I grew up on Lake Geneva, which has been the summer residence of some of Chicago’s most wealthy and famous entrepreneurs since the 1880s. Lake Geneva’s other claim to fame is that it’s the only place in America where mail has been delivered by boat every summer for 100 years. The U.S. Mailboat, Walworth II and its predecessor, the Walworth, entertains passengers while the mail jumper leaps from the moving boat onto pier after pier delivering the day’s mail to mailboxes that sit atop sixty-six pier posts around the lake.
When I was only six years old, I fell in love with the Mailboat and the excitement of watching the Mailperson execute his air ballet. So when it was time for me to get a summer job in 1974, I knew exactly what job I wanted – I wanted to be the mail jumper. No girl had ever jumped the mail, but I was undaunted and fired off a letter to the Lake Geneva Cruise Line insisting that it was time that a girl– me –jumped the mail. Amazingly, I was hired and spent the next two summers delivering mail via “marine delivery.” Now, 40 years after I petitioned for the position, the U.S. Mailboat is still delivering mail and newspapers every summer on Lake Geneva and women are still a part of the Mailboat crew.
Today there is a team of five or six jumpers who rotate duties throughout the summer. Their day starts at the post office where they sort the mail. When this task is complete, they wheel the mail to the Riviera Pier. The Riviera is on the U.S. Register of Historic Places and was built during the Great Depression with WPA funds. It sits on 280 wood pilings set into bedrock on the lake’s bottom.
The fun really begins when the Mailboat departs from the dock. At each of the 60 to 70 piers, the Mailperson must slide out of the boat’s window and situate him or herself on the rub rail of the boat. As Captain Neill Frame steers a steady course for the pier, the jumper leaps from the boat, races down the pier to the mailbox, delivers the day’s mail, picks up any outgoing mail and then leaps back onto the Walworth II (all while the boat is still moving!)
A trip on the Mailboat offers fascinating information about Lake Geneva’s history, and stories of the mansions located along its shoreline. Passengers get an up close view of several beautiful estates including Black Point Estate, which features one of the finest examples of Queen Anne style architecture in the Midwest. Boat riders can also take in the views of Casa Del Sueno, a gorgeous Spanish-style estate that was the summer home of Lee Phillips for many years. Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers a wide variety of excursions around the lake every day. You can cruise on a replica paddleboat, Lady of the Lake, or the Louise, a beautifully restored antique steamship. But the Mailboat offers a one-of-a-kind experience because it provides the closest view of the homes and the chance to see the live-action delivery by the Mailpersons.
After a boat tour, take a stroll along the Lake Geneva shore path. The 21-mile footpath rings around the lake and offers amazing views. If you aren’t up for the entire 21-mile hike, there are ‘mini-walks’ (between two and three miles each) that you can choose from. Some of the landmarks you’ll see along the lake path include beautiful Library Park, Stone Manor (the largest mansion on the lake) and House in the Woods – a mansion built under a P. T. Barnum Circus tent during the winter of 1905.
Enjoy a meal at one of the great lakeside restaurants, Pier 290 in Williams Bay. You can chose to dine outside or in, and the new giant sandbox with its own full size boat keeps kids busy for hours while you relax and dine. For a great dining option within the town of Lake Geneva, Popeye’s always draws a crowd for its fish fry and burgers.
Every day that I jumped the mail was a unique adventure. For the passengers aboard the Mailboat, it’s a chance to enjoy being on the water while being entertained by history, athletics, and views of beautiful homes along its shoreline. There’s no better way to explore beautiful Lake Geneva!
Elaine Kanelos was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and newspapers worldwide as the first girl to “jump the mail.” She has published three novels and numerous articles. Mail Jumper! The Story of the First Mail Girl is her first memoir. She currently splits her time between Vail, Colorado and Santa Monica, California. Elaine Kanelos is the president of Peithos Consulting.