Back in 1980, pulling the sunken steamboat Minnehaha from the depths of Lake Minnetonka required three cranes, three barges and 20 divers. Next year, getting the tour boat out of the lake will present a different kind of challenge: There’s nowhere to put it.
Since the 113-year-old salvaged shipwreck was restored and returned to service as a tour boat in 1996, the Minnehaha has entered the lake in May and exited in September at a borrowed launch site in Shorewood. In winter, the big wooden vessel is stored in a barnlike building next door.
Now the owner of the land the launch site occupies wants to sell the valuable lakeshore property. Although the steamboat could launch from there next spring, in the fall it would need somewhere else to emerge. Officials of the Museum of Lake Minnetonka, the all-volunteer nonprofit that owns and operates the boat, have not found a place.
“I’m definitely worried for the Minnehaha,” said Aaron Person, a historian for the museum and one of the steamboat’s summertime captains. “It has a place in all of our hearts and I think it should be preserved and operating for many generations to come.”
The boat was built in 1906, one of seven identical “streetcar boats” that once ferried commuters from around the lake to actual streetcars going into the cities. In 1926, the boats were deemed obsolete and scuttled.
Now restored to its former bright-yellow glory, the Minnehaha provides history cruises to about 10,000 passengers a year. It’s the only large commercial steamboat operating in the state, Person said.
“Everyone recognizes that Minnehaha is one of the most iconic things on the lake, so people are very supportive of finding a way to keep it on the lake,” said museum board member Jim Zimmerman.
Getting a 55-ton, 70-foot steamboat in and out of the water is considerably harder than launching the family speed boat — it requires an unusually long, straight and sturdy runway-like ramp. At the moment, few if any suitable ramps exist on the lake.
Then comes the problem of storage. The Minnehaha’s wooden hull would be damaged if kept in the lake when it ices over. It needs a building, ideally close to the launch site, because transporting the big boat by road on a trailer is also prohibitively difficult.
Orono businessman Gabriel Jabbour, who owns the property where the boat currently launches, is a longtime Lake Minnetonka advocate and has previously helped search for a home for the Minnehaha. He believes that keeping the boat in operation will require partnering with a lakeside city that could provide a launch and space for a storage building. Grants and passenger fares support the boat’s maintenance but wouldn’t cover a land purchase.
“They really have a serious, serious problem,” Jabbour said.
Museum officials have considered potential sites in Excelsior, Wayzata, Mound, Minnetrista and Spring Park, said board member Jeff Lambert. “Most of the cities say we’re happy to help you but they don’t have a lot of money.”
Donations could help, but museum members “haven’t tried dipping our toe in the water” of fundraising, Lambert said. They’re considering applying for the National Register of Historic Places, which might open more grant opportunities, but that process takes several years.
“It’s a difficult scenario,” said Laura Hotvet, executive director of the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Chamber of Commerce. “It is for sure going to take some vision and visionaries who are thinking of future generations. It very well could be out of the water next summer and that would be a sad thing.”