A century old, Lake Geneva’s mail boat delivers first-class fun
Lake Geneva’s time-honored mail boat tradition continues to attract visitors to the Wisconsin town. (Lori Rackl / Chicago Tribune)
When you think of occupational hazards that go along with delivering mail, inclement weather and aggressive dogs come to mind.
Falling in a lake? Not so much.
But that’s what happens when so-called mail jumpers on Geneva Lake literally miss the boat as they leap to and from a moving vessel, delivering letters, packages and newspapers to waterfront homes — a tradition that turned 100 years old this summer.
What began in 1916 as a service born out of necessity has evolved into a popular tourist attraction in this historic resort town 80 miles from Chicago. Every day at 10 a.m. from June 15 to Sept. 15, passengers on Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s U.S. Mailboat Tour go along for the ride as jumpers make the rounds.
It used to be that when a jumper fell down on the job, he or she didn’t have an audience. These days, an often sold-out crowd of 155 people watch as jumpers pounce from the boat onto white piers that jut from manicured lawns surrounding this deep, spring-fed lake. With their special deliveries in tow, jumpers sprint to the mailbox for a quick drop-off/pickup before dashing back, James Bond-style, onto the stern of a 75-foot-long vessel.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Mail jumper Thomas Peck, 17, estimates he’s taken an unintentional swim at least four times, including when he tried out for the job.
“It’s really awkward because you’re all wet when you jump back on and everyone’s laughing,” said Peck, a Lake Geneva native who’s jumped mail for the past three summers.
On a recent Friday morning, the soon-to-be senior at Badger High School moved with the agility of a cat as he bounded between boat deck and dock, delivering correspondence cocooned inside rolled-up newspapers and picking up sacks of letters from kids summering at the many camps along the lake.
From his perch at the front of the ship, Peck plopped a parcel from Amazon into a plastic bag — just in case. “These are the worst,” he said about the unwieldy shoe box-sized package.
Actually, they’re not the worst.
“I delivered a 48-inch TV once,” he said proudly.
In between jumps, passengers on the 2 1/2-hour cruise get a history lesson about the notable homes and Chicago families who began turning this area into the “Newport of the West” around the time of the Great Chicago Fire. Everybody who was anybody built a vacation house — make that a mansion — on this 7-mile-long aquatic playground: Schwinn, Selfridge, Wacker, Drake, Swift and Wrigley, whose family compound once commanded an entire mile of prime shoreline.
Vintage photos of these grand old estates are shown on TV monitors while the jumpers regale passengers with interesting tidbits: The “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio show was broadcast from that front porch during the Depression; that huge dome in the distance (Yerkes Observatory) holds the world’s largest refracting telescope; and that big tent set up on the lawn of that stunning red brick Georgian revival? That’s for Chicago businessman and philanthropist Richard Driehaus’ annual birthday bash. If you’re not on the list, at least you can enjoy the fireworks.
When many of these homes started sprouting up, roads in the area were pretty much nonexistent. Boats were the primary mode of transportation, so marine mail delivery made sense.
Nowadays, most of Geneva Lake’s front-row residents living in the towns of Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana get their bills, letters and junk mail like the rest of us, via land, from the hand of a U.S. Postal Service worker. But roughly 75 addresses hew to tradition and opt for this free service that’s been scaled back to summers only.
“It’s kind of unique,” Capt. Neill Frame said. “We’re one of the few … where we go house-to-house and deliver the mail with a load of passengers along.”
The original mail boat, The Walworth, was replaced by the steel hull Walworth II in 1967, not long before Frame took up his position at the helm.
“This is my 47th year driving the mail boat,” the jovial captain said. “This is our 100th anniversary, so I almost made half of them.”
Frame seems to know just about everyone on the lake, exchanging waves with kayakers and folks who’ve walked to the end of their piers to say hi. He gives a periodic toot of the horn to warn swimmers to make way for the boat’s arrival.
Over the decades, Frame has ferried myriad mail jumpers around Geneva Lake. He’s watched many — including Peck — miss their mark and land in the drink.
“All I saw were these two big eyeballs, and then you were gone,” Frame recalled as he and the teenager made small talk between jumps.
Peck gave a self-deprecating smile, grabbed a handful of mail and waited as the boat approached its next target. When the time was just right, he hurtled onto the pier, made his delivery and squeezed in a cartwheel on his return run to the boat.
When he climbed back aboard, the crowd rewarded him with a round of applause.
It all makes for an entertaining morning, not to mention a great reminder of the way things used to be a century ago, when jumpers like Peck first started delivering the mail — albeit with a little less panache.
If you go
When: Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s U.S. Mailboat Tour runs seven days a week June 15 to Sept. 15. Boarding begins at 9:30 a.m. for the 2 1/2-hour tour that runs 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., but people often start lining up as early as 8:30 a.m. to get the best seats.
Price: Tickets cost $35 for adults (ages 18-64), $33 for seniors (65 and older) and $20 for children. This is the cruise line’s most popular tour, and it often sells out in advance. To make a reservation, call 262-248-6206 or go to www.cruiselakegeneva.com.
Where: The tour starts and ends at the Riviera Docks, 812 Wrigley Drive, in downtown Lake Geneva.
Tip: For optimal views of both the scenery and the jumper, get a window seat in the middle of the boat on the starboard (right) side, lower level.
Another tip: The entire 23-mile shoreline of Geneva Lake is accessible to the public via a walking path around the lake. It’s a fantastic hike that typically takes eight to 10 hours to complete. Lots of people prefer to walk a smaller section, like the especially scenic 8-mile stretch between the towns of Lake Geneva and Williams Bay.
Get inspired to get away.
Explore California, the West and beyond with the weekly Escapes newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.