Geneva Lake Level Corporation

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The object and purpose of the Geneva Lake Level Corporation shall be to establish, maintain, and control the water level of Geneva Lake in Walworth Count, Wisconsin, to protect the riparian interests of the property owners upon the lake, to keep and maintain the dam and spillway at the foot of Geneva Lake, to cooperate with the duties of protecting the lake against water pollution, and to further conservation of the water resource to the end that the lake may serve the enjoyment and benefit of the people.



Geneva Lake was formed some 10,000 years ago as the result of glacial action, which created the lake basin and sculpted the landscape. The earlier of these glaciers created what is known as the “Troy Valley,” a depression running generally southwest from Troy, Wisconsin, through Lyons and then westward through what is today the City of Lake Geneva toward Beloit. This glacier subsequently receded and later advanced again, this time carrying with it vast quantities of gravel that were deposited as hills or ” terminal moraines.

“These gravel moraines closed off the Troy valley in various places, particularly in the vicinity of Fontana creating a vast natural dam across the Troy Valley and forming the western end of Geneva Lake and to a lesser extend closing and forming the eastern end of the lake. Henceforth, the basin that would become Geneva Lake drained toward the east through the White River to the Fox River (Note 1). Because of these glacial antecedents, the lake is very deep for Wisconsin lakes, reaching 140 feet in the region west of the
narrows, and 60 feet in the region east of the narrows, with a surface area exceeding 5,500 acres.

European-Americans first discovered the lake in 1831 when an Army party, under the command of Major John Kinzie, was travelling along Indian trails from Fort Dearborn in Chicago to Fort Winnebago near what is today Portage, Wisconsin. The trail led through the Pottawatomie Indian village located on a plateau near the seven ceremonial pools at the western end of the lake. There is a bronze marker located on the south shore lake path about 1/4 mile east of the Abbey Harbor commemorating the place where the Kinzie party first viewed the lake.


In 1834, a government surveyor named John Brink came through the area to map it for the United States government in preparation to the area being opened for settlement. He was under instructions to give Indian names to the geographic features in the region, but when he came to this lake it reminded him of his hometown near Geneva, New York so he named it Geneva Lake.

Note 1: Jenkins, Paul B., The Book of Lake Geneva, University of Chicago Press, 1932

Camping for a day at the eastern end of the lake, he observed that there was a plentiful flow of water out of the lake through the White River and the site was ideally suited for a water wheel for a mill. He marked his claim to this area by chopping down a number of trees around the perimeter and carving his name on the site. Christopher Payne, a wandering frontiersman, became the first settler in 1836. He chose the same location along the stream at the eastern end of the lake as Brink. He maintained he was unaware of Brink’s prior claim. After an extended dispute, Brink sold his claim to Payne for $2,000 in cash and material and moved to Crystal Lake, Illinois.


To develop the waterpower more fully, Payne built the first dam across the outlet stream from the lake in
the vicinity of the railroad bridge where it crosses the stream there by raising the level of the lake by an estimated six feet (Note 1). Payne also built a large mill, believed to have been a flourmill, “on the northern bank of the stream near the present location of the Wisconsin Power & Light Company’s service building.”

Note 1: Payne operated this mill for several years before he left the area and moved to Lake Como.


Settlers soon began to populate the area. In 1839, Robert Warren and six others purchased Section 36 in Township 2 from the US government, which was conveyed by a land grant signed by President Harrison and dutifully recorded June 17. The dam, the swampland referred to as the fore bay which is today Flat Iron Park, along with channels carrying the outflow from the lake which became the White River, lie diagonally across the Section (EXHIBIT A). By 1844, Robert Warren had bought out the other owners and became the sole owner.

0The area of interest to us is identified on the plat and in the documents as the “RESERVATION.” It consists of the swampy low land area at the northeast corner of the lake where the lake overflowed through the swampland and turned into the White River. It takes its name from a “Plat of the Village of Geneva in the Recorder’s Office” and the original government land grant refers to this Reservation specifically and says”… grounds marked Reservation are reserved for the proprietors to be disposed of as they shall see fit.”


The water rights that are vested today in the Geneva Lake Level Corporation originate in the original government land grant. They are best defined in a conveyance from Robert Warren to Shepard Raymond on May24, 1864.

