The mail jumpers of Lake Geneva

For the residents who live on waterfront property in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the daily mail delivery comes by boat. The U.S. Mailboat Walworth makes the delivery every morning at 10am from June 15 to September 15, stopping at over 60 lakefront homes. At each dock, the mail girl – or the occasional mail boy – jumps from the boat, races to the mailbox while dodging rafts and dock furniture, grabs the outgoing mail (hoping that the owners haven’t played a prank and tied the mailbox shut!), drops off the incoming envelopes, and then runs back to the boat, which – and here’s where it gets interesting – never stops moving (check out a video here). It’s a process that takes as little as ten seconds, and leaves no room for error.

The mailboat delivery began in the late 1800′s out of necessity. The roads around the Lake were not well developed, so delivering the mail by boat was quicker and more efficient. The tradition continues today, but now tourists can tag along for the delivery on daily mailboat tours run by the Lake Geneva Cruise Line. While watching the girls work, passengers listen to information and anecdotes about the area and the historic mansions on the lakefront.

The mail girls, or “mail jumpers”, are not postal employees – they work for Lake Geneva Cruise Line – but they work closely with the U.S. Post Office. The mail jumper work day begins at 7am with the sorting of the mail and ends around 1pm, after the 2.5 hour delivery tour. Of the hundreds of houses on Lake Geneva, only 60 or so receive their mail by boat because many are summer houses that are only inhabited part-time.

For young adults in Lake Geneva and the surrounding towns, being a mail jumper is a coveted job, and one that requires an unusual application process. Elle Vogt, a two-year veteran mail jumper and a sophomore at UW-Madison, said that when she first saw a video of the mail jumpers, she knew right away she wanted to try out. The tryouts are hands-on: the applicants will make several jumps, first at the pier and then out on the lake, and then give parts of the scripted tour. To get the job, applicants need to show that not only can they quickly make the jump from boat to dock, but that they can also deliver an engaging presentation to the passengers.

Elle says that she really enjoys being a mail girl, but the job isn’t without its challenges. The biggest one of course, is falling in the Lake. Captain Neal has been driving the mail boat for almost 50 years and has seen at least one mail jumper get soaked every season. It’s nearly guaranteed for each mail girl to fall in at least once in her career. Elle had her turn this summer. One wet and rainy day, she was running a little slower than usually down a particularly long and slippery pier. As she made the jump, the boat passed by and she just missed it, landing in the water with a splash. When a jumper misses the boat, they have no choice but to finish out their shift soaking wet. It’s no surprise then that jumpers also need to be strong swimmers to get the job.

The job does come with perks though. This summer, Elle met Andrew Zimmern when he visited Lake Geneva and filmed a segment of his Travel Channel show aboard the Walworth. Andrew jumped mail and received a special package from a fan, a bag of “bizarre food” left for him in a mailbox.

In addition to the mailboat tours, Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers several other lake tours, including an ice-cream social tour, champagne brunch cruise, and a full lake tour that cruises past the stately lakefront homes. Mailboat tours cost $27 for adults and are conducted every day in the summer, including Sundays when the newspaper is delivered.

Disclosure: My ride on the U.S. Mailboat Walworth was covered as part of my stay at The Abbey Resort and Spa, but my opinions of the Resort and the lake cruise are my own. Even without a gratis tour of the Lake, I’d be pretty impressed with the antics of these mail jumpers.