Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Long before the light of the rising sun touches the tops of the tall silver buildings of center-city Philadelphia, turn­ing the sky to the color of gunmetal, morning has dawned on Boathouse Row.

Morning comes early to that small swatch of the Schuylkill River, and to the ten old Victorian era structures renowned throughout the world as a center for rowing – and recognized by Philadel­phians as one of the city’s architectural and historical treasures.

Morning dawns to the cacophony of enthusiasts’ voices as they frenetically rig an eight-oared shell on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Fairmount Park. On Boat­house Row, the new day dawns when the first crews dip their long and elegant oars into the dark water and glide up the river while the rest of the city just begins to stir.

On Boathouse Row, the new day dawns as it has for more than a hundred years.

Three centuries ago, even the great visionary William Penn could not have foreseen the utility and beauty that would, two centuries later, become the legendary Boat­house Row. When he sailed up the Schuylkill River, the founder saw a more rugged splendor as he surveyed the forested valley that cradled the swift-running river. “What a Faire Mount,” he reputedly exclaimed, thus naming for posterity the verdant tract that would become the city’s great­est park.

The Schuylkill River actu­ally had been discovered al­most by accident in 1615 by a Dutch expedition, commanded by Captain Hendrickson, which explored the streams and tributaries of the New World’s coastal rivers. The group was exploring the Dela­ware River when, on closer scrutiny, they detected the mouth of the Schuylkill nearly hidden by lush forests and vegetation. This uncharted body of water was named Skokill, translated from the Dutch as “hidden river.”

The Schuylkill River of William Penn’s era little resem­bled the placid, broad body of wafer that now winds circui­tously through the heart of Fairmount Park. The rushing river then was rocky and shal­low, its early traffic limited to Indians in their canoes or an occasional hardy settler in a heavy barge-like boat. William Penn was said to have rowed his own barge, accompanied by his secretary James Logan, as far as what is present-day East Falls in order to determine the navigable course of the river. Penn housed his six­-oared barge at Faire Mount and flew from its stem a pen­nant proclaiming its owner­ship. Evidently he was a proud and protective proprie­tor of the launch as suggested by a letter he dispatched to Logan upon his return to Lon­don. “I hope nobody uses it on any account and she is kept in dry dock or at least covered for the weather.”

The area of Faire Mount was eventually settled by Phil­adelphia’s landed gentry, who erected imposing mansions along the river’s craggy bluffs. These affluent families became known as “Hillers” and it was not uncommon for the head of the household to keep a boat anchored on the river for recre­ational purposes, as well as for transportation to the city, the center of which was still some distance away. It was custom­ary for these men to be rowed in barges from their residences overlooking the waterway to a place in the city known as “Middle Ferry,” where today the Market Street bridge spans the Schuylkill.

Many of these same indi­viduals banded together in 1732 to found the social club known as the Fishing Com­pany of the Colony of Schuyl­kill, later the State of Schuyl­kill. The club is considered to have been the forerunner of the boat clubs that would emerge nearly a century later. The members of the Fishing Company owned several four­- and six-oared barges; which they housed in a shack erected in 1748 near where Girard Avenue now crosses the river. The crews of the Fishing Com­pany would challenge the members of a rival club, Fort St. David, to impromptu races, the first record of competition on the Schuylkill River.

Crews from the University of Pennsylvania competed on the shallow, swift-running river as early as 1801, but the sport of rowing did not begin in earnest until the completion of the Fairmount Dam on July 25, 1821. The Schuylkill River was transformed into a still lake that stretched upriver to East Falls, a calm body of wa­ter that was conducive to the sports of ice skating, swim­ming and, most especially, boating.

The first formal race, in September 1835, according to nineteenth century historians, paired the eight-oared barges of the Imp and Blue Devil clubs in a three mile race on the lower Schuylkill on much the same course over which regattas are waged today. The Imp was a long, dark boat with a broad red stripe, whose crew sported a uniform of dark pants, red shirts and close fitting hats similar to those worn by Grecian boatmen. The Blue Devil was a black boat with a broad, gold stripe; its crew was nattily attired in dark pantaloons, black and white shirts and small round hats. Several thousand specta­tors thronged the banks of the river and watched as the Imp beat the Blue Devil by about forty yards in a winning time of eleven minutes.

The event was judged so successful that a regatta was planned for November 1835. The event attracted seven entries in the eight-oared barge (or first-class) race and four entries in the four-oared barge race. According to a newspaper account, written to honor the event’s centennial in 1935, enthusiasm for the re­gatta even exceeded the race between the Imp and Blue Devil clubs. “Both shores from Fairmount to Belmount were crowded and while some came on horseback, in gigs, wagons and coaches, many walked the distance from the city, a strong expression of the sport of rowing. A number of business­men even considered the event of sufficient importance to warrant the cessation of busi­ness.”

The sport of rowing bur­geoned in the twenty-five years following the first re­gatta, when many discovered the idyllic pleasures of the Schuylkill. A summer row on the river became for many of the city’s inhabitants a wel­come respite from the fierce, strangulating heat of July and August. “In those days,” re­called John B. Thayer, an early member of University Barge Club, “a desire to escape the city’s heat by fleeing to the seashore could not be easily gratified. Atlantic City was a barren waste and Cape May could only be reached by a boat after a day’s journey. Boating on the river was a more satisfactory substitute…”

Rowing was, as in the days of the Fishing Company, the sport of the privileged. Much like the British clubs, whose oarsmen were the products of the great universities of Ox­ford and Cambridge, many of the first clubs along Boathouse Row were founded by college or former college men who hailed from Philadelphia’s finest families. The University Barge Club was founded in 1854 by ten young men from Old Philadelphia families, all former students of the Univer­sity of Pennsylvania. Previ­ously they had hired boats from a public boathouse, but decided that – for social, as well as recreational purposes – that it was “much more agreeable to have our own boats and boathouse.”

