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Travel


Sightseaing: Take a cruise on Lake Geneva

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Published:

Story by Christine A. Verstraete

Cruising Geneva Lake offers scenic views, a glimpse into the Lake Geneva area’s historic past, and a water’s edge view of some spectacular homes and estates along the shoreline.

The building boom following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 spurred not only local growth, but in successive years lured Chicagoans to head north to the many resorts and camps offering rest and relaxation. Many of the wealthy and successful businessmen stayed, building vacation homes and “cottages” for their families. “The area was settled by Chicago people who used to come here for vacations,” says Ellen Burling, office manager with the Lake Geneva Cruise Line.

Notable residents included the Wrigleys (who still own one home here), the Swifts (of meatpacking fame), the Maytags, Schwinns and others. Sadly, many of these old mansions were lost to fire or razing, or many were changed via remodeling. But many have survived and new estates have been built as well.

Then, as now, visitors and summer residents enjoyed fishing and family life along the 20-plus miles of Geneva Lake’s shorelines. Private or chartered boats lined the docks. Today, you can get a feel for life as it was on the waters via one of the eight boats operated by The Lake Geneva Cruise Line, still family run for 50 years. Of note is the stately Lady of the Lake paddlewheel boat and the 1902 steamship Louise, which has the distinction of being the oldest operating steamship in the country.

Another time-honored tradition continues with college-age staffers jumping from boat to pier to deliver mail the old-fashioned way to the homes on the shoreline during the daily Mailboat tours.

But for Captain Pete Petersen, who was piloting the Walworth II on this day, nothing compares to being behind the wheel.

“It’s my seventh season, and I’m a rookie,” he says, referring to his fellow 11 captains, many with decades behind the wheel. “This was the perfect retirement job. What’s not to like?”

During the one-hour boat trip, you can’t help but notice the incredible Stone Manor looming over the lake. Built in 1901 and originally budgeted for $150,000, the seven-level home, which boasts a limestone exterior and interiors of Tennessee marble, soon topped $2 million. The home was abandoned by the Young family in 1911 and had a string of bad luck. It was given to the order of St. Anne for use as a school for girls in 1939. In the early 1960s, the property was taken over by Walworth County for back taxes and sold to a developer in 1968 for $75,000. After renovations and several other failed ventures, the building has since been converted to luxury condos.

Other mansions, like the majestic Wadsworth Hall built in 1906, have been transformed to their former glory. Renamed The Stenning after being purchased in 1920 by Walden Shaw, founder of one of Chicago’s first taxi companies, the home remained in the same family for 80 years with the marriage of the youngest daughter to the president of Morton Salt. Deed restrictions on subdividing the property later helped save the home and grounds. The home was completely renovated and became the site of many musical productions and parties by owner Richard Driehaus, founder of Driehaus Capital Management Inc. of Chicago, who bought the property in 1998.

For an up-close look at one of the only shoreline mansions open to the public, visitors can take a boat tour to the amazing Black Point Estate. The 90-minute tour of the majestic Queen Anne style home, built in 1888 and deeded to the state by the original owner’s great-grandson, provides a glimpse into the gilded life of the past century, complete with handcrafted wood moldings and much of the original furnishings.

It almost makes you wish you were born a century ago.

Some of the most popular boat tours include:

> A one-hour tour of Geneva Lake’s eastern end known as Geneva Bay goes past many of the older mansions and offers a narrative history. Tours leave daily at 11 a.m. Adults, $22; seniors, $20; youth $16; children, $11 plus tax.

> The two-hour full lake tour includes the route past the mansions and offers historic commentary on Williams Bay, Fontana and the world-famous Yerkes Observatory. The boat also goes past the spectacular Black Point Estate. Tours leave daily at 11:10 a.m. and at 1:10 p.m. weekends. Tickets $28 adults to $15 for children, plus tax.

Or arrive by boat as estate guests did decades ago and take the 90-minute tour of Black Point Estate. (Access is only by boat or limited access is available for bus tour groups.) Daily tours begin at 11:10 a.m. and are $36 adults; $34 seniors, $30 youth and $24 child plus tax.

> Mailboat tour: Beginning June 15 to Sept. 15, watch cruise line staffers jump to the pier and hopefully back on board as the boats deliver the mail the old-fashioned way to homes along the shoreline. 2 1/2-hour tour. Tickets are $30 adults to $17 for children, plus tax.

Other boat excursions are available, including narrated hike and boat tours, ice cream socials, Dixieland dinner cruises, a Sunday champagne boat brunch, private charters, and more. For information, call Lake Geneva Cruise Line, 800-558-5911, or visit its website for prices and a ticket price calculator, www.cruiselakegeneva.com.