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Sunken treasures in Lake Waconia, White Bear Lake

The side-wheel steamer White Bear pulled into a dock on White Bear Lake.


By Tom Meersman - Star Tribune

Move over, Lake Minnetonka.

The largest lake in the Twin Cities metro area isn't the only one with shipwrecks strewn across its depths.

A pair of archaeologists have found the remains of several sunken vessels on the bottoms of White Bear Lake in Ramsey County and Lake Waconia in Carver County.

Ann Merriman and her husband, Chris Olson, reported the findings recently of surveys they took last August.

They used high-quality sonar equipment to scan the bottom of lakes and rivers methodically, searching for possible archaeological sites.

In White Bear Lake, they found three new shipwrecks "for sure," said Merriman, along with three probable and 14 possible wrecks. In Lake Waconia, Merriman and Olson found 10 probable wrecks and 22 possible wrecks.

The couple founded the nonprofit Maritime Heritage Minnesota in 2005, and studied all of Minnetonka's lake bottoms in 2011 and 2012.

Most of the findings are valuable as history rather than sunken treasure, since the steamboats, barges, sailboats and other objects they've identified were usually stripped of anything valuable and intentionally sunk when they became damaged or obsolete.

1880s tourism was different

"They're reminding us that there is a history underneath those lakes, and that history is related to times quite different than today as far as recreation and industry," said Scott Anfinson, Minnesota state archaeologist, referring to the researchers.

Like Minnetonka, White Bear Lake and Waconia have a long history of boating, including ferries and steamboats that carried tourists to lakefront hotels and amusements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"If you look at a picture of Excelsior or Wayzata from 1880, you'd think you're looking at St. Louis," Anfinson said. "You'll see 10 big steamboats docked, some of them large enough to carry 1,000 passengers."

Early boat traffic brought supplies to the pioneers who settled on White Bear Lake, Waconia and Minnetonka before there were many roads and bridges, Anfinson said.

They also brought tourists from Minneapolis and St. Paul who took the railroad or trolley lines to the lakes and continued by ferries, steamers and smaller launches.


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