Two researchers who scrutinized the bottom of Lake Minnetonka for possible shipwrecks are turning their underwater sights on Lake Waconia in Carver County and White Bear Lake in Ramsey County.

Ann Merriman and her husband, Chris Olson, are archaeologists who together founded the nonprofit Maritime Heritage Minnesota in 2005. Their quest is history, not treasure, since the steamboats, barges, sailboats and other objects they've identified were usually stripped of anything valuable and intentionally sunk when they became outdated.

The couple use inexpensive but high-quality sonar equipment to scan the bottom of lakes and rivers methodically, searching for possible archaeological sites.

Merriman said she received an acceptance letter last week for a $7,000 grant from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund -- part of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment -- to survey Lake Waconia and White Bear Lake, two of the metro area's largest lakes behind Minnetonka. She said the work could be done in late summer or early fall, and will take about a week.

Waconia and White Bear have much in common with Lake Minnetonka, Merriman said.

"These three lakes had the same kinds of vessels on them," she said, and sometimes a boat built on one lake was sold and shipped to another.

Both White Bear Lake and Lake Minnetonka had yacht clubs, Merriman said.

Minnetonka and White Bear Lake were also connected by the streetcar system, she said, and each had an amusement park. Like Lake Minnetonka and its Big Island, Lake Waconia also developed a resort area with hotels and steamboats that took visitors to amusements on Coney Island.

Minnesota state archaeologist Scott Anfinson said that discoveries of the underwater wrecks tell the story of what city life was like in the early 1900s.

"It's a romantic part of Minnesota history that the public has completely forgotten about, and yet it was so important," he said.

It was a time before there was a well-developed road system in Minnesota, Anfinson said. Northern parts of the state were destinations for lumberjacks, not tourists, he said, and there was no road along Lake Superior's North Shore.

Much is known about shipwrecks in Lake Superior, Anfinson said, but not so much about what happened to boats in Minnesota's rivers and larger inland lakes.

"I was stunned that Lake Minnetonka had steamships in its early history that could carry 1,000 passengers," he said.

Rare dugout canoe

Merriman and Olson trolled the eastern half of Lake Minnetonka and Crystal Bay in the fall of 2011 and the rest of the lake last May. It was the first lake in the state to be completely surveyed archaeologically, she said.

The first round of images showed remnants of six wrecks already known in Minnetonka, and three new ones, including what are probably a steamboat, a barge and a 50-foot steam or gasoline-powered launch from the late 1800s. Several dozen smaller images may be rowboats, sailboats, cars or other long-lost items on the lake bottom.

The most recent survey in May found what may be a rare dugout canoe, and what could be the remains of the first steamboat on Lake Minnetonka, the 50-foot Governor Ramsey. Another image shows a pontoon that could have been one of the first ever built, and may have sunk during a 1965 tornado.

Merriman said that scuba diving -- and the funding to do it -- will be necessary to confirm whether the wrecks and dugout canoe are historically significant, and should be listed by the state archaeologist.

State law dictates that all shipwrecks and other historic sites on public property should be protected from looting and other disturbances, but they are not off-limits to recreational divers.

Merriman said she's interested to learn what archaeological remains are on the bottom of Lake Waconia and White Bear Lake, and compare them with Lake Minnetonka.

"From that, if we can build up a picture of the different boats that were here, then you build the history of the people that built those boats and operated those boats and owned those boats, and that's how you get a good picture of history 100 to 150 years ago," she said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388