Because the year 2019 marks the end of the second decade of the 21st century, it may be interesting to take a look back at what happened during the last year of earlier decades in Lake Geneva.
To fully understand and appreciate why Lake Geneva is what it is today, one must have at least a rudimentary sense of what it was like in Lake Geneva in the 19th century.
1839: The area adjacent to the northwest bay of Geneva Lake had become known to white people only four years earlier. But during those four years, much had happened. The Potawatomi Native Americans who had lived on the shores of Geneva Lake for many decades had been uprooted and removed to northeast Kansas. The land upon which they had lived was acquired by the U.S. government and sold to whites. Seven entrepreneurs who lived in the newly founded (1833) frontier village of Chicago, 72 miles to the southeast, purchased from the government the land upon which the village of Geneva would be located. They included Andrew Ferguson, Lewis Goodsell, Dr. Philip Maxwell, Colonel James Maxwell, Robert Wells Warren, Greenleaf Warren, and George Campbell.
Warren Street and Campbell Street in Lake Geneva are named after the Warren brothers and George Campbell (the only one of the seven founders who never lived in the Geneva area). The tombstone over Dr. Philip Maxwell’s grave in Pioneer Cemetery is the largest and most visible one in the cemetery. The mansion Maxwell built in 1856 and occupied until his death in 1859 still exists in Lake Geneva. It is located on Baker Street.
The seven purchasers of the land at the head of the northeast bay of Geneva Lake hired the Irish-born surveyor Thomas McKaig to lay out streets, alleys, and lots on the property that they had purchased. McKaig began his work in 1837 and was still at it in 1839. The boundaries of the plat that he laid out stretched from today’s Maxwell Street on the west to Sage Street on the east and from Main Street on the south to North Street on the north. The southeast “tail” of the plat encompassed today’s Willow, Wells, Cass, Baker, and Campbell streets.
Within the plat that he laid out, McKaig set aside one block for a cemetery (the Pioneer Cemetery) and two blocks for public squares, today’s Maple Park and Seminary Park. Among the primary streets that McKaig laid out are today’s Main and Broad streets and Center Street. As their names suggest, the main intersection of the newly plated village was supposed to be the intersection of Main and Center streets.
1849: By 1849, the nascent village of Geneva had begun to fill up with scattered small houses and stores built of wood. However, in 1848, the thoughts of many residents of the new village were focused on a region two thousand miles to the west. A two-year war between the United States and Mexico (1846-1848) had ended with the United States, by virtue of its “victory,” acquiring an enormous amount of Mexican land, which would eventually become the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, and, most importantly, California.
In 1849, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Fort near Sacramento, California. News of the discovery of gold in California prompted many thousands of people from the eastern part of the United States to make the perilous journey across the plains and mountains to California in the hope of getting rich quick. Among those who were drawn to California were quite a few residents of the village of Geneva, a number of whom never returned to the village.
In 1848, Wisconsin had become a state, and in 1850, California became a state.
1859: Dr. Philip Maxwell, one of the village of Geneva’s seven founders, died. The railroad from Chicago, which had reached Geneva three years earlier in 1856, ceased running because of bad track. The railroad’s terminal, turntable, and storage sheds were located at the foot of Sage Street, where it intersects with Geneva Street just north of the Geneva Lake Museum.
The Masonic Lodge in Geneva was founded in 1852.
The Republican Party had been founded in Ripon, Wisconsin, five years earlier (in 1854) and it had run its first candidate for president, John C. Fremont — for whom Fremont Street in Lake Geneva is named — in the 1856 election.
In 1859 in Geneva, thoughts of residents of the village were focused on the growing conflict between the free northern states and the slave-holding southern states. Many residents of Geneva had joined the “Wide Awakes,” an organization that had been formed in response to the impending conflict. And a militia company, the “Geneva Independents,” had been formed, which was holding drills in Maple Park. Two years later, in 1861, when the Civil War began, the “Geneva Independents” would join the Union Army as Company K of the Fourth Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.