… “Right to raise and maintain the waters in said Lake for hydraulic purposes and flow back the same upon all lands owned by Robert Warren as the said Raymond, his heirs or assigns shall need or require along the said north bank of said outlet along the shore of said lake, Westwardly to the west bounds of the village. “And conveying… “all of Warren’s right, title, estate and interest in the dams, embankments, race, flumes, head and waste gates in said Village connected with said Lake, outlet, race flumes, and waterpower. “Also the” . . . right to maintain, improve, repair, enlarge, and deepen and use the race now used and connected with said waterpower … For any other purpose… in such manner … deemed best or expedient for the profitable use of said waterpower but not remove any earth from the north bank of the race … “

Late in 1851, during an unusually heavy rain, the earthen dam that had been built a cross the outlet of the lake gave way and was washed out. Contemporary records indicate the level of the lake dropped eight feet. During this outage, a number of boats were washed downstream a long the White River.

There were a number of defaults and fore closures over the years after this conveyance by Warren to Raymond. These culminate in Alonzo Willard’s purchase of the Reservation and water rights at various Sheriff’s sales between 1875 and 1882.

Willard subsequently sold to the Village of Geneva on May 30, 1882 the land beginning where the north bank of the millrace intersects the centerline of Center Street, south along the center line of Center Street to the lake shore, running west along the low water mark at the lake shore to the foot of Broad street, then a long the high water mark on the north bank of the mill race back to the center line of Center Street, … ” Excepting and reserving all waterpower and hydraulic rights formed or represented by dams, raceways, flumes, head and waste gates located on said lands Provided however that this exception shall not be construed to prevent the use…. all waters of said Lake formerly public or ornamental purposes or to prohibit the improvement of said lands as a Public Park” … (Exhibit B). This land, much of which has since been filled in with logs to stabilize it and then covered with earth fill to raise its surface is known today as Flat Iron Park.

Willard sold to Gilbert and Barber on November 20, 1882 the water rights described in the previous paragraph together with the property on Main Street just north of what is today Burger King. This interest was eventually acquired by Charles Hillard and conveyed to the Lake Geneva Water Power & Lake Level Protection Company on April 18, 1894.

During the intervening years, at least two other mills were built in the immediate vicinity of Payne’s mill, and about a half mile farther down the White River was the John Haskins Manufacturing Company, which later became the Crawford Manufacturing Company. These businesses all needed water to provide power for their operations and, since there were no laws to control or regulate the usage, they used all the water available to their commercial advantage giving little thought or regard to the level of the lake.

As a result, the level of the lake rose when water was plentiful and dropped when the water was in short supply. The difference in lake level between these two extremes being up to two feet. This was a highly unsatisfactory arrangement for lakeshore residents who depended on the lake for access to their cottages and estates, as well as local livery boats and other commercial enterprises that depended on the lake for transportation of people, goods, and services. In the early 1890’s a group of lakeshore residents attempted to purchase the water rights, but the negotiations were not fruitful.


In 1894 H. H. Porter, a Chicago railroad entrepreneur and lakeshore summer resident, learned through a banking associate that some mill property in Lake Geneva was for sale. He subsequently learned and his neighbors had been trying to purchase earlier. He purchased the property forth with, acting in the interest of all lakeshore property owners, and providing the purchase money himself. Realizing the significance of the purchase, other lakeshore residents joined with him in forming a stock company, the Lake Geneva Water Power & Lake Level Protection Company (LGWP & LLPC) in April 1894 (Exhibits C and D). Shares of stock were offered publicly and about 40 individuals purchased stock in the corporation there by enabling the corporation to repay Mr. Porter’s advance. The business and purpose of the corporation is described as” maintaining and operating a waterpower, manufacturing, improving and leasing lands and regulating the water level of Geneva Lake.”

In August of 1894, the directors of the LGWP & LLPC authorized construction of a new permanent dam without gates in the area between what is now Highway 120 and Center Street. The dam was to be of such height that the water would flow over the dam at the 14 inches above datum level. (Exhibit E) In May of 1995 the board of directors increased the height of the dam so that the water would flow at the 16 – inch level (Exhibit F).

