Lake Geneva, Wis., became well-known in the late 1800s as a summer destination for wealthy Chicago families, many of whom built upscale homes in and near the town.
The Rockefeller, Schwinn, Wrigley, Ward (as in Montgomery), Maytag and Borden families each spent summers in Lake Geneva that became known as the “Newport of the West.”
Lake Geneva was and remains a handy getaway for residents living near Chicago.
The great draw is beautiful Geneva Lake, a 5,400-acre body of crystal clear, spring-fed water beside which the wealthy built their mansions.
Due to poor roads and the relative remoteness, most early residents and guests arrived at the mansions by personal steam-powered boats. Occupants of the mansions, by necessity, received mail via boat.
Today, Lake Geneva's mail is regularly delivered to mailboxes beside modern roads. However, from June 15 to Sept. 15, residents living in homes on Lake Geneva can choose to have mail delivered by boat to a mailbox on their dock.
The U.S. Mailboat service formally began in 1916, although some mail delivery by boat took place as early as 1873.
Bill Gage, current owner of Lake Geneva Cruise Line that operates the mailboat, took over the business from his father. His father, in turn, had taken it over from his own father.
Bill said delivery of mail by boat is carried on out of tradition — a treasured tradition.
The U.S. Mailboat has become one of the area's most popular tourist attractions. The boat, the Walworth, carries up to 150 paying passengers along with the mail and newspapers.
We arrived in Lake Geneva before the beginning of the season and were among a group of passengers enjoying a demonstration ride on the Walworth.
During its season, the U.S. Mailboat operates seven days a week, delivering only newspapers on Sunday.
The trip around the lake without stops requires two-and-a-half hours. We say “without stops” because the 60-ton boat only slows at each of the 60-75 docks where mail is delivered.
This means the mail must be delivered by someone jumping off and on while the boat moves slowly beside the dock. It is the work of the “mail jumpers” that makes the boat trip such a popular tourist attraction.
Mail jumpers must be agile meaning they are quite young.
At each dock, the person jumps off the front of the boat onto the dock, runs to the mailbox, retrieves any out-going mail, places mail in the box, runs to the edge of the dock and jumps onto the back of the boat.
A jumper can fail in two ways: a dry miss in which the jumper is late and remains on the dock; and a wet miss, when the jumper ends up in the lake.
Mail jumping is a coveted job and Lake Geneva Cruise Line holds annual tryouts for the position.
Each spring as many as 20 to 25 audition for five or six positions as jumpers. The boat generally carries two jumpers and the captain, plus a crew member who takes care of the snack bar.
Each morning, Monday through Saturday, jumpers visit the post office, sort the day's mail, and then roll and band each location's mail prior to the boat's 10 a.m. departure.
High school junior Molly was the jumper on our demonstration run. This will be her third summer working on the U.S. Mailboat and her second summer as a jumper.
When asked if the job paid well, she said it was OK, but the tips she received help make it a good-paying job.
In addition to jumping, Molly helped narrate the tour, pointing out and discussing mansions along the shoreline. She admitted to landing in the water on two occasions.
Capt. Neil and Molly took turns narrating as the boat moved along the Geneva Lake shoreline.
The interesting narration included the area’s history along with descriptions of mansions we passed.
Many of these stunning homes remain in the family of the original owner. A 23-mile shore path circles the lake for those who want a closer view of the mansions.
Everyone on the boat appeared to have a good time despite the intermittent rain. Passengers moved about the boat taking photos, interacting with other passengers, and talking with Molly.
Our ride on the mailboat was another unique experience that makes travel such a delight.
David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html. View earlier columns at www.facebook.com/DavidKayScott. The Scotts live in Valdosta, Ga.