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German immigrants, railroad helped LG grow

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February 04, 2014 | 02:46 PM
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series by Lake Geneva historian Patrick Quinn.

Despite the recession of 1873, Geneva continued to grow.

In 1882 the U.S. Post Office acknowledged that Geneva had become significant enough to be confused with Geneva, Ill., and changed Geneva’s name to Lake Geneva. And in 1886 leading citizens of Lake Geneva, also aware of Lake Geneva’s growing stature, led a successful effort to upgrade the village to the status of a city.

By this time, wealthy Chicagoans owned impressive steam yachts that traversed the lake and docked at the piers where the Riviera is today. In 1893 the development of the Columbian subdivision reflected the growth of the city.

Yerkes Observatory was completed in 1896.

The railroad had been extended from Lake Geneva to Williams Bay in 1888 and it served the needs of the Yerkes staff. It was during the last quarter of the 19th century that most of the commercial buildings that comprise Lake Geneva’s downtown business district were constructed and most of the homes in the Maple Park Historic District were built for a growing and prosperous middle class.

During and after the Franco-Prussian War and the consolidation of Germany as a nation state in 1871, there occurred a mass migration of Germans to the United States.

In southeastern Wisconsin, many German immigrants settled in Lyons and Bloomfield townships and purchased the farms of the original settlers from Vermont and upstate New York. The arrival of the German immigrants in the area would eventually significantly alter the ethnic composition of Lake Geneva’s population.

The development of Lake Geneva as a substantial community during the last three decades of the 19th century was culturally evidenced by the opening of the YMCA, the public library and the opera house (originally called Centennial Hall because it was built in 1876). The beginnings of Lake Geneva as a premiere “resort city” was foreshadowed by the opening of the Whiting House hotel on lower Broad Street, overlooking the lake’s outlet, and the opening of Kaye’s Park (an amusement park) on Geneva Lake’s south shore, both in 1873.

The first 16 years of the 20th century were essentially an extension of the last quarter of the 19th century. The end of World War I, however, marked the beginning of the second transformation of Lake Geneva. The prosperous 1920s saw the emergence of Lake Geneva as a summer resort city. Thousands of middle class and working class Chicagoans began flocking to the city, primarily on the train, during the summers.

The construction of the Riviera in 1932 marked the culmination of Lake Geneva’s first decade as a resort city.

Although there was significant unemployment in Lake Geneva during the Great Depression that had begun in 1929 and lasted until the U.S. entered World War II, Lake Geneva’s role as a summer resort city continued to expand.

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The end of World War II brought the beginning of yet another transformation of the city. Summer tourists continued to arrive in Lake Geneva on the train and on buses, but more and more Chicagoans had become sufficiently prosperous to own cars and drive to Lake Geneva on the weekends. During the summers, however, many trains still arrived in Lake Geneva filled with tourists.

On Sunday evenings “white flag” special trains lined up at the railroad station waiting to take tourists back to Chicago.

The bus depot on the west side of lower Broad Street usually had five or six Greyhound buses an hour arriving or departing during the summers. Residents still served the needs of wealthy Chicagoans who lived in their lakeshore mansions. Most graduates of the high school, however, had no choice but to leave Lake Geneva following their graduation and seek employment in Chicago or elsewhere.

An important exception was that jobs were available at the Nash (later American Motors) plant in Kenosha and the GMC plant in Janesville, both of which were only 30 miles from Lake Geneva.

By the 1950s, many of the children of German-born farmers in Lyons and Bloomfield townships had moved to Lake Geneva and many of the males had become tradesmen.

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During the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, another transformation in Lake Geneva occurred. A number of the large estates on the lake’s shore had been subdivided earlier and homes were built on them. This process continued. The railroad to Chicago stopped running and its tracks were torn up. Buses stopped coming to Lake Geneva. Summer tourists come to Lake Geneva, not so much from the city of Chicago as from its suburbs. More and more people from the Chicago suburbs moved to Lake Geneva, although many still worked in Illinois.

Summer tourists, who in the 1950s had been children of Italian, Polish and Jewish immigrants who had come to Chicago from Europe, were being replaced by people of South Asian (Indian) descent. Many of the children of Lake Geneva 20th-century residents were building new homes outside of the city’s limits. A considerable portion of the housing stock in Lake Geneva became rental units. The grandchildren of German immigrants were filling the pews of the two largest Lutheran churches in the city. Immigrants from Mexico were moving to Lake Geneva at an accelerated pace.

Construction of the new four-lane Highway 12, which bypassed the city on the north and east, attracted “big box” stores, which drew business away from the downtown stores. The Taggart Lumber Co. closed, marking the end of an era.

The opening of Badger High School in 1958 removed from the center of the city what had been, during the first half of the 20th century, a bee hive of activity. When most of the downtown stores that had served the residents of the city for decades, including the Schultz Brothers dime store, the Ben Franklin dime store, Montgomery Wards, the two drugstores, the bakery, several clothing stores and two hardware stores closed, the downtown business district became transformed.

The bowling alley beneath the Landmark building closed and the two leading auto dealerships moved to the city’s periphery. The YMCA moved into a former supermarket on Wells Street and the old Victorian YMCA building at Cook and Main streets was demolished.

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Automobile travel had replaced walking in the city. The Geneva Theater, long a bright beacon in the downtown area, closed. The opening of Starbucks and Caribou coffee houses fortunately provided new social centers in the city.

Change, for certain, is inevitable and Lake Geneva surely has undergone change. Perhaps one indication of the change is a substantial increase in the number of Chicago Bears fans in what had once been a Green Bay Packers stronghold.

Change has made Lake Geneva a mecca for homes of airline pilots and flight attendants who value its relatively close proximity to O’Hare Airport. Change has also led to Lake Geneva becoming a retirement venue both for people who had grown up in the city but had spent their working lives elsewhere, as well as for individuals from throughout the country who had become aware of the city’s charms.

Perhaps future change will see the restoration of a rail connection with Chicago and its suburbs, which would be an enormous asset. A restored connection would probably have to parallel Highway 120 to the former Milwaukee Road tracks just north of the Illinois state line and Hebron, and it would terminate at Chicago’s Union Station rather than at the Oglesby Transportation Center where it had terminated for a century when it was part of the Chicago and Northwestern system.

Hopefully another positive change will be the reopening of the Geneva Theater as a movie theater and cultural and performing arts center.

During its 179-year-history, Lake Geneva evolved through numerous changes. The fact that it is located on one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and that it is but a short distance from one of the world’s greatest metropolises ensures that future changes will continue to be positive.

Patrick Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.

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