Part of my high-school summers was spent working in a children's clothing store in my hometown near the south shore of Long Island, New York. I'd sit under the florescent lights in the overly air-conditioned shop, looking through the window at the clear-blue summer sky and wondering why I hadn't been as proactive as my friends who were working at the various beach clubs and marinas in the area. I'd hear stories about their adventures and thought these kids had the coolest summer jobs ever. That is, until I met Cora Peters.
Born and raised in Wisconsin, Peters knows all too well that the boating season is a precious time in the Midwest. So when her finals are over at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, rather than work at some T-shirt or souvenir shop, she heads to Lake Geneva and the Walworth mail boat.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, is home to the oldest continuous mail-boat service in the United States. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, residents drove their own boats into town to pick up their mail. By 1916 the local roads were still mostly undeveloped, so mail was delivered to the approximately 60 houses by boat. It's a good thing those roads have since been improved, as today more than 1,000 homes line the shore of the lake.
For most of those residents, Lake Geneva is a summer home, and by the time a chill creeps back into the air and the leaves start to turn, they've returned to the nearby cities of Racine and Milwaukee. That's why the Walworth begins delivering the mail on June 15 and stops on September 15, after which it's delivered in a comparably humdrum way—by postal truck. Although the Walworth is a seasonal attraction, she sure is a popular one: Some 60 residents opt to have their mail delivered by her.
"We are the star route," explains Harold Friestad, a year-round resident and the manager of Lake Geneva Cruise Line, which operates the Walworth as part mail-delivery vessel, part tour boat. In fact the 10 a.m. tour that departs daily from Williams Bay on the north shore has been sold out for years. Even though the Walworth was refitted in 1979 to increase passenger capacity from 75 to as many as 160 people, she still sells out. (The original Walworth was built in 1916, and the one currently operating was built in 1967.)
Now although Lake Geneva's stately lakeside homes—with their impeccably restored wooden runabouts tied to sparkling white piers—are beautiful, you're probably wondering what draws so many passengers to the mail-boat tour. The answer is simple: It's the girls.
"Mail persons" is the term I actually heard used most often, but the fact is they are all girls. And the reason people come to see them is not because they are attractive (although they are), but because delivering mail from the Walworth requires the physical exertion normally reserved for a minimarathon.
Like Peters, who plays softball for her college team, these girls are all athletes—and they need to be. Considering the tour only lasts two and a half hours, there isn't a whole lot of time to deliver mail to 60 residences. So in the interest of saving time, the girls jump on and off the Walworth, but the boat never actually stops. "When there are short piers, I'll slow down for her," captain Neil Frame says jokingly. "But for the long ones, I won't. She can run."
Residents hang a mailbox on their piers—sometimes close to the shoreline, making delivery fairly challenging. Frame maneuvers the boat as close as he can (normally within about three feet of the pier), and the mail person jumps off, runs to the box, removes outgoing mail and packages, drops off new mail, and runs back just in time to jump back onto the stern of the boat. (See video footage of a jump—albeit one of the shorter ones.)
If this sounds easy, it's not. The girls have to time the jump perfectly; if they don't, they'll end up in the drink. Peters herself has yet to fall in, although she says, "I've come very close a few times." They also have plenty of obstacles to deal with—like rain and slippery, freshly painted piers. But Peters says Friestad and the residents prepare the girls for any unexpected problems during yearly tryouts by repositioning deck furniture to create obstacles and tying rubber bands around the mailboxes. "They have a lot of fun with that stuff in tryouts," she explains with a smirk.
This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.