Letters, Leaps and Bounds on Lake Geneva

(Lake Geneva Cruise Line)
Sunday, August 3, 2008

On Wisconsin's Lake Geneva, the Walworth delivers the mail seven days per week in summer. The vintage vessel also carries special packages, namely you.

The mahogany and brass boat has been dropping off mail without interruption since 1873, and in addition to letters and parcels, it takes about 150 passengers per day along for the ride. During the 2 1/2 -hour trip from Riviera Docks in downtown Lake Geneva, the boat drifts past elegant summer homes, century-old trees and Yerkes Observatory, but it's the spirited mail jumper who often upstages the scenery.

"Visitors are in awe of the jumpers' athletic ability," says Harold Friestad, a former mail boat driver and current general manager of Lake Geneva Cruise Line, which runs the mail boat as well as other sightseeing cruises.

Per tradition, the letter carrier leaps from boat to pier and back, servicing about 60 homes in all. In one fluid motion, the employee leaps from the bow to the dock, grabs the outgoing mail from the box, replaces it with any new parcels, then hops onto the stern of the boat, which is still in motion.

"When I tried out to be a mail jumper, I thought, 'Wow, I don't know if I can deliver the mail without falling in the water,' " said Shauna Riggs, a 19-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a veteran mail jumper. "I make almost all my jumps now, but I've got three years behind me."

A half-hour from Milwaukee, the 135-foot-deep Lake Geneva ranks as the second-deepest lake in Wisconsin. Visitors sometimes think the town was named for Geneva, Switzerland, because of the sparkling body of water surrounded by alpine-like hills and woods. The less-romantic truth: It was named for the New York home town of the 1835 government surveyor.

In the 19th century, the area was a magnet for Chicago tycoons and industrialists, who built fancy summer estates after the 1871 Chicago fire. Famous residents included the Wrigleys (chewing gum) and the Schwinns (bicycles), whose great homes still line the shores.

Lake Geneva hangs onto its rich past (just look at those yachts skimming the clear blue water) but also contains a bit of South Beach dazzle and some winsome lore. For example, Chicago gangsters hid out in underground tunnels owned by several prestigious hotels, Hugh Hefner's Playboy Resort was born here, and "Dungeons and Dragons" founder Ernest Gary Gygax launched the fantasy game from the town of Lake Geneva, where he resided until his death in March.

During the late 1800s, the Barnum & Bailey Circus wintered in the area, and when one of the performing elephants died, practicality ruled. A hole was cut in the ice of nearby Delavan Lake, and the elephant was buried below. Albert Einstein also set foot in these parts. When he first visited the United States, he supposedly headed to southern Wisconsin to see the Yerkes Observatory, which was built in 1898 on Williams Bay. The University of Chicago-owned facility holds the world's largest refractory telescope and offers free tours on Saturdays.

Although cruise passengers won't see the pachyderm's grave and must visit the observatory by land, the cruise is hardly lacking action and excitement. Riggs conceded that when jumpers' timings are off or if they lose their footing on a slippery pier, they sometimes end up in the drink.

-- Sharyn Alden

Lake Geneva Cruise Line's mail boat tours run June 15 through Sept. 15, rain or shine. Departures are at 10 a.m. Cost is $25. Other sightseeing tours on various vessels also available. Info: 800-558-5911, http://www.cruiselakegeneva.com. For more information on the Lake Geneva area: Lake Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, 800-345-1020, http://www.lakegenevawi.com.

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