1869: The Civil War had ended four years earlier. Soldiers from Geneva who had fought in the war and were fortunate enough not to have been killed had returned to the village. Geneva had raised three companies of soldiers for the Union Army, including Company K of the 4th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, Company C of the 22nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, and Company K of the 49th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. Other residents of Geneva had joined Illinois infantry regiments and other military units.
Rail service to Geneva would not be restored until 1871. The first wealthy Chicagoans to build summer “cottages” (i.e. mansions) on the shores of Geneva Lake would not do so until 1871.
Civil War veterans who had returned to Geneva were in the process of resuming their “normal” lives. The year 1869 was essentially an “anticipatory” year, its residents not at all sure as to what might happen in the coming decade.
1879: Rutherford B. Hayes was president of the United States. He would serve as president for two more years. The decade of the 1870s had been a “watershed” time in Geneva. The rail connection between Chicago and Geneva had been restored, which, in combination with the results of the Great Chicago Fire of Oct. 8, 1871, had prompted many wealthy Chicagoans to purchase land on the shores of Geneva Lake and to have summer mansions built on their land. Their mansions were constructed primarily by building tradesmen who lived in Geneva.
The owners of lake shore estates also provided employment for many cooks, nannies, and gardeners who lived in Geneva.
In 1875, the first industry in Geneva, the Crawford Manufacturing Co., which produced grain mowers, was established on the White River at the eastern end of Haskins Street. In March 1873, the Whiting House hotel opened, overlooking the lake’s outlet. This development marked Geneva’s emergence as a summer resort.
In 1876, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Centennial Hall was erected on the present site of the Geneva Theater. Centennial Hall, under various names, would serve as Geneva’s primary cultural venue for the next half century.
1889: The 1880s were another decade of change in Geneva. The U.S. Post Office changed the name of the post office in Geneva to Lake Geneva in 1882 to avoid mail destined for Geneva, Wisconsin, being mistakenly delivered to Geneva, Illinois. In 1886, the Village of Geneva was transformed into the City of Lake Geneva.
In 1880, the Oak Hill Cemetery was established, replacing the Pioneer Cemetery as the main cemetery in Geneva. In 1883, the James B. McPherson Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (the equivalent of the American Legion for Union Civil War veterans) was founded in Geneva.
In 1885, Snake Road was completed. All of the parks in Lake Geneva were given the names of trees, such as Maple Park. The YMCA was established in June 1883. The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad line had been extended from Lake Geneva to Williams Bay in 1888.
Also in 1888, the Third Ward School was opened. It is today the home of American Legion Post #24 and other organizations.
1899: The last decade of the 19th century was also a decade of significant change in Lake Geneva.
In 1891, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad opened a new depot on North Street just west of Broad Street. Electric lights, water mains, underground water pipes, and fire hydrants were installed in Lake Geneva. The steamship, “The Lucius Newberry,” burned and sank in Geneva Lake on Dec. 6, 1891.
A telephone line from Lake Geneva to Chicago was erected. Hitching posts for horses were installed on the 700 block of Main Street. In 1891, the Knights of Pythias Lodge was founded in Lake Geneva. In 1893, the Columbian addition to Lake Geneva —named after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago — was plated north of the Pioneer Cemetery.
On July 9, 1894, the Whiting House hotel burned to the ground. (Eighteen years later, in 1912, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hotel Geneva would open on the former site of the Whiting House.) In July 1895, the city purchased the former Ladies Seminary building in Seminary Park to house Lake Geneva High School, which graduated a class of 16 students in June 1896.
The Lake Geneva Public Library opened its doors in June 1896 in a house on the south side of the 900 block of Main Street donated by Mary Delafield Sturges. And the construction of Yerkes Observatory was completed in December 1896 in Williams Bay. There were 26 steam yachts on Geneva Lake. In 1895 the population of Lake Geneva was 2,452.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.