1800s: While White Men of Privilege Were Establishing Boat Clubs…

Throughout the 1800s, hundreds of professional and amateur boat clubs were established in the United States. We take a look at a select few that remain intact today, a few that merged with other clubs, and others that had brief but interesting lives. We also examine what life was like in America as society’s elite established these clubs not just for athletics, but to build and maintain their social status, wealth, and political clout. You’ll see that things weren’t so glamorous outside these boathouses.

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DetroitNew York CityBostonPhiladelphiaClevelandPittsburgh

Providence, RI
Narragansett Boat Club (1838)

The oldest boat club in the United States, Narragansett* was established by influential men in Providence. NBC matured through the 1800s into a premier social and athletic organization on the city’s East side. Following the Civil War, the club built an impressive boathouse on the banks of the Seekonk River*. In the 1880s, the Club boasted many national champions and sponsored a professional regatta for scullers. Like other clubs, it faltered through World Wars I and II, but has continued to reinvent itself with a variety of programs and has developed highly successful rowers.

Life in Providence, RI in the 1830s:

  • The Boston and Providence Railroad began operating in 1831.
  • The Snow Town race riots of 1831 saw white mobs set fire to Black homes. Following the riots, leading citizens and journalists approved of suppressing rioters to maintain order and voters approved a city charter that included strong police powers.
  • The port city and regional hub drew immigrants – Irish mainly – creating ethnic unrest within the predominantly white Protestant city.
  • In the decade NBC was established, Blacks were disenfranchised and didn’t regain the right to vote until 1843.

*Bonus history: Narragansett was named for the Narragansett Native American tribe. “Seekonk” is derived from two Native American words – sucki (black) and honc (goose).

Detroit, MI
Detroit Boat Club (1839) 

Michigan had only been a state for two years when DBC was organized by prominent men in Detroit. In 1842, “DBC oarsmen raced a 2-mile course from Belle Island to the boathouse, in the first event of its kind in Western waters.” Less than 10 years after being established, the club’s boathouse – along with hundreds of other structures – was destroyed in the Great Conflagration of 1848. In the 1860s, DBC became a founding member of the Detroit River Navy. Since the 1990s, rowing activity at the club’s Belle Isle boathouse has been supported by Friends of Detroit Rowing, and efforts are underway to restore the building.

Life in Detroit, MI in the 1830s:

  • In 1831, mail service began between Detroit and the East coast.
  • Cholera ravaged the city in 1832 and again in 1834, killing 322 people.
  • Detroit’s Underground Railroad began operating in 1840 and passed 45,000 slaves through the city on their way to Canada over the next 30 years.

New York City, NY
Atalanta Boat Club (1848) 

In addition to standard racing, Atalanta was known to participate in “rowing stunts.” They were the first to row around Manhattan (1848) and the first to row to Philadelphia (1857). Atalanta competed in the St. Louis Olympic Games of 1904, winning bronze in the 1x, gold in the 2x, and silver in the coxless pair. The club persisted for nearly 100 years in the company of other boathouse in Manhattan, and those that moved further and further North along the Hudson River, or eventually migrated to the calmer waters of the Harlem River.

Life in New York City in the 1840s:

  • A building boom and subsequent fires in the city in the 1930s prompted the construction of the Croton Aqueduct, which opened in 1842, bringing fresh water from Westchester County. Unfortunately, the Great New York City fire of 1845 destroyed 345 wooden buildings in the Financial District.
  • The New York City Police Department was established 1845, the city’s first municipal agency.
  • Unregulated capitalism created a demand for manpower, encouraging immigration into the city at an unprecedented scale. In the 1840s and ’50s, Irish and German settled in distinct ethnic neighborhoods.

Boston, MA
Union Boat Club (1851) 

Founded in 1851, UBC is the longest continuously operating rowing club in the Boston metropolitan area. UBC was a delegate at the first meeting of what would become the National Organization of Amateur Oarsmen (founded in 1872, now USRowing). Unlike other clubs, UBC was built on a foundation of athletics, with less of an emphasis on elite socializing, and it shows: the sculling program has produced members of the U.S. National Teams and Olympians, beginning in 1925 with Russell Codman’s 1x National title. “Union was home to the Henley Royal Regatta Grand Challenge Cup finalists in 1914 as well as a National Team Training Center in the 1970s.   The 1970s camps produced the U.S. Mens Eight which competed at the 1972 Munich Olympics.”

Life in Boston, MA in the 1850s:

  • In 1851, radical abolitionist Charles Sumner was elected to the Senate and conductors on the Underground Railroad helped hundreds of escaped slaves pass through the Boston area on their way to Canada.
  • The Great Boston Railroad Jubilee (September 1851) celebrated the beginning of service connecting Boston with Montreal, the Great Lakes, and Chicago.
  • Irish immigrants inundated Boston in the late 1840s, and by 1850 the census showed that 43% of the population were foreign born.
  • In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to require formal education at least three months each year for all children ages 8-14.
  • When the Boston Public Library opened its doors in 1854 it was the first publicly supported municipal library in the United States.

Philadelphia, PA
Bachelors Barge Club (1853) 

Bachelors is the oldest continuously operated rowing club in the United States. A mining engineer and philanthropist named Israel Morris founded the club, bringing the “sport of gentlemen” to the Schuylkill River*. Its earliest members were “almost without exception members of the Phoenix Engine Company.” Like other clubs established in this era, Bachelors attracted men of wealth, including those in coal, pharmaceuticals, publishing, and retail. The club originally housed its boats in a wood shack on the north side of the Schuylkill River constructed for $67.85. Today its members row out of a stately brick boathouse built in 1893, now known as #6 Boathouse Row.

