Station image

At the Williams Bay railroad station, the Chicago & North Western depot is shown just steps from the lakefront piers, in this image dated 1908. (Contributed photo/Regional News)

WILLIAMS BAY — Mile after mile of forests, prairies, and small farms, along with the quiet villages of Geneva, Williams Bay, and Fontana could be found around Geneva Lake in 1870 when Chicago industrialist Shelton Sturges first looked over the lake where he would decide to build his summer home.

The Sturges’ Maple Lawn was completed in 1871 — the same year rail service returned to Geneva after an 11-year absence. Having heard of the beauty of the area, other wealthy Chicagoans began visiting the village, some as guests of the Sturges family, others taking rooms in rooming houses in the village for the summer.

One of these was former Chicago Mayor Julian S. Rumsey, whose family had stayed at Mrs. Tamlin’s house that summer, as did the George Sturges family. When the Great Chicago Fire occurred in October 1871, many displaced families of these same wealthy Chicagoans came to Geneva while their Chicago mansions were rebuilt. In her 1924 memoir, Ida Rumsey Campbell, daughter of Julian Rumsey, wrote of the fire, their harrowing escape, and their trip to Geneva and the family’s stay at Mrs. Tamlin’s after the fire.

By 1880, Geneva, now renamed Lake Geneva, was a fashionable destination for wealthy Chicagoans. Following the lead of Shelton Sturges, Julian Rumsey, N.K. Fairbank, Edward Meatyard, Edward Ayers, and others grand summer mansions were being built along the shoreline of Geneva Lake.

The first Chicago & North Western train pulled into the French provincial-styled train depot in Williams Bay on June 1, 1888. The Williams Bay depot was only a few steps to the lakefront, where three large piers were built to accommodate yachts with uniformed captains, polished brass, and glistening varnish that awaited their owners — ready to transport them to their lavish estates.

Trains left Chicago’s Wells Street Station every day at 3:45 bound for Lake Geneva and Williams Bay and stops in between. On Friday, a second train waited for passengers at the station, this train was known as the Millionaires Special; traveling at 60 miles per hour or more, it made its way to its first stop in Lake Geneva in just over an hour. From the polished trimmings on the locomotive to the rear railing of the parlor cars, every inch of the 535 was luxurious.

Albert Redfearn, conductor on this train, had the distinction of knowing by name all the millionaires who had homes on Geneva Lake. On any given Friday afternoon during the summer season, the seats of the parlor cars were occupied by millionaires, many self-made who were bankers, doctors, industrialists, members of the Chicago Board of Trade, retail magnets, brewers, and judges with names like Harris, Crane, Wacker, Isham, Sears, Selfridge, Mitchell, Seipp, and Hutchinson on their way to the lake for the weekend.

On Friday, July 26, 1907, a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, who called himself the man with 45 cents in his pocket, rode the Millionaires Special to Williams Bay. He estimated the net worth of the 40 millionaires he observed to be about $200,000,000, give or take a few million. (Today those 40 millionaires would have a combined estimated net worth of $5.3 billion.)

The reporter would write:

”No train In America, according to railway officials, carries such a load of precious lives — ‘precious’ being used in the sense of their value as represented in their fortunes. The millionaires’ train of Friday afternoon catches the scores of men who have their summer homes around the shores of the beautiful lake, and who greet each other by their first names. Just think of calling J. H. Moore ‘Hobe’ — think of it. Yet that is what one of them did, and ‘Hobe’ said, ‘Hello, Charlie.’ The man with 45 cents doesn’t know who Charlie is, but anyone who can call Moore ‘Hobe’ ought to be worth a few million.

Let’s see what the millionaires are doing. A tour of the train, with casual glances in all directions, shows only two men who appear to be talking business. Most of the millionaires are talking golf, or boating, or horse. Funny how rich men love horses.

There’s a young fellow whose face is familiar. Think he is one of the Egans. Wonder if Joe Leiter is on the train; he has a place up there. No, can’t find him anywhere. He’d have raised the total considerably.

The run of the millionaires’ special is ended. Conductor Redfearn smiles and exchanges parting words with his passengers. The man with 45 cents inquires when the train starts back. And on the way back, he suddenly comes to the conclusion that if anyone had climbed on the train without knowing with whom he was riding, he never would have suspected that they were all millionaires, but would have thought that they merely were a crowd of ordinary people, glad that the week’s work was ended, and happy at the prospect of two days of sunshine and fresh air and rest in the country.”

Michelle Bie Love is a member of the Williams Bay Historical Society and co-author of “A Pictorial History of Williams Bay, Wisconsin On Beautiful Geneva Lake.”