The Makwa Club’s Lake Calhoun Toboggan Slide
A couple of months ago I posted photos of a toboggan slide at Lake Harriet in 1914. Now I’ve rediscovered a description I had saved long ago of a toboggan slide from an earlier time on a Minneapolis lake. The Makwa Club — makwa is the Ojibwe word for “bear” — built a toboggan slide at Lake Calhoun in 1888, according to the Minneapolis Tribune, January 22, 1888.
The Tribune reported that the Makwa Club was formed in 1885 and had its first toboggan slide on Lowry Hill near Thomas Lowry’s house. For the winter of 1888 the club built a much grander slide at Lake Calhoun. The Tribune reported, “The slide is much superior to any that has been built in Minneapolis before and is probably as fine as any that is in existence in the country.”
The other toboggan slides in the city that winter were maintained by the Flour City Toboggan and Snowshoe Club and the North Star Toboggan Club. (Newspapers of the time referred often to the toboggan “craze,” much like the bicycle craze that would soon follow, and the canoe craze that came after that. Today, I suppose, we text or tweet.) The Flour City slide was a 1,000-foot slide near Ridgewood Avenue that ended near Franklin and Lyndale. The North Star slide was west of the city in what is now Theodore Wirth Park.
The Makwa slide was 220-feet long, running onto Lake Calhoun from the bluff on the east side of the lake where the Lyndale Hotel once stood. The slide had three chutes that had a drop of 55 feet and crossed both the street railway track — 15 feet above the track — and Calhoun Parkway — 24 feet above the road. (Yes, the Makwas did get the permission of the park board to build its slide over the parkway.) The slide met the lake ice about 50 feet out from the shore and the level runway continued 1,500 feet onto the lake. After a run of about 1/3 mile, toboggans hit roughed up lake ice that prevented them from running onto Lake Calhoun’s horse trotting track.
The grandest feature of the slide, however, “had never before been tried in any slide,” according to the Tribune: a wooden warming house and starting platform at the top of the slide, 10 feet off the ground. The front of the warming room was made almost entirely of glass and looked straight down the slide,. The slide was illuminated by five electric lights.
The Makwas even had an arrangement with the motor (trolley) company by which the 7:40 train out from town every evening stopped at the foot of the slide to drop off club members and the 9:57 train made a special stop at the same place to pick them up for a return to the city after an evening of mirth. The slide was for the use of club members only.
The Makwa uniform was breeches and blouse of heavy gray French wool and stockings, toque and sash of cardinal. The membership of the club was limited to 200 and included many of the best-known young men of Minneapolis. The president of the club in 1888 was English journalist Harry P. Robinson, who was featured in an earlier article about his close friend John S. Bradstreet. Bradstreet was a Makwa, as was park commissioner Eugene Wilson.
The problem with the Makwa’s grand slide was that no one was willing to pay for it. In 1891, the Tribune reported that a lawsuit had been filed — in what it called the “Makwa mess” — by the man who built the slide in an attempt to recover his costs from the officers of the defunct club. Makwa Club members had been assessed $10 each to pay for the slide in 1888, but most didn’t pay. Some claimed that the officers of the club did not have the authority to spend the money on the slide. (I wonder if these claimants used the slide!) Of the $800 charged to build the slide, only about $300 had been paid. The Makwa directors, including Robinson, then sued individual members who hadn’t paid up. The Tribune reported on only two of those cases: one was not contested and the other lost on a technicality.
One of the “chief forms of pleasure that the belles and bloods of the city indulged in” that winter through “the most select of all the clubs” ended up being a free toboggan ride for most of them. (Tribune, March 20, October 18, December 22, 1891.)
By the fall of 1891, however, Makwa president Robinson had married the daughter of one of the wealthier men in Minneapolis, Thomas Lowry, so he may have found the means to pay the builder of the toboggan slide that was “much superior” to any other in Minneapolis.
If you’ve ever seen a picture of the Makwa Club’s Lake Calhoun toboggan slide, please let us know. We’d love to see it.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© David C. Smith