Lake Minnetonka history: Construction tough for settlers

By: Tom LaVoie

A water level report to begin, the Lake Minnetonka water level is at 929.38 as I type this week’s words. That is only two-one hundredths of a foot below the high water mark. There is still 50 cubic feet of water per second flowing down the Minnehaha Creek.

At that flow rate, 3,000 cubic feet of water flows per minute, or 180,000 cubic feet per hour. That is a pretty good-sized swimming pool fill each hour. One day of that water flow gets into the numbers of 4.32 million cubic feet of water into the creek. For those of you who are more familiar with gallons, there are about 7.5 gallons of water in one cubic foot. One hour of the present discharge of 50 cubic feet per second will send about 1,350,000 gallons of water down the Minnehaha Creek.

I thought since we covered the high water mark last week, I would like to suggest finding a yardstick to carry on a historical and scientific adventure. Stand up your yardstick vertical near the waters of Lake Minnetonka. With the bottom of the stick at the ground, the top would be the high water mark for the 44 years of high water due to the dam at Minnetonka Mills.

At certain places on Lake Minnetonka, such as the Enchanted Island or Carmans Bay, the water is easy to see and compare to today’s mark. Doing this will help you find the water level was much higher than today, along with a gain of understanding how the lands would change in comparison with the water. There are some maps that people have framed in art stores of Lake Minnetonka, and the maps show more water and less land around islands, channels and shores. The largest changes are shown at the Seaton and Black Lake Channels, along with the separation of Shady and Emerald Islands.

Having that water level higher for all those construction years of settlement was a blessing. I never pointed out all the work someone needed to do to claim the lands. Before I explain the work, think for a moment about the tools of those early days. No engines were present to cut, lift, dig, pull, push, carry or crush. Work was done by hand back in those days. If you wish to cut down a tree, get a handsaw. Maybe if you are lucky, you have a friend you trust to take the other handle of a two-person handsaw. People had to work very hard to do what today a chainsaw can do in moments. Of the 160 acres that were allowed to be staked in a land claim, the owner must clear only one acre of that land for the claim to stand firm.

If you go to a large parking lot and count 69 paces, then turn 90 degrees and count another 69 paces, the square of what you stepped around would be about an acre. Now think about trees that are so thick, the sun does not shine on the ground in summer because the leaf canopy is so large. There are low bushes, ground cover and smaller trees that have to be cleared as well. Remember that bugs love to live in such places, millions of mosquitoes inhabited those thick growths. They were all alive and well back in the mid 1800s, and portable steam engines were not yet popular. Electric motors were a dream being invented. Even if electric power were to be had, the power would have to be generated to make the motors run.

It would be work by hand for those early settlers. Yes, your horse could help pull some things, or you might get a horse or an ox to pull a wagon you have loaded by hand elsewhere. Each step of the process to clear that land was done by hand. Settlers got to use the lake to possibly sell large trees to the sawmill, they could even barter a deal to have trees cut into lumber. Logs could either be floated when water was liquid or dragged over ice with the help of a horse or ox.

Everything needed to be done by hand or the work simply did not get done, and that was the case with many claims. The work was so vast, hard and full of danger that people gave up and walked away. It was simply too much for them to do. While you start your work to clear your land you must have a place to sleep, relax and live your life.

The cabin needed to be built. The minimum size was 8 feet by 10 feet. The cabin must have a working window, door, and a wood floor. Research shows the floor must specifically be a wood floor, not straw over dirt or flat rock. The cabin must also have a bed and a stove. The end result would need to be a secure place for sleeping, cooking and eating all year.

Some people built larger, like John Carman. He went for a full two bedroom home, not just a single room box. But funding, labor and knowledge of building would add up to huge assets.

Prior to staking your land, the cost for the 160 acre plot of land was $125. Settlers also needed to give an oath of support to the United States of America and the territory of Minnesota. Loyalties to Canada, France or Spain were not allowed for land ownership in the conditions of the Traverse Treaty. Sure, there may be an inspector who would allow you to have a window that did not work, or maybe your door was broken by snow load. In my personal opinion, there were exceptions to the written rules of the settlement. But the work was to be done, and the efforts needed to be mostly by hand.

As I drive the lakeshore roads and think back to those early settlement times, I grow tired just thinking about all that work. Weeks, months, years, all by hand. With the machines of today and the energies we command at our disposal, even rechargeable battery chain saws are in our toolboxes. Life is good. It was so much harder back in those early settlement days.