Pier jumping: Unique mail boat on Geneva Lake turns 100
LAKE GENEVA—Ellen Burling understands pier pressure better than most.
In the mid-1980s, she began her career with Lake Geneva Cruise Line as a mail boat jumper.
She hopped off the front of the mail boat with letters in hand, stuffed them into a dockside mailbox at the end of the pier, retrieved outgoing mail and leaped back onto the vessel.
Burling did all this as the 75-foot boat kept moving alongside the dock.
All these years later, she said she would be terrified to do it now.
“At the time, I wasn't scared at all,” Burling said.
Today, she works as an office manager for the cruise line in Lake Geneva. But she is proud to be part of the celebrated mail boat history.
On June 15, the storied mail boat begins its 100th year of delivery to mailboxes perched on piers of the Geneva Lake shoreline.
During peak season, the boat delivers to 70 homes.
“One person makes all those jumps,” Burling explains.
On Friday, June 10, wannabes will try out to be this season's mail jumpers.
“You have to be an employee of the cruise line,” Burling explained. “You can't just walk in off the street without any history of the company. As far as the jumping goes, you must be someone who is unafraid and athletic.”
That's not all.
The 75-foot mail boat also carries 150 passengers who come along to witness the mail delivery, which is unique in the world.
In addition to physical skill, mail jumpers must also speak well. Between jumps, they are expected to give a guided tour, which includes information on historic estates on the lake.
Many of the mansions once were owned by Chicagoans of fame and fortune, including the Maytags, Bordens and Wrigleys.
Jumpers also have to be willing to accept that they might accidentally plunge into the lake once and a while.
Tourists think it happens every day, but Burling said most jumpers are fast enough to leap aboard before the boat is out of jumping range.
Still, they bring along extra clothes, just in case.
Burling's son and daughter were mail jumpers last year, and her daughter will try out again this year.
Mail jumpers may change from year to year. But Capt. Neill Frame keeps the boat on an even keel.
For more than 40 years, he has safely steered the two-story vessel that weighs 60 tons without passengers.
“It can be exciting if we have a crosswind,” Frame explained. “The biggest thing is safety when we are maneuvering near the docks.”
He keeps the boat from crashing while the jumper gets off and on.
“We do not stop the boat because we have more control over it if we are moving,” Frame said. “It's kind of an action-packed thing, and people enjoy watching it.”
The deep, spring-fed Geneva Lake can become treacherous in a storm.
“It can get wild out there,” Frame said. “It's a big body of water, with more than 20 miles around the shoreline. Ninety percent of the lake is at least 10 feet deep, and it is 140 feet deep at its deepest point.”
Frame has worked for the company since 1963 and began delivering mail regularly in 1975.
At first, he did it seven days a week, with delivery of newspapers on Sundays.
About a decade ago, the 75-year-old cut back to six mornings a week.
“I'm married to a retired school teacher,” Frame said. “This way we can act like retired people some of the time.”
He enjoys the challenge of handling the boat, but he also likes the people who work with him and come along for the cruise.
“I like sharing the lake with them,” Frame said. “We deal with thousands of people.”
He is delighted when former mail jumpers return to visit him with their families.
Like Burling, Frame is happy to be part of mail boat history.
“When I started, I was 23,” he said. “I had no idea I would still be around at 75.”
U.S. MAIL BOAT FACTS
-- Today it is a novelty for many lakeshore residents to receive mail via the mail boat. But when the mail boat launched in 1916, it was a necessity for mail to be delivered by boat because the area's rugged roads were set too far back from the shoreline.
-- The first mail boat, named the “Walworth,” launched in 1916 and could seat 75 passengers. A newer boat launched in 1965 and could seat 125. The boat now seats 160.
-- Mail delivery continued through both World War I and World War II. For many along the lakeshore, the mail boat was their contact with civilization and brought news from loved ones and the outside world.
-- The mail boat picks up outgoing mail along its route, and the mail is hand cancelled on the boat with a special cancellation stamp. No outgoing mail is excluded from the process. Camps that have as many as 60 pieces of daily mail must be hand cancelled.
MAIL JUMPER FACTS
-- In the earliest days of mail delivery, mail jumpers were all male. In the mid-1970s, a female asked for the chance. After that, jumpers were only female until about 2001, when a few guys decided to try out. Since then, jumpers are usually evenly split between males and females.
-- A formal tryout for the mail jumping job did not begin until the late 1990s. Until then, Lake Geneva Cruise Line employees just asked for the chance to “jump” mail. As interest grew, tryouts were added so a fair process could be set up to select the best candidates. A panel of judges made up of past jumpers evaluates each season's candidates.
IF YOU GO
What: Lake Geneva mail boat cruise.
When: June 15 to Sept. 15.
Where: 812 Wrigley Drive, The Riviera Docks, Lake Geneva.
Details: Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers a variety of other options, including a combination narrated hike and boat tour, ice cream socials, Dixieland dinner cruises, Sunday champagne boat brunch, Black Point Estate tours, private charters and more.