History of Lake Geneva

Photo by Rita Jasurda
Photo by Rita Jasurda


The City of Lake Geneva is located in southeastern Wisconsin, 10 miles north of the Illinois state line, 75 miles NNW of Chicago and 45 miles SW of Milwaukee.  Recognized in 2009 as One of a Dozen Distinctive Destinations  by The National Trust for Historic Preservation, it sits on the eastern shore of Geneva Lake in Walworth County.


Key Statistics

Population: 7,696 (2014 Estimate)
 
Area: 5.8 Sq Miles
 
Homes: 3,757

Map

Most of our welcome visitors and guests are familiar with the many attractions in the Geneva Lakes area: our beaches at Library Park, and Big Foot State Park, specialty shops and galleries, golfing, boating, hiking the Potawatomi Trail, lake cruises, great food, and lodging services. However, many wonder about the origin of the rolling hills and lake, the early Indians, the pioneering white settlers, the quaint town and its yesteryear homes and buildings.

18,000 years ago, the last of many glaciers retreated to the North after having gorged-out and depressed our lake basin, and leaving a moraine of rolling, gravel hills.

The earliest record of white men seeing this beautiful expanse of water was a party traveling with the Kinzie family between their army post at Fort Dearborn (Chicago) and Fort Winnebago (Portage City) near the Fox and Wisconsin River portage in1831. This area was not on the river and lake highways of the earlier frontier period and thus lay undiscovered.

The ancient Oneota Tribes of the lost Hopewell Culture Indians lived here. These agricultural peoples enjoyed an advanced civilization on these shores as long ago as 1,000 B. C. They built effigy mounds in what is now Library Park. These effigies of a panther and a Lizard were removed several years ago. Eventually, the migrating forest tribes, who were hunters and fierce warriors, drove out the earlier inhabitants. Subsequently, these later Indians were removed by the United States Army to Kansas following the Black Hawk War of 1831-32. Questionable treaty arrangements in 1833 laid the foundation for the eviction of Chief Big Foot and our local Potawatomi Tribe in 1836.

John Brink, a government surveyor, laid claim to the waterfall power and adjacent land at the White River outlet to the lake in 1835. He named the lake after the lake in his home in Geneva, New York. The Indians had called it Kish-Way-Kee-Tow, meaning clear water. You must visit the dams and canal that fed many mills subsequently built here (adjacent to the Chamber of Commerce building in Flat Iron Park on Wrigley Drive).

In 1836, Christopher Payne, a pioneer settler from Belvidere, Illinois, established a rival claim for the water power. He built the first log cabin, the site of which is marked by a boulder and a plaque on Center Street just north of the river. Following a "Wild West" battle to settle ownership, grist and sawmills were built. Lake shore logs and many walnut trees were floated to the mills and cut into lumber from which the town was built. Eventually, flouring and wool carding mills followed. The fourteen-foot drop of water provided the most economical milling, and farmers brought their grain to Lake Geneva from as far away as Kenosha, Milwaukee, Belvidere, and Beloit. Our town was surveyed and laid out in 1837. Earlier land sales were confirmed at the Federal Government Land Office in 1839. The price was $ 1.25 per acre. Immigrant settlers from New England and New York flooded into the town. Most came via the Erie Canal and steamboat or sailing ships through the Great Lakes, embarking at Southport (Kenosha) or Milwaukee. Others trudged through the swamps and forest of Southern Michigan, Northern Ohio and Indiana. By 1840, there were two hotels, two general stores, three churches, and a distillery added to the mills, cabins and houses.

Prior to the civil war, Lake Geneva was on the reverse route to the Great Lake ports for slaves escaping from Southern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky. After the war, the town became a resort for the wealthy Chicago families. These families began construction of the many mansions on the lake, and Lake Geneva became known as the Newport (RI) of the West. Visitors included Mary Todd Lincoln and Generals Sherman and Sheridan. The Chicago Fire of 1871 caused many Chicago families to move to their summer homes on the lake while the city was rebuilt. The construction and maintenance of these mansions, as well as household employment, developed a separate industry in the town adding to the milling, furniture, wagon and typewriter manufacturing enterprises. After arrival of the railroad, thousands of tons of Lake Geneva ice were shipped each year to the Chicago market, until the beginning of World War II.

Our towns filled with homes and buildings from these earlier times. They represent the frontier and pioneering, as well as the later Victorian period.

For more information, please visit the Geneva Lake Museum of History
Official Website of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin