Set among rolling hills in southeastern Wisconsin sits a jewel of a spring-fed lake called Geneva Lake. I was raised in the town called Lake Geneva that anchors the eastern end of the lake and have
recently begun to really appreciate the
history of the area.
|Post card showing shore path much as it must have looked in the 1800s|
Before men from New England ventured west in 1833 to discover the lake, a Potawatomi Indian tribe, led by Chief Bigfoot, occupied the area. By the time the 1870s rolled around, the lake and its wooded shoreline had become known to wealthy bankers and businessmen in Chicago, about 80 miles to the south, as a great place to hunt and fish.
On October 8, 1872, the Great Chicago Fire made many wealthy families homeless and a large portion of the city uninhabitable. The same men who had used the area as a hunting getaway took advantage of the newly opened train route that could get them to the lake in about two hour’s time, and built huge summer “cottages” for their families to live in while the city was being rebuilt.
They liked living there so much, they never left. At least not completely, as they divided time between Chicago and the lake. Many of those mansions still remain, and nowadays, during the spring, summer, and fall, excursion boats take folks around the 22 miles or so of shoreline to see these beauties of the past.
|Snug Harbor, one of the earliest mansions built next to the shore path|
While the Potawatomi’s occupied the area, the best way for them to get around was along a path they created that circumvented the entire lake. That same path exists today as a public walkway, crossing in front of regal mansions and summer homes of yesteryear, along with some modern replacements of those that have fallen into disrepair.
|The shore path as it crosses through the Elgin Club, a conclave of smaller homes first built in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.|
It’s unusual for a path like this to be open to the public, but the forefathers wanted to be sure the walkway would be public, allowing people to enjoy all of the lakeshore. It is understood that the trail walkers must remain on the path and not wander the private grounds or take a sunbath on one of the private piers. Surprisingly, there is little trespassing reported after these many years of use.
|Home originally owned by Edward Swift of the Swift meat family. It sill stands today. The shore path runs along the top of the embankment.|
It’s up to each estate’s owner to maintain their portion of the path, so as you walk along you’ll traverse on flagstones in front of one large home then switch to brick pavers as you enter the next property, and then you may find yourself on an actual dirt path for a while. Some people have walked the entire circumference of the lake, taking an entire day to do so, while others only walk a portion of it at a time. What I love is being able to see some of the old original homes up close and personal and try to imagine what life was like a century or more ago.
I for one am very grateful to the men of the past making sure that the people of today can enjoy the path created by the area’s first residents.
A native of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, author Pamela S. Meyers lives in suburban Chicago, an hour's drive away from her hometown which she visits often to dig into its historical legacy. Her novels include Thyme for Love, and Love Will Find a Way, contemporary romantic mysteries and her 1933 historical romance, Love Finds You in Lake Geneva,Wisconsin, released in April, 2013. She can often be found speaking at events around Lake Geneva or nosing in microfilms and historical records about Wisconsin and other Midwestern spots for new story ideas.