Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Steamboats of Geneva Lake -- Not Just for Pleasure

I'm currently in the midst of book deadlines and preparing for a slide presentation at the library in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, my hometown and the setting for several of my books. This month I'm reposting a post I wrote back in May 2015, about the steamboats the plied the waters of Geneva Lake back in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. I speak of these yachts in my presentation and I think it's worth repeating the post here.


With it’s proximity to Chicago, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin has always been a magnet to Chicagoans as a close-in getaway. As far back as the 1860s, wealthy Chicago businessmen were traveling north over the state line to spring-fed Geneva Lake where they could hunt and fish and get away from the stress of business for a few days. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire caused many of these men to purchase virgin forestland along the lakeshore and build magnificent homes for their families. The families used these homes while the city of Chicago was being rebuilt, and when they were finally able to return to the city, they kept the homes as their summer “cottages." The families lived at the lake throughout the hot summer, and the dads commuted by train from downtown Chicago to the lake for the weekend. 

A depiction of people coming from the train depot in Williams Bay (off-screen to the left) and walking to their boats
Back then, very few roads to the lakeshore estates were built, and having a boat to access the property was a necessity. During the week, the boats were used to take family and servants into town for supplies and other errands. Then on Friday afternoons, the yachts would travel to Williams Bay, a small village near the west end of the lake, where the train depot was conveniently located across the road from the lake, to meet the men.  

As time moved into the mid 20th Century, some of these yachts were acquired by a local boat company and repurposed with gas engines as excursion boats to serve the many tourists with tours of the lakeshore to see the beautiful homes they otherwise would never see. 

This double-decker vessel, The Harvard, is one of a few steamers that were specially built as excursion boats. It was built in 1899, and plied the waters until 1931, when old age dictated it needed to come out of service. 

The original Walworth doing service as the mail boat.
The boat on the right once served a large mansion on the lake and later became the Walworth, better known as the "mail boat." Since the early 1900s, every summer a boat delivers the mail to lakeshore residents. This began when there were no roads, but the tradition continues today. Nowadays, a vessel called the Walworth II serves as the mail boat. Young men and women called mail jumpers leap from the slow-moving boat to each dock on the route, stuff mail in a mailbox affixed to a pier post, then leap back on the boat before it moves away from the dock. As a child growing up in Lake Geneva, it was exciting to take this boat trip, and many years later, I still find it so.

Photo by Pamela S. Meyers

To this day, several yachts from the late 19th century are still available for chartered events on the lake. This is the Polaris, that was once owned by Otto Young who built the large estate known now as Stone Manor. This vessel is lovingly cared for and preserved. It received a "makeover" in 2014 and is still in service today. Sometimes I like to look at it and imagine the days of old when ladies in their bustled dresses and men in coat and tie used it to travel to and from the train or maybe just to take a pleasure ride. Oh, the stories this boat could tell. (the paddle wheel vessel behind the Polaris is the Lady of the Lake, inspired by another paddle wheel by the same name that used to sail Geneva Lake.)

If you are in the Lake Geneva, Wisconsin area, check out the excursion boat rides that are in operation from April to the end of October (and sometimes even later if weather permits) at Lake Geneva Cruise Line.


Postcards from Author’s Collection

Photo of Smyth home: Lake Geneva, Newport of the West, Volume 1, Ann Wolfmeyer and Mary Burns Gage, 1976, Lake Geneva Historical Society

A native of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, author Pamela S. Meyers lives in suburban Chicago with her two rescue cats. Her novels include Surprised by Love in Lake Geneva and Safe Refuge, both historicals set in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. When she isn’t at her laptop writing her latest novel, she can often be found nosing around Wisconsin and other midwestern spots for new story ideas.