Lake Minnetonka history: Water levels push higher

By: Tom LaVoie

Last time we examined the survey and settlement area of John Carman. John was a survey pro who came from Ohio with orders to survey the 30 million acres of settlement lands produced by the Traverse Treaty, which was approved by our U.S.A. congress and president Millard Fillmore.

As a matter of record, the 12-foot high dam at today’s roads of Minnetonka Boulevard and Plymouth Road was completed on Jan. 1 of 1853. It was very cold at that time of the year and the waters of the lake were not flowing yet.

Ice and snow melt would come in the spring and, with the height of the dam at Minnetonka Mills being 12 feet high, not much of the water would make its way down what is known today as Minnehaha Creek. Those snow melt waters would fill all of the creek area that existed to Gray’s Bay of the Lake, then it would further raise the height of Lake Minnetonka’s waters. It would raise levels higher than they had been prior to the dam being constructed. Remember, that dam would exist for 44 years from Jan. 1 of 1853,

All of this is important when one thinks of John Carman doing his survey work in the areas of Spring Park, Navarre, Casco Point, and places like Phelps Bay, West Arm and Cooks Bay. Knowing the lake area, and considering the location of the commons docks in the Mound area, one may think to consider that, as water levels became higher and surveying was done, the property stakes would be placed in areas where the lands meet the water.

This means that at this time the waters were at the highest possible points. As time passed and the sawmill was built, the waters would be released from the dam. Each season the waters would lower due to the lake being poured down the creek to create the power for the mills.

There were additional mills added to the creek further and further downstream. There was a mill in St. Louis Park and another in Edina. The Edina mill was at 50th Street where the creek is today. At that location, you can see the footing blocks in the small park that exists right at the concrete falls in Edina. There is a small lake behind the falls dam at that site.

As John Carman did his surveys, he was placing stakes at lands in all the areas of the present day Mound commons. Over time, as sales of the properties changed hands and the parcels of land were subdivided, the width amounts of lands would change. But because the dam stayed in the same location at 12 feet for 44 years, boundary points from the land to the water were in the same general location.

A high water mark was noted by John back in those times, and with the water level being higher in 1853 than when the new dam was built at Gray’s Bay in 1897, a surprise came to those land owners that John Carmen first surveyed. The surprise was that the water levels dropped in 1897 and the lake moved away from the property stakes.

There was now a gap of land that had been under water for 44 years, and is now exposed due to the lower water level. That land area changed by waters amounted in places as much as 25 to 30 feet. That is the area of what we call today the Mound commons. If you doubt this logic, consider the very old locations of boathouses that exist in the areas where John Carman surveyed. Many of those old boathouses still exist in their locations much higher about the water level than today.

One must scratch their heads and wonder how anyone back in those early days got a boat to those high floors or levels of storage looking at the 929.4 feet above sea level mark of Lake Minnetonka today? In short they did not have to, the water level was higher back in the early days from 1853 to 1897. Those 44 years of high water created the marshlands with all the cattails, the Lost Lake of Mound was not lost at that time. It was full of water with easy access to float the top of the waters. I also believe that Lake Langdon, which today is shown on maps as being connected to Lake Minnetonka by a culvert below Commerce Boulevard in Mound, was connected to Lake Minnetonka in a large way.

The grading and moving of soils that took place in the settlements of the larger communities like Excelsior, Mound and Spring Park may have in fact been done to create roadways that filled in lake areas. One would have to review the communities with a GPS set on sea level reference to review that mystery.

The most important consideration of John Carman’s work is the fact that when he started his survey work, the goal for Lake Minnetonka was to get it as high as possible for the moving of timber. The dam was built for that reason, and there was to be a saw mill at the Minnetonka Mills site and another mill in Excelsior.

Earnestly, John went in his detailed survey work of the lands as the lake level was higher than it had ever been in the Native American history. Think of all the lake access homes that could have existed today had the dam for Lake Minnetonka stayed at Minnetonka Mills instead of being moved back to Grays Bay.

Miles and miles of homes could exist between Grays Bay and Minnetonka Mills. The size of the boats that navigated that lake area in those years was up to 50 feet long. That was the largest boat that could turn around in the mill pond in front of the Burwell House.

You can still see the remains of some of that pond area in front of the present day Burwell House. Some of the pond has been filled in, but using a creative eye one can look to the past and see the pond at the site. As one looks back west from the Plymouth Road location, you can see the land today has a much deeper cut than today’s creek. That cut is the old lake level showing you its path from 1853 to 1897. Check it out sometime, it is a fun time to look back into history – the evidence is there.