Until the 18th Century, Lake Minnetonka was a secret to nearly everyone except for the Native Americans. Although they were never permanent settlers, the Dakota, Ojibwe, Iowa, and Cheyenne people all lived around the lake at different times. There were likely people inhabiting the region as far back as 8000 BCE at the end of the last ice age. They frequently used the woodlands surrounding the lake as burial and hunting grounds because of its great spiritual importance.
The first recorded people of European descent to visit the lake were Joseph Brown and Will Snelling, two 14 year-old boys who traveled up Minnehaha Creek by canoe and came upon the headwaters of the lake in 1822.
In 1851, two million acres of native land transferred to the United States government. This included Lake Minnetonka, which officially received its name from Minnesota territorial governor Alexander Ramsey in 1852. The name is derived from a Dakota word meaning “big water.” Excelsior, Lake Minnetonka’s first white settlement, was established by immigrants from New York the same year.
Within a couple of years of Excelsior’s settlement, developers claimed or purchased nearly all of the 125-plus miles of shoreline around Lake Minnetonka. Grand hotels, railroads, and steamboats became common, making the lake a popular tourist destination. The 1880s and 1890s are known as its tourism heyday thanks to the proliferation of railroads and trolleys. They made the lake more accessible than ever for people across the country. The tourism business along Lake Minnetonka drastically declined at the turn of the century due to economic depression. However, it remains a popular tourist destination to this day thanks to a period of rapid resettlement in the early-to-mid 20th Century.
Gray’s Bay Dam
One of the more significant developments on Lake Minnetonka in the 20th Century was the construction of Gray’s Bay Dam. It took 10 years for the completion of the dam. In 1979, development finished and it began controlling the flooding on Lake Minnetonka and Minnehaha Creek. It was designed to mimic natural flooding patterns to account for changes in weather. Gray’s Bay Dam operates throughout the spring, summer, and fall seasons. The dam helps keep water in Minnehaha Creek during dry seasons. Additionally, it enhances recreation and wildlife and maintains or improves conditions on the lake and creek. It remains an integral part of the management and ecosystem of Lake Minnetonka. The dam is part of the reason why the lake remains a popular tourist destination in the 21st Century.