Further construction was authorized by the directors of the corporation in July of 1909 creating an overflow or waste way adjacent to the gates of the dam. (Exhibit G), and in September the construction of a spillway and strengthening of the dam as outlined by an engineer (Exhibit H). This work was completed by August 1910 (Exhibit I).

In 1911, farmers downstream of the dam sued the Company for damages resulting from their lands being flooded. The court ruled against the farmers saying the primary responsibility of the LGWP & LLPC was protection and preservation of the lake and the corporation was not responsible for flooding that occurred down stream.

In July of 1915, there was a dispute between the LGWP & LLPC and the Village of Lake Geneva over the adequacy of culverts proposed to run from the dam spillway underground to the east crossing under Center Street. The city had already purchased culverts that were considered too small by the engineer retained by the corporation. To resolve this dispute, the corporation agreed to purchase the culverts from the city and to pay one half the cost of the larger culverts (Exhibit J).

In 1916, the LGWP & LLPC conveyed a portion of its property located north of Main Street to Southern Wisconsin Electronic Company, while reserving all of its water rights, and also entered into a lease with the Southern Wisconsin Electronic Company granting rights to the raceway and to power from water that flowed from the dam through the race to the tail gate. The lessee was to be responsible for maintaining the dam, gates, and race, but the LGWP & LLPC reserved the right to control the flow of water from the lake into the race (Exhibit K). In 1929, these rights were subsequently conveyed to Wisconsin Power & Light Company, the successor to the Southern Wisconsin Electric Power Company (Exhibit L). A water wheel generator was installed in the power company building and electricity was commercially produced for the next six years.

In 1928, the LGWP & LLPC deeded property located a long the tail race north of Maine street to B.P Bishop and Walter Bishop. The corporation however reserved all of its rights in the tail race and mill race and all water and riparian rights there in.

In 1934, Wisconsin Power & Light conveyed back the LGWP & LLPC a small parcel of property which included the property on either side of the tail race and additional property along the eastern side of the tail race and mill race, all located north of Main street (Exhibit M).

The following year, 1935, the lease between the Wisconsin Power & Light Company was terminated (Exhibit N). Since that date, the dam, head gates, head race, mill race, tail gate and tail race have been in sole possession of LGWP & LLPC and have been used only for regulation of the lake level of Geneva Lake (Exhibit 0).

From time to time repairs and refurbishment have been necessary to maintain the integrity of the dam, usually in a cooperative arrangement with the City of Lake. In 1953, repairs to the floor of the spillway were under taken (Exhibit P), in 1970 the steel gates located adjacent to the spillway were in stalled (Exhibit T), and in 1984 the wooden head gates and tail gates at either end of the mill race were repaired (Exhibit U)


In 1959, it was determined by the directors of the LGWP & LLPC that it was in the best interests of the lake community if this” for profit” corporation were converted to a “not – for – profit” corporation. Accordingly, the Geneva Lake Level Corporation was created and the water rights transferred (Exhibit Q). In 1967, after some modifications in the by-laws that were requested by the Internal Revenue Service, this corporation was granted” tax exempt” status (Exhibits R and S). This is the corporate entity that exists today.

To close out the old Lake Geneva Water Power & Lake Level Protection Company, it was necessary for the new Geneva Lake Level Corporation to acquire all the outstanding stock in the old corporation from the numerous shareholders. Over the next thirty years, shareholders in the old corporation were encouraged to altruistically donate their shares to the new corporation. In some instances, the shares had to be purchased by interested individuals and then donated to the new corporation. Finally, in 1988, 100% of the outstanding shares were accounted for and in possession of the new not – for – profit Geneva Lake Level Corporation (Exhibit V). The legal process to fold the corpus of the LGWP & LLPC in to the new Geneva Lake Level Corporation was started in 1992 and completed, with the transfer of the real estate and related hydraulic structures in 2002 (Exhibits X, Y, Z, AA, BB, CC).

Today, the Geneva Lake Level Corporation is operated by a public spirited board of directors committed to the maintenance, preservation, and protection of the level of Geneva Lake in the best interests of the riparian owners and the public.

November 8, 2002