It’s 11:00 a.m on a weekday, the temperature is about 85 degrees, and a soft breeze is blowing. Jack Lothian, Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s general manager and occasional captain, is easing the first tour boat from Lake Geneva Cruise Line out onto the lake. Few other boats are out that early, and Lothian can relax, with the sun on his face and a light wind sliding through the open windows of his wheelhouse. The passengers on the two decks below sound carefree – “happy,” as Lothian says, “to have left everything on the shore.”
It’s a feeling Lothian can relate to, having grown up in the area and graduated from Williams Bay High School. He spent his high school summers as a dockhand for the cruise line, and then as a jack-of-all-trades during summers off from his teaching job at Sacred Heart Schools. Before becoming a captain in 2006, he worked as a bartender, crew member, reservationist, ticket seller, and even on the maintenance team. Once he was promoted to general manager, he trained under Harold Friestad during the 2015 season, and then took over from Friestad in 2016.
“I love the lake and being out on the boats,” says Lothian. Owned by Gage Marine since 1958, the Lake Geneva Cruise Line has been providing opportunities for visitors to view beautiful Geneva Lake since 1873, when the enterprise was known as the Wisconsin Transportation Company. When Gage purchased the line, the fleet consisted of five old lake steamers that had been converted to gas or diesel power. Today, eight gleaming boats ferry passengers out from the Riviera Docks in Lake Geneva from mid-April to the end of October for tours, food cruises and private parties.
The boat most familiar to Lake Geneva’s residents and visitors is the iconic Lady of the Lake. The white, two-level replica of a stern paddlewheeler with its navy blue and red trim, never fails to draw admiring stares as it moves through the water. The Lady reigns over the fleet as the largest vessel with the most ridership, conducting as many as 225 people out for one hour tours of half the lake featuring views of the large estates along the shoreline.
But the Lady isn’t the only star of the fleet. When out for a two-and-a-half hour tour of the whole of Geneva Lake, the Walworth garners plenty of attention with its sleek navy-blue hull, mahogany doors, and open upper deck. But it is her morning function as a mailboat that has made the Walworth a T.V. and print celebrity. Houses along Geneva Lake have had their mail delivered via boat since 1916, with the Walworth taking up mail duties in 1967. Up to 110 people ride along when the mailboat sets out at 10:00 a.m. each morning to deliver mail and newspapers to between 50 and 75 customers from mid-June to mid-September. That means that passengers get to witness a jumper leap off the still-moving boat and onto the dock, drop mail in the mailbox, and vault back onto the Walworth at least 50 times during the full lake cruise.
The six to eight ‘jumpers,’ as the mail deliverers are known, earn their positions in tryouts. They master timing the jump from the boat to the dock with mail in hand, sprinting to the mailbox, and then executing the leap back onto the boat. Lothian chuckles when asked if they’ve mistimed the jump. “Each year, jumpers fall into the water a few times,” says Lothian. “It tends to happen on 100-degree days.”
For those who want to see inside one of the lake’s fabulous mansions, the Geneva takes up to 50 visitors to Black Point Estate, Chicago beer baron Conrad Siepp’s ornate Queen Anne-style summer home. A former troop transport carrier for the U.S.S. Saratoga that once plied the Mediterranean Sea and ferried soldiers during the Vietnam War, the open-air motor launch drops its passengers off for a one-and-a-half hour tour of the fully-restored home and gardens, before re-boarding the Geneva for the trip back to town.
Food cruises have also become a popular way to tour the lake. The Geneva Cruise Line has more than a dozen catering partners. In 2019, Gage Marine created Lake Life catering. Chef Michael Lavin, who had built Courtyard Catering into a successful business, heads the new enterprise. Lake Life Catering will provide the food for luncheon cruises and is available for charters.
The Grand Belle of Geneva’s pine decks and brass furnishings call to mind a turn-of-the century steamer. Its two levels can seat 156 people for just about any occasion. An ice cream social; a luncheon featuring beef stroganoff, chicken parmesan or shepherd’s pie; a buffet style Sunday brunch featuring Eggs Benedict, quiche, sausage and gravy; or a jazz dinner cruise serving beef tenderloin medallions, chicken marsala or shrimp scampi. The Thursday night supper club cruise evokes Wisconsin’s great supper clubs with relish trays, tossed salads, baked potatoes and specials on Old Fashioneds. On the Fourth of July, the Grand Belle takes passengers on the lake to marvel at the fireworks directly overhead.
For her part, the Duchess, a smaller version of the Lady of the Lake, carries up to 80 people for cocktail cruises once a week. The two-hour cruises feature live entertainment and a cash bar, departing at 6:00 p.m. and returning as the sun is setting over the lake.
Geneva Cruise Line’s boats are available for private charters. In fact, some are dedicated specifically to that purpose. On the Steam Yacht Louise, up to 50 passengers can enjoy the “chugga-chugga-chug” of a vintage steam engine from Lake Geneva’s Golden Era. The 41-foot cabin cruiser, Lorelai, gives passengers the experience of sailing on a private yacht. Built for Otto Young, one of the first millionaires to live on Geneva Lake, the Polaris holds up to 40 people on its canopy-covered deck for private parties, such as wedding rehearsals and corporate outings, and even is employed for geo-caching tours.
After years on Geneva Lake, Jack Lothian has plenty of stories about unusual happenings. The Polaris figures in his favorite one.
On this occasion, a good client and friend of the Lothian family had arranged to host a bridal shower for her niece on the Polaris. The client’s son, a former cruise line employee, reserved the date and the boat and arranged for his mom to sign the contract for a Sunday afternoon in late July. The shower arrangements included an elegant plated lunch for 20 guests, with flower arrangements chosen to match the linens. The guests were to be picked up at the client’s pier at noon.
Late that Saturday morning, Lothian was sitting at his desk when the phone rang. On the other end was the client’s son.
“Where’s the Polaris?” he asked.
“Next to me – why?” asked Lothian.
“It’s supposed to be here for the shower, and the guests are arriving,” the son said, his voice rising a little in pitch.
Lothian grabbed the contract and food order, realizing with horror that everything had been signed with Sunday’s date. The cry went up for all hands-on deck to ready the boat, get the bar service set up, polish the brass, grab the specialty linen, and dispatch an employee to Pesche’s Greenhouse for the flower baskets. While the Polaris made its way to the client’s home, the family entertained the guests on their porch. The boat arrived 45 minutes late, but the guests remained none the wiser.
But one problem remained. The last weekend of July is the busiest weekend of the year on Geneva Lake. The caterer, Celebration on Wells, was busy setting up for the party of the year at the Stenning, the most magnificent home on the lake. Lothian called Celebration’s owner, who said there was plenty of food that could be spared from the party but no way to get it to the boat. Together, the two came up with a plan.
Lothian picks up the story:
“After boarding 20 ladies onto the Polaris, [and] handing each a glass of champagne, the Polaris took a leisurely cruise over to the Stenning, where service staff emerged from the Gatsby-like estate with silver-covered plated lunches for all. The hostess said it was the most elegant and exciting part of the day. The remainder of the day went off without a hitch, and to this day, it is not only a great story, but a testament to our hardworking staff and great vendors.”
By: Susan W. Murray
Photography Provided By: Lake Geneva Cruise Line