Recently, a patron requested information about a sunken boat rumored to lie at the bottom of Lake Elmo. This boat has reportedly been sighted by boaters above and even from the air. One of our knowledgeable volunteers as well as our genealogy and history librarian looked into this story and discovered the following.
The sunken boat may have been a steamboat that belonged to Elmo Park (pictured), a popular summer resort on Lake Elmo that had its heyday from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s. Built in 1877 by lawyer and businessman A.B. Stickney, Elmo Park was located on the northeast shore of Lake Elmo, and consisted of the 58-room “Elmo Lodge” hotel as well as numerous outbuildings.[i] The resort quickly became popular due to its location within walking distance of the St. Paul, Stillwater & Taylor’s Falls railroad. This meant pleasure-seekers from St. Paul could ride one of the weekly Sunday excursion trains and be lakeside in 25 minutes for a mere 10 cents (1889 cost).[ii]
According to local stories, the “ghost boat” was one of Elmo Park’s steamboats. The steamboat was said to have a barge attached to it on which a band would play while the passengers danced on deck as the boat ferried them around the lake. How or why the boat sank is not known but one story is that a boiler on the boat exploded and caused it to sink.[iii] While we could not locate any substantiation for the exploding boiler story in newspaper or other local sources, we did find a possible clue in a newspaper article that ran in the Saint Paul Globe on July 11, 1890. The article reports on a fire that had broken out the morning before, on July 10, at Elmo Park. The article reported that while the fire caused no human casualties, the hotel was totally destroyed along with the personal effects of the 60 guests in residence. The article goes on to say that “all the large fleet of boats except one craft [emphasis added] was saved.”[iv] As it was common practice to sink or scuttle out of service boats, one possibility is that the wreckage of the destroyed boat was scuttled only to later reappear as the mysterious ghost ship.
Diving teams looked for the sunken boat in the 1930s, apparently without success. Later, in the 1950s, a diving team did locate the wreckage but could not raise interest from local organizations to recover the wreckage so the boat continues to sit at the bottom of the lake.[v]
As for the Elmo Park resort, the hotel was rebuilt after the 1890 fire as the “Club House,” but it too burned down in September 1900.[vi] The resort’s fortunes had been on the decline since the mid-1890s as streetcar lines to suburban towns like White Bear, Excelsior and Wayzata increased, and they became popular weekend escapes from the cities. Lake Elmo, reachable only by train, dwindled in popularity.[vii] The resort went out of business by the early 1900s.
[i] Gloria VanDemmeltraadt, Memories of Lake Elmo (Self-published, 2013), 6.
[ii] Oakdale Lake Elmo Historical Society, The History of Oakdale Township (1996), 117. Van Demmeltraadt, 6-7.
[iii] VanDemmeltraadt, 243.
[iv] “Elmo Lodge Burned.” Saint Paul Daily Globe. July 11, 1890, 2, column 2. Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub, https://www.mnhs.org/newspapers/hub
[v] VanDemmeltraadt, 243. “Bad Fire at Lake Elmo.” Saint Paul Daily Globe. September 19, 1900, 2, column 7. Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub, https://www.mnhs.org/newspapers/hub
[vi] VanDemmeltraadt, 6.
[vii] VanDemmeltraadt, 8.