With three blasts of its horn, the Walworth backs up from the dock and heads out into the open water of Lake Geneva. The boat is a two-decker, loaded from top to bottom with tourists ready for a 2½-hour excursion around the lake.
The boat’s pilot, Capt. Neill Frame, begins to recite some historical tidbits about the lake and its famous residents. But as the boat nears a dock, its passengers lean over the rail and peer intently to the starboard side of the vessel., eagerly awaiting the highlight of this tour -- mail delivery.
The Walworth is also known as the U.S. Mailboat, and it daily plies the waters to deliver mail and newspapers to about 75 locations around the lake. Lake Geneva is likely one of the few places in the world where mail delivery constitutes a major tourist attraction -- seven days a week during the busy summer months. This year, the U.S. Mailboat is celebrating its 100th year, having started its run in 1916.
Hubby Bryan and I sit on the starboard (right) side of the top deck, having correctly guessed that the boat would take a counterclockwise path around the lake. This gives us a great vantage point as the young mail deliverer leaps from the boat onto the dock, sprints toward the mailbox perched there, crams the mail in his hand into the box and just as swiftly runs back toward the Walworth, vaulting back aboard at the last second before the boat pulls away. The boat does not slow down, and if the lad doesn’t time his leaps right or isn’t fast enough, he will get a dunking in the blue water below.
A seat on the Walworth is one of the most sought-after tickets in Lake Geneva, a small city of about 7,500 residents located in southeastern Wisconsin, 10 miles north of the Illinois state line. But that population swells in the summer months, as people move from the nearby cities of Chicago and Milwaukee to their summer homes along the lake’s shore and tourists are drawn by a variety of attractions and the area’s rich history. In 2009, it was recognized as one of a dozen “Distinctive Destinations” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Lake Geneva became a resort area for wealthy Chicago families sometime after the Civil War. Seeking relief from the oppressive city heat, these families began constructing mansions along the lakeshore, and it became known as the “Newport of the West,” referring to Newport, R.I.
Due to the Chicago fire of 1871, many families moved to their Lake Geneva homes while the city was rebuilt. The establishment of the railroad made a direct pipeline to the city and further established it as a wealthy resort community.
Today, some of the historic mansions remain on the lake, but others were lost to fire or redevelopment. In many cases, large parcels once owned by a single family have been subdivided, multiple dwellings springing up where one large one once stood.
As the Walworth continues its trek found the lake’s perimeter, the two mail jumpers, Thomas and Connor, are kept busy with their duties, which not only including those lickety-split mail deliveries, but also relating tales of the various abodes the boat passes. Capt. Neill fills in the gaps in the narrative while TV monitors on both levels show photos both past and present.
In 1873, a group of investors from Elgin, Ill., purchased a 16-acre parcel for $400, relates Capt. Neill. Today, the same land may go for $20,000 to $45,000 per lakefront foot.
Thomas, age 17, has worked with the Lake Geneva cruise line for more than four years. His sister was also a mail jumper, prompting him to tryout for the position -- a highly coveted summer job among the area’s youths.
“I realize this is the best job I could ever have,” he says proudly.
Connor is 16 and in his second summer delivering the mail. When it’s his turn on duty, Connor owns up to having fallen in three times in the performance of his duties and that he “was the first person in 99 years to knock a mailbox into the water.”
The journey around the lake passes swiftly as the boat chugs up to each dock, sometimes just passing the mail off to a waiting resident, and in a couple cases, a retrieving dog, or with Thomas and Connor making the mailbox dash. There are a couple of mail pickups, too, and stops at summer camps, where the youngsters briefly cease their water activities to wave at the boat’s passengers and see if care packages have arrived from home.
As the boat nears its last stop, a collective chuckle arises from the boat. There, standing on the dock, is a gentleman sporting a snow-white beard and bright red cap along with his more weather-appropriate shorts and polo shirt. It appears Santa Claus spends his summers at Lake Geneva.
If you go:
Make reservations well in advance, as there are rarely open seats available just by showing up. (cruiselakegeneva.com)
Even with reservations, get there early. The Walworth departs daily at 10 a.m. at what once was the Riviera Ballroom on the downtown pier. People start lining up at 9 a.m. in order to get the best seat.
The Walworth only makes one mail run each day, but other boat excursions are available, including lunch and sunset options.
Other Lake Geneva area attractions include a lake shore path that winds all around the lake -- 21 miles -- past grand estates belonging to Chicago millionaires including the Wrigley chewing gum family; Yerkes Observatory, with a 40-inch refracting telescope, the largest of its kind in the world; championship golf courses, including Geneva National with courses designed by Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Lee Trevino; the Studio Winery, which is a combination wine cellar, artist’s studio and recording studio(www.StudioWinery.com); a brewery, Geneva Lake Brewing Co. (genevalakebrewingcompany.com); and zipline tours (lakegenevacanopytours.com). For a full listing of Lake Geneva area attractions, go to visitlakegeneva.com.