After spending a day on Wisconsin’s Geneva Lake (in the town of Lake Genvea), it’s easy to understand what made this area such a popular getaway for wealthy Chicagoans of the 19th century. With crystal clear water and beautiful foliage on 20 miles of shoreline, this lake is one of the natural treasures of the Midwest.
Throughout the late 19th and eary 20th centuries, wealthy residents of Chicago bought land along the lake and built ‘summer cottages’ of varying sizes. The most modest are the size of typical American homes; the most oppulent are extraordinary mansions that showcase brilliant architecture and uncommon wealth. Unlike most houses, these homes don’t face the road, which can be a quarter mile or more away. Instead, they face out onto the water.
Today, private owners still use most of these mansions as their summer homes. Many of them take advantage of the mail boat service that began in 1916. Each morning in the summer, a private boat contracted by the Postal Service carries mail to the houses along the lakefront. The large boats pull up to each pier along the way, slowing down just enough for young ‘mail jumpers’ to leap onto the dock, deliver the mail, retrieve outgoing pieces, and jump back onto the boat, clinging to its exterior railing. Since the boat never stops moving (for fear of colliding with the pier), the mail run is an impressive display of bravery and athleticism on the part of its delivery crew.
The mail boat has become such a beloved tradition in the area that it is among the most popular Lake Geneva activities for visitors. Groups can come aboard the mail boat for morning runs, where they’ll get an up-close view of the impressive dock jumping, as well as great narration about the history of some of the magnificent homes that they pass along the way.
In October, official mail boat delivery has ended for the season, but the sightseeing cruises continue. The jumpers did a few demonstration deliviers so that the group of journalists I was traveling with could see how it worked. The bursts of excitement perfectly punctuated a day spent reveling in clear skies, sunshine and the splashes of autumn color in the trees around Geneva Lake.
A modest lakefront mansion
Jumping onto pier to deliver the mail
Return jump onto the side of the mail boat