Did you know that when you take a walk along the Geneva Lake Shore Path, you are walking on hallowed ground?
The path is almost 2,000 years old. It was created by the footsteps of Native American tribes who began settling here back then. They wore this path along the lakeshore while performing their daily tasks of gardening, hunting and fishing.
While the women did the gardening, the men did the hunting and fishing. As they walked all along the lakeshore, taking care of the tribal needs, they built camps in many different locations — sites they found beneficial for various reasons, sometimes for weeks at a time.
Chris Brookes, outreach coordinator for the Black Point Estate, discussed the history of the lakeshore path recently with a presentation at the Walworth County Historical Society’s Heritage Hall in Elkhorn.
The 21-mile path around Geneva Lake is quite rare, Brookes said. Starting with early landowners circling the lake, there has been a longstanding agreement to maintain the path for public enjoyment.
“It is very special,” she said. “And not every lake has one of these.”
More than 50 people turned out to hear Brookes’ presentation about the path’s history.
Jim Boardman, president of the historical society, said he was pleased to see so much interest in the organization’s efforts to promote appreciation for local history.
“Our program committee gets together every year,” he said, “to choose programs we think will interest the general public, will create an interest in the historical society.”
Brookes explained that beginning about 1,500 years ago, the Potawatomi Tribe, led by Chief Big Foot, built their Royal Camp in what is now Fontana.
From there, the tribe traveled up and down the shore path to Williams Bay to raise crops, and to Lake Geneva, where the men found good hunting and fishing near the east end of the lake — where the White River flows.
By 1831, white people began to discover the lake.
First, there were loggers who cut down many trees around the lake. They were followed by Chicagoans, who flocked to Lake Geneva at the time of the Great Chicago Fires. The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad had built tracks to Lake Geneva that made the travelling easier from the big city.
Once Chicagoans gathered in sufficient numbers here, they began to assemble their own camps.
“The train provided transportation to Lake Geneva where travelers got off and hiked along the lakeshore path to where they decided to build camps”, Brookes said.
The camps provided a place for people to stay while Chicago rebuilt after the fire.
By 1888, the railroad tracks were extended to Williams Bay, which provided an opportunity for visitors to get off in Williams Bay, put their luggage on a boat, and then walk along the lakeshore path to reach their homes.
Soon, hotels began to appear along the lakeshore. Some were built for less fortunate kids, such as Holiday Home. Another was built as a temperance establishment, one was for women only, and one was for people who were not so wealthy.
Holiday Home, built for Chicago kids, was created to provide them with a healthy life, good food, fresh air and an experience they never would have been able to have otherwise.
“Some of the wealthy women who had homes along the lake,” Brookes said, “realized that their children were able to enjoy this healthy life and they wanted to provide the same experience for the children from Chicago.”
Listeners were intrigued to hear Brookes’ stories of the lakeshore path and how it is engrained in local history.
Keith Esmond, who attended the presentation with his wife, Doris, and his brother, Phillip, said they were interested in learning more about when the railroad tracks were removed and turned into hiking trails.
“I learned today about the different camps that were here,” Esmond said.
Brookes told the crowd that the lakeshore path remains a popular attraction for recreation and other purposes.
Some people hike the shore path annually as a tradition, while some hike from Lake Geneva to Williams Bay or Fontana and treat themselves to lunch in one of the local eateries. Others try to hike the entire 21 miles at one time.
“It takes about eight hours to hike the entire shoreline,” Brookes said. “So bring good walking shoes — and lunch.”