Lake Geneva became a vacation destination for Chicago’s wealthy in the early 1870s. It was a way to get away from the city and enjoy life on a large lake with crystal clear water. Visitors from the crowded city enjoyed hunting, fishing, swimming, and simply breathing in the fresh country air.
In 1871, two events changed the course of history for both Chicago and Lake Geneva. The first was the extension of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad on July 6, allowing travelers to make the journey from the city to the lake in less than a day. The most significant event was the Great Chicago Fire on October 8th, which took two days to extinguish. Many people hopped on a train to get out of the city, with some coming to Lake Geneva to find a safe haven. Many of those people had lost their homes in the fire and stayed in Lake Geneva through the winter waiting for their homes to be rebuilt. After staying for that length of time, a number of them decided to make the lake a regular vacation spot, leading to more large estates being constructed along the lakeshore.
By 1873, the need for transportation on the lake had outgrown the small privately-owned excursion yachts to get people to their homes, deliver mail and food, and get visitors to hunting and fishing lodges, camping areas, and smaller municipalities on the lake. That year, Ed Quigley launched the original Lady of the Lake. This ushered in the commercial excursion business on Lake Geneva, transporting people and supplies around the lake.
Two years later, the largest boat launched on the lake had its maiden voyage. The Lucious Newberry was the most opulent steamer on the lake, able to carry over 700 passengers. In 1879, John A. Wilson purchased both large steamers, forming The Anchor Line, which was the predecessor to Lake Geneva Cruise Line.
It was during this time that many of the wealthy homeowners commissioned personal lake steamers to be built as a means of transportation from their homes to points around the lake. This was a necessity considering that a road that traveled all the way around the lake was not constructed until 1910. These early lake yachts had many variations but were built in the general style of our two remaining vessels from that era, the Polaris and Steam Yacht Louise. Although we lost nearly all of these luxurious boats throughout the decades due to disrepair, fires, or other catastrophes, we are lucky to have these two jewels in our fleet.
The Polaris was built in 1898 for Otto Young, originally named Olivette in honor of his wife. The Youngs were the original owners of the Younglands, today known as Stone Manor. The Louise was constructed for John Mitchell and his wife Louise. The Mitchells were longtime residents on what is today known as Maytag Point. Both yachts can be chartered for private events of up to 40 to 50 guests and are great for entertaining your guests as the estate owners did over 100 years ago.
Early lake yachts were used for pleasure cruising but also for day-to-day errands, including transporting needed supplies from the city of Lake Geneva, picking up their owners from the train depot at Williams Bay, and retrieving mail from the local post office. In 1916, George Goodman, the owner of a small boat livery, won the government contract to deliver mail to the lakeshore residents, starting the tradition that survives today. The following year, the Wisconsin Transportation Company was formed, buying out George Goodman and acquiring the contract for mail delivery. They used the original Walworth boat to make the daily trip until it was retired in 1965. The current Walworth was launched that same year to replace its predecessor.
Russell Gage purchased the excursion fleet, including the first Walworth, Polaris, and Steam Yacht Louise, as well as other yachts from the same era. He gave new life to the fleet by painting the boats vibrant colors and naming the vessels after local communities. Perhaps his greatest contribution was to begin rebuilding the large vessels that began the commercial excursion industry on Lake Geneva. The new Lady of the Lake was constructed and launched in 1963, bringing back the feel of the turn-of-the-century steamers, although powered by twin diesel engines. It has been our iconic boat serving over a million passengers throughout her life. She also is a wonderful boat to host corporate, family, or other parties on Lake Geneva.
In the late 1970s, The Louise went through a complete repowering of the boat by stepping back in time and once again becoming a true steam yacht. Bill Gage Sr. oversaw the installation of a 1926 steam engine, which allows passengers to go back in time and get the true feel of gliding along, just like the wealthy landowners did during the turn of the 20th Century.
Following the construction of the second Walworth in 1965, Russell Gage brought a different style of lake steamer to life with the Belle of the Lake in 1972. Instead of the iconic side or rear paddlewheels, it has a sleek look with a pointed bow and rounded stern. Today known as the Grand Belle, she has become our Luncheon, Brunch, and Champagne Brunch boat, as well as a favorite for brides to host a variety of events throughout a wedding weekend.
The Lorelei joined the cruise line fleet about twenty years after being constructed in Holland in 1954 and was part of their contribution to the 1965 World’s Fair in New York City. She was refitted to accommodate small parties of about a dozen before being put into service on Lake Geneva. The Lorelei is perfect for small family gatherings, business networking, and events for your wedding party.
We added a piece of naval history to our fleet in 1999, when the Geneva was launched on the lake. She was originally a tender for the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga that spent much of her commissioned life in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as a tour in the Vietnam War. Her purpose was to transport cargo and troops, up to 150, when they were anchored in a harbor. Today, she is utilized as our Black Point Estate Tour vessel, transporting passengers to the home built in 1888 much as the lake yachts did over 100 years ago.
The final addition to the cruise line came in 2006. Built in 1980 and known at that time as the Algonquin Princess, she was used on the Fox River for dinner cruises. Bill Gage Jr. acquired her in 2005. We totally refurbished the vessel, and she was relaunched as the Duchess in 2006. Today, the Duchess is perfect for groups of 75-100 for charters of all types.
Throughout the history of excursion vessels on Lake Geneva, there have been a variety of tours. For much of the first century, homeowners and lake walkers could flag down a passing boat with a handkerchief to get a ride to other points on the lake. Today, we offer a plethora of tours including basic tours, the US Mailboat tour, meal tours, and the Black Point Estate tour, as well as special cocktail cruises and fireworks tours. All tours are narrated unless there is other entertainment on board.
Our staff has grown throughout the decades from a small group to a large family. We have second and third-generation members of the company, including some staff as well as the owner. Despite the changes in our home city, our fleet of boats, and our schedule of tours, throughout our long history two things have remained constant; the crystal blue waters of Lake Geneva and the exceptional service from our outstanding staff.