Mailboat at 100

By Anne Morrissy

The summer of 1916 was a fairly sleepy one on Geneva Lake. America, not yet involved in World War I, was still reveling in its Gilded Age bonhomie, and the wealthy elite of Chicago had declared Lake Geneva their summer headquarters by building increasingly grand, Gatsby-esque mansions along the shoreline. But the younger members of the leisure class were beginning to shed the quiet pursuits of an earlier era and seek entertainment in a variety of increasingly exciting forms: jazz music, automobiles, horse racing, boxing, bi-plane aeronautics, diving horses, traveling circuses … America’s youth embraced a growing list of adventurous diversions.

Modern entertainment has evolved quite a bit since 1916, but there’s one daredevil act from the era that paying audiences still throng to see 100 years later: the daily spectacle of the mail jumper hopping on and off the swiftly moving Mailboat. It’s a form of mail delivery that has proved to be just as popular today as it was when first introduced a century ago. “The homeowners love it because it’s much more convenient to have the mail delivered directly to their dock in the morning,” explains veteran Mailboat Captain Neill Frame. “And they enjoy the novelty of an historic event taking place every morning on their pier.”

And an historic event it is. The iconic Mailboat is celebrating its 100th anniversary this summer, making Geneva Lake one of the few places in the country that can boast continuous (if seasonal) marine mail delivery over the past century. According to Ellen Burling, longtime office manager at Lake Geneva Cruise Line (which operates the Mailboat), the anniversary brings with it opportunities to reflect on the Mailboat tradition and celebrate the people who have made it such a success. “The Gage family bought the company [operating the Mailboat] in 1958 and it has been in the family ever since,” she says.

That family-like bond also extends to the Mailboat operations. Frame is celebrating more than 40 years as the Mailboat Captain, while Burling has been on the office operations side for 35 years. Mail jumpers are usually college-aged students, but those jobs often run in families, with several sets of siblings over the years performing the important mail jumper duties of delivering mail and narrating the tour in between jumps. Even the homeowners who receive mail delivery are a part of the Mailboat family. Over the past 100 years, the Mailboat tradition has become an indelible part of Geneva Lake’s culture and history.

BORNE OUT OF NECESSITY

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, marine mail delivery solved a common problem in rural areas. How could the U.S. Postal Service ensure regular rural delivery when roads were few and far between and often impassable due to weather? “It was very difficult to travel in this area then,” explains Frame. “The roads were still pretty primitive.” More commonly, lake residents rode the train to Williams Bay and transferred to a steamer for the ride to their estates. “A lot of stuff was done by boat back at that time,” Frame says. “There was even a grocery boat that went around and delivered groceries.”

Starting as early as 1873, mail was one of the many things that might be delivered by boat on Geneva Lake. By 1894, the Chicago Tribune was able to offer newspaper home delivery to lake residents by boat. Six years later, they chronicled the process in an article about these unusual distribution methods, methods which would be applied to the mail as well:

The papers leave Chicago in two huge bundles on the Chicago and Elroy fast mail on the Chicago and Northwestern Road. One bundle is put off at Harvard, whence it is sent across to Fontana on the Harvard electric road. Two boys meet this car and begin delivering [on foot] to subscribers long before they are up, starting in different directions from the head of the lake. The other bundle is put off at Clinton Junction, where it is loaded on a fast train on the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Road. It is put off at Springfield, where the star-router places the sacks on his stage[coach] and rushes it over to Lake Geneva four miles distant. Here in waiting is the [steamboat] Wilbur F. The papers are put aboard, and soon Captain Sanford and his engineer are at work, making all of the docks around the lake in a hurry.

The article goes on to describe how the Lefens family’s spaniel would wait on their pier every morning to catch the paper in his mouth as the engineer threw it from the boat.

It is not hard to imagine that the summer residents appreciated their daily papers but also wanted regular, dependable mail delivery as well. The Wisconsin Transportation Company filled that void and in 1916, they introduced the first passenger boat for marine mail delivery on Geneva Lake. Co-owner of the Wisconsin Transportation Company and master boat builder Tilford Stuyvesant built the first Mailboat, a single-deck vessel christened the Walworth capable of carrying 75 passengers on the daily mail route around the lake. That boat would go on to deliver the mail every day all summer for almost 50 years.

POPULAR MID-CENTURY ATTRACTION

The Mailboat continued to make pier deliveries (including the Sunday newspapers) all through World War II, providing a vital source of information to lake residents. By the 1960s, marine mail delivery became a rare enough phenomenon that visitors from nearby cities began to take notice. A June 1962 Chicago Tribune column about the tourist possibilities of the Lake Geneva area includes a Mailboat mention:

…the Lake Geneva mailboat took off, carrying not only mail for the shore residents but several dozen ‘assistant mailmen.’ These are really paying tourists who are treated to a breezy ride along a mansion dotted shoreline.

As the area continued to gain popularity as an affordable family getaway, day trippers and weekend visitors loved the opportunity to view the lake’s distinctive, grand mansions at a relatively close distance. “The [Mailboat] riders are getting a very close-up view of the homes,” explains Frame. “Generally we’re travelling right up to shore, so we’re much closer to the homes than we are on the regular tours of the lake.”

Frame goes on to explain that this close-to-shore navigation is possible in part thanks to the topography of Geneva Lake. “The reason the Mailboat route was able to work originally and still works today is because this lake is unique in that it is very deep,” he explains.

CONTINUED IMPROVEMENTS

By its 50th year of service, the Mailboat tour was so popular that Lake Geneva Cruise Line decided to introduce a new, larger Mailboat with more passenger capacity. “The boat has improved so much over the years,” says Frame. The current Mailboat, the Walworth II, was introduced in 1965 and held 120 passengers at the time. Then in 1979, the boat was improved again. “The Gages decided they wanted to modernize it,” says Frame. “They cut the boat in half and lengthened it. And that’s when they put in the windows, the air conditioning and the canopy.” The newly lengthened and improved boat now holds 160 passengers on its daily tours, which leave the Riviera dock in Lake Geneva at 10 a.m., just as they always have.

The modern era ushered in other small changes to the tour as well. In 1974, Elaine Kanelos became the first woman to jump the mail, ending nearly six decades of male domination of that role. (Today, Lake Geneva Cruise Line holds try-outs for roughly six mail jumper positions each summer and winners tend to be fairly evenly split between men and women.)

As fewer and fewer of the historic mansions remain standing around the lake, Burling says they have added video screens to the tour as well. “We have a camera that shows the catwalk where the person jumps on and off so no matter where you’re seated, you have a great view of that,” she says. In between jumps, the screens show images of the grand mansions that have been razed around the lake over the years. “When you’re on board and you get to each point on the lake, you see pictures of what the homes used to look like. Some of them still remain. But there are so many more that aren’t here anymore.”

Even as the historic houses have been coming down, the Mailboat tour has remained extremely popular. A segment on CBS News and “CBS This Morning” in 2005 introduced the Mailboat to an international audience. “We still have people who come from all over the world to take the Mailboat tour because they saw it on TV,” says Frame. Local news outlets have also reported on this unique attraction that has drawn thousands of passengers over the years. 

Anna Vogt, three-year veteran mail jumper, says the remarkable thing is how little has really changed about the Mailboat tour over the past 100 years. “The Mailboat has stood the test of time because not a lot has changed,” she says. “Passengers are excited to learn about the history of the lake even after so many years, and the passengers are what keep the tradition alive.”

For more information about the Mailboat, visit www.usmailboat.com.

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