Lake Minnetonka history: Short history for lake hotel

By: Tom LaVoie

James J. Hill wanted to build a "come to the lake hotel" of a grand scale for his railroad riders in the late 1800s. He decided on a location of land between Lafayette Bay and Crystal Bay.

He built the hotel to the size of 300 rooms and scheduled the opening to be July 2, 1882. It was a very large hotel for its time, and certainly for its location. As a historian, it is difficult to determine, from pictures of the past in comparison to the present day, if the front of the hotel faced the Lafayette Bay or Crystal Bay. Clearly, the J.J. Hill steam train tracks were to the front of the hotel. The train could stop directly in front of the hotel, and in doing so, allowing passengers to walk directly from the train cars to the hotel for check in. Convenience was the key word, though I am not sure if the noise from the future trains chugging past the hotel would generate an appreciated sound.

The docks and beaches were beyond the rail tracks that were between the hotel and the waters edge. Yes, we are talking about the "grand daddy hotel" of James J. Hill – his Lafayette Hotel. It has been said that parts of the hotel were used to create the Lafayette Country Club. This historian could not tell which parts, nor which conditions those parts would have been in when they were used for the country club. The hotel was large for its day – the front measured over 740 feet wide. That frontage would allow for spectacular view of the lake on both the front and back of the massive hotel. It was considered the finest hotel west of New York City at the time it was built. There were four levels, in height, of windows to view Lake Minnetonka in places of the hotel. Further, above those four levels was an observation tower, in the center of the hotel, which positioned itself like a lighthouse tower.

At the very top of the tower roof was a large flagpole with the American Flag at the top of the mast. Choosing Independence Day for the opening of his Lafayette Hotel, the anticipation of holiday fireworks was, of course, on the agenda for the celebration. The hotel had its massive share of those fireworks on that Fourth of July in 1882.

As was the case for the J.J. Hill’s Del Otero Hotel, the cruise boats of Lake Minnetonka came to the hotel’s docks to pick up passengers to tour the lake and, for the opening weekend, watch the amazing fireworks. For the builders who understand construction, the Lafayette Hotel used over 3 million feet of lumber in the construction of the hotel. The lands of the hotel were mostly void of trees, which had been logged prior to the hotels construction. The roofs of the hotel were made of red cedar wood shakes. The exterior of the hotel was stained a dark olive green to blend with the natural look of the lands. The color simply added to the impression of the size of the hotel. It was, by far, James J Hill’s largest destination hotel on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. It had elevators to transport people to their floors; it had electric lights and natural gas in every residence room. With the peninsula shape to the lands, and the position of the hotel, each room had an outstanding view of Lake Minnetonka.

The grounds were perfect for lawn tennis, and there were scheduled tournaments. The hotel had a bowling alley, a dance hall and a billiards room. There was also a baseball diamond on the grounds, with plenty of room for the long ball homeruns. The golf course of the Lafayette Country Club was still years in the future. The lake activities were all part of the hotel destination events.

James J. Hill knew what his train travelers enjoyed, and he saw that their needs were met time-and-time again. Hill had the nickname of the Empire Builder, and The Lafayette and The Del Otero were grand examples of the empire he wanted to build.

We learned last week that the Del Otero Hotel burned to the ground in 1945. Unfortunately, the Lafayette did not live the long life of service as the Del Otero. The Lafayette burned the same year the new dam was built at Grays Bay. The fire took place on Oct. 5, 1897. The hotel was closed to seasonal residents on Oct. 1. It was said that massive amounts of dishware and dining utensils were loaded to train cars, along with linens and furniture, prior to the fire. Some had suggested that valuables had been removed from the Lafayette, prior to the fire, not to lose them. In reality, the Northern Pacific railroad, the James J. Hill owned one that traveled from Chicago to the Rocky Mountains, used the items over the winter months while the hotel was closed. Whatever caused the fire at the Lafayette Hotel was a hidden mystery to those who investigated.

It was said that some of the items of the original construction were used to begin construction of the Lafayette Country Club and Golf Course – a perfect setting on the land of the old hotel. I saw that with tongue in cheek, with only 15 years of service compared to the 60 years the Del Otero was operated.

The Lafayette was the largest of the J.J. Hills creations – over 740 feet wide, with 100 feet front-to-back and 90 feet tall plus roof heights. It was the grandest of hotels built by Hill and it only served the public for 15 years before it was taken from its patrons by a terrible fire.

The lake level is down a bit this week. Currently, it sits at 928.8 with 12 cubic feet per second of discharge down the Grays Bay dam – 324,000 gallons spilling down the creek per hour.