University Barge Club (1854)

University Barge Club was founded by ten members of the University of Pennsylvania’s freshman class, creating Penn’s first official organized athletic activity. UBC is a founder – and most senior member –  of the oldest amateur athletic governing body in the United States, the Schuylkill Navy (founded on Oct. 5, 1858). When membership opened to non-students, it came to be dominated by Old Philadelphians from the upper class. Like other clubs, it suffered through the Civil War, but in 1871 it built a boathouse at No. 7 Boathouse Row, where it still stands today. World Wars I and II  and the Great Depression saw activity at the boathouse decline, but the Club has changed and grown with the times, hosting scholastic and masters rowing programs and regattas.

Find out more about Philadelphia in the 1830-50s through this interactive story map.

Undine Barge Club (1856) 

Organized for the intended purpose of “healthful exercise” and “relaxation from business,” Undine was one of nine clubs to found the Schuylkill Navy in 1858 to eliminate gambling and to promote amateur rowing. Racing quickly evolved as the primary focus and interest of Undine’s members. Over its long history, the club has been well known for producing high-caliber rowers and winning championships.

On Nov. 18, 1872, crews from Undine, West Philadelphia (now Penn AC) and Crescent, using boats brought from England, rowed the first eight-oared race in the United States.

Undine’s home on Boathouse Row was built in 1882-83 with funds raised by the members. 

If you’re interested in a very thorough history of the club’s first 100 years, check out The Undine Barge Club of Philadelphia, published in 1925.

Quaker City Barge Club (1858) / Fairmount Rowing Association 

Members of the defunct Camilla Boat Club reorganized to form Quaker City Barge Club. They lay claim to being the first to race a four oared boat with coxswain. In 1865, the club purchased half of #3 Boathouse Row from the Pacific Barge Club, but began to decline in the 1880s, and never raced in the Schuylkill Navy Regatta after 1926. In 1932, QCBC declared itself “inactive” in the Schuylkill Navy and became completely defunct in the 1940s. In 1945, Fairmount Rowing Association (formed in 1877) bought Quaker City Barge Club’s equipment and boathouse. Today, Fairmount is known as a premier club for masters rowers in the Mid-Atlantic region, with a long history of competing and excelling at the national level.

Life in Philadelphia, PA in the 1850s:

  • In 1850, three out of ten Philadelphians were foreign-born, the highest proportion ever recorded. Germans and Irish accounted for more than 75% of that total.
  • Violence against immigrants and African-Americans was common. Abolitionist Joseph Sturge commented: “…there is probably no city in the known world where dislike, amounting to the hatred of the coloured population, prevails more than in the city of brotherly love!”
  • Anti-slavery societies had been formed and free Blacks, Quakers, and other abolitionists operated safe houses associated with the Underground Railroad.

Cleveland, OH
Ivanhoe Boat Club (1855)

Just three years after the first Yale-Harvard Boat Race, Ivanhoe and its rival – Ydrad Rowing Club – and other regional clubs were racing on a regular basis along the Cuyahoga River. The port city’s heavy industrial river traffic forced rowing shells off the water by the 1860s.

Life in Cleveland in the 1840s-50s:

  • The first street light was installed in the city in 1849.
  • The first African American newspaper, The Aliened-American, was published in 1851.
  • In 1856, a city-wide water system became operational; and in 1858 the first sewer was constructed.
  • 1850s Cleveland saw an emergence of group athletic activity as billiards, baseball, and cricket came into favor.

Pittsburgh, PA
Eclipse Barge Club (1856)

Organized by amateur Pittsburgh oarsmen, the Eclipse Barge Club was one of a number of Pittsburgh rowing clubs that participated in both national and international races during the 1800s. According to meeting minutes, the club’s first boat – the Eclipse – was a six-oared barge, 35-feet long and 3.5 feet wide, constructed of galvanized iron. (Pittsburgh’s iron and steel industries grew to be the city’s economic mainstay for more than a century.) In time, their fleet came to include 4-oared barges, and single and double sculls. But it was an 8-oared barge called the Albatross that would bring about the end of the club.

On July 20, 1860, seven oarsmen took the Albatross for a joyride to a friend’s house. After some time, three members of the crew wanted to leave, but others wanted to stay all night. So three oarsmen rowed back to the city, leaving their coxswain behind. According to club bylaws, the coxswain should always accompany the boats. This violation caused such a rift that the two parties agreed to, in essence, buy out the other’s shares of the club. Before the next season, the nation was at war, and most of the Eclipse oarsmen promptly enlisted.

Life in Pittsburgh in the 1850s:

  • The age of rails arrived: Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad (1851) connected the city to Cleveland; Pennsylvania Railroad (1854) began service to/from Philadelphia; and the Lawrenceville-Pittsburgh Railway (1859) began operating.
  • The 1854 Cholera outbreak lasted about two weeks, and took 750+ lives, often within a day of a person noticing symptoms.
  • The Pittsburgh Police Department was established in 1857.
  • The iron and steel industries were prominent in Pittsburgh, making the city an industrial powerhouse. As of 1857, there were 939 factories employing 10,000+ workers.

If you’ve made it this far, you know that many more clubs were established in the 1800s that are worth getting to know. There are also contemporary clubs that are reinventions or reboots of clubs that once existed but fizzled out. I’ll keep doing the research, and I hope you’ll keep reading.