedy Minnetonka Craft Goes Searching for a Race Minus the Commodore, and Ends Up by Crashing Into a Pile at the Blue Line Pavilion – Jaunty Suit of Blue Discarded, and His Sailor’s Cap Has Been Hung on the Wall.
Yesterday Commodore Wetmore, of the Minnetonka Ice Yacht club, had a beautiful and speedy ice boat which was not only the pride of the commodore’s heart, but also the envy of all the ice boaters of the Minnetonka club. Today the commodore is without his boat, and his rank as commanding officer of the ice fleet seems to him nothing but the merest mockery and deceit.
He still commands, and still has all of the jauntiness of the true salt that he is, but his walk has lost some of its swagger, and his nautical commands have become but low whispers heard only by the passing breeze. The jaunty suit of blue has been discarded, and the sailor’s cap has been hung on the wall. Forgotten are the “shiver my timbers,” and “blast my topsail.” The hands that but yesterday knew the tiller and main sheet will soon lose their cunning learned by years and months of toil on the freshwater sea, and the voice that was wont to command in tones of thunder will not again this winter be heard to even whistle for a breeze.
Yesterday the commodore with three friends started for a sail in his fine ice yacht, the North Star. A spanking breeze was blowing that sent the boat along at a forty-knot clip, and the speedy clipper seemed to scarcely touch the ice as she sped with the wings of a bird up the lake. Pride and joy were in the commodore’s heart as he went speeding over the ice, secure in the thought that there was no boat on the lake that could show him a clean pair of heels, and only one that could even give him a good race. This boat he was looking for, and it was Commodore Sampson’s Red Dragon at Excelsior.
Now Commodore Wetmore was bent up the lake with the solo hope that he might meet this same Red Dragon and settle once and for all the superiority of his craft. So he proudly and boastfully sailed up and down along the water front of Excelsior, flaunting his battle pennant to the breeze as a challenge to any who might wish to try their mettle.
The North Star sailed back and forth, but no reply came to the silent challenge, the Excelsior boats being somewhat daunted by the bold defiant air of the gruff old sea dog, who so dared to beard them in their den. Finally Commodore Wetmore and his friends stopped the boat and stood on the ice discussing their contempt of anything that had sails on that part of the lake. In the heat of their imprecations they forgot that they had not moored the North Star, and suddenly the sails of the boat filled with an extra heavy gale, and the boat started in a mad chase across the bay.
Any attempts to stop the boat were useless as it was off with the speed of the wind, and almost before the commodore realized that his craft had started for parts unknown, it had bumped into one of the piles at the Blue Line pavilion. The beautiful boat was smashed into kindling wood, and the proud pennant of the commodore was thrown with the violence of the gale to a cold resting place on the ice.
A team of horses was obtained, and the wreck of the late ice challenger was hauled ruefully homeward. The sturdy commodore also took the vehicle and went home by a somewhat slower method, and more roundabout way than he had come.
Yachts lined up for what appears to be the start of a race on Minnetonka in the 1890s. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
A stout-looking two-master barreled across Minnetonka in about 1920. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
The Minnetonka Ice Yacht Club opened on St. Louis Bay in 1900. The 167-member club commanded more than 35 vessels, some shipped in from the East Coast. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
A postcard shows members of the Lake City, Minn., Ice Yacht Club in 1898. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
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Email your questions or suggestions to Ben Welter.
Minnesota issued its first driver's license in 1934. A single 25-cent fee covered licenses for every member of a household. You didn't have to prove you were a good — or apparently even sighted — driver: No test was required. A Mr. Inky Campbell of Minneapolis called attention to the situation in this persuasive letter to the editor of the Star. Within two years, Minnesota began testing prospective drivers. But vision was not part of the renewal process until 1972.
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