They christened their first barge the Hesperus, which the members used to explore the outlying areas of the city. Newly-outfitted by the posh clothier, Jacob Reed’s, in “white shirts cut low in the neck,” pantaloons of white duck “tight in the seat and wide at the ankle ” and stiff, straw-brimmed hats, the young men seemed quite a spectacle to the working-class residents of Manayunk. The young men, for their part – as evidenced by Thayer’s first­hand account – seemed to regard the inhabitants as some sort of savages.

With our youthful enterprise, we pushed our voyage of discovery as far as the tribe of the “Manay­unkers” who inhabited the upper reaches of the river above the Falls of the Schuylkill. Accoutered as we were, we sought upon one occasion to make a trade with the natives, and purchase of them a portion of their products such as spruce beer, bologna sausages, crackers and the like.

Our friendly advances were met with vituperative epithets, unkind allusions to our trousers and pea Jackets, and finally when we embarked in sorrow at our unkind reception, their added injury to insult and a shower of coal nearly sank the boat.

The University Barge Club was not so elitist when it came to races, particularly when the betting grew heavy. The mem­bers would reinforce their crew with a strapping, shad boat fisherman from Fishtown or Kensington, whose profes­sional presence would assure a speedier vessel.

Crews in those days trav­eled to and from Boathouse Row at some risk. The remote area was scarcely patrolled by city police, allowing crime to thrive unchecked. The boaters who missed the last omnibus into the city were faced with a long walk and the ever-present threat of gangs. The young toughs – the most notorious of which was the Schuylkill Rangers – would routinely rob and vandalize the ram­shackle boathouses that perched along the river’s bank. One night the members of the Bachelors Barge Club became so incensed by yet another burglary that the members armed themselves and em­barked on a riotous round of the area saloons . The vigilan­tes recovered most of the stolen property on their foray and hired Bill Kaling, by leg­end the roughest of the Schuylkill Rangers, as night watchman for the club. The clubhouse was threatened no more.

So popular was the sport of rowing during the pre-Civil War era that it was not uncom­mon for rowing clubs to ap­pear almost overnight – and disappear just as quickly. Some oarsmen blamed the inconstancy on a lack of cohe­sion and little cooperation among the clubs, a situation they set out to rectify on Octo­ber 5, 1858. Representatives of nine clubs met and formed the Schuylkill Navy “to act as a board of arbitration and to aid in the friendly feeling among the members of the several rowing clubs that are now organized or that may hereaf­ter be organized in the City of Philadelphia.” The Schuylkill Navy exists today as the oldest amateur sports governing body in the United States.

Threatened by the grim specter of a civil war, it was doubtful that the fledgling organization would endure. By June 1861, six of the sixteen member clubs had resigned from the Navy, and during the war years, no regattas were held on the river. When the first post-war meeting of the Navy convened on August 17, 1865, only the Quaker City and Bachelors attended, prompting the secretary of University Barge to reflect in a letter to the secretary of the Schuylkill Navy five years later that, “the War almost killed the associa­tion.”

Only the healthy state of the sport of rowing enabled the Schuylkill Navy to endure through the dismal war years. In the 1870s, a veritable rowing boom occurred, a result of an era in which people enjoyed more leisure time and greater affluence. Growing urban areas contributed both avid spectators and participants to the sport, so that nearly every city with a navigable waterway formed a rowing club. Several weekly publications were founded to carry news and gossip of the sport to its many fans.

Nowhere was rowing more popular than on the Schuyl­kill, where clubs sponsored several regattas of note. The first eight-oared shell race in the United States was con­tested between the Crescent Boat Club and the Undine Barge Club on Thanksgiving Day in 1872, matching two long, slender boats imported from England. The first pair­-oared shell race was also held on the Schuylkill that year, a sweep event that remains popular on the river.

Ironically, the earliest races were tedious affairs and of questionable interest to the spectators who could not dis­tinguish from a distance the competitors. The regattas, however, were events of the highest order, replete with drink, food and plenty of company. The attraction, or so it seemed, was the outing itself.

The most popular events of that era were those that pitted professional scullers against one another in match races. Rowers Max Schmitt and the Biglin brothers, immortalized by Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins, loomed the folk heroes of the day. They competed for huge purses in events throughout the country. It was possible for such men to make a living solely by racing. A novice in a work boat might have earned twenty-five dol­lars in a stakes race, but a top professional could win five thousand dollars in an espe­cially high stakes race. In 1872, one hundred and fifty such events were held in places as far-flung as Savannah, Geor­gia; Sacramento, California; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The stakes were sweetened by heavy wagers before the race. Companies provided some sponsorship for the professional events, but the greater portion of the purses came from gambling. Gam­blers would stimulate interest in the race by setting the odds and encouraging heavy bet­ting, but this practice encour­aged some gamblers to fix the outcome of the races for per­sonal gain. By the early 1870s, professional rowing had grown so suspect, that the colleges and clubs sought to distance themselves from the profes­sionals. The real problem was that each club had its own definition of what constituted amateurism. The amateurs in certain New England clubs, for example, were permitted to row against professionals for money, while at Philadelphia’s Undine Barge Club, the by­laws prohibited members for engaging their barge Fawn in a race for money.

Two widely circulated pamphlets – Who is the Amateur? by William B. Curtis and What is the Amateur? by James Watson – attempted to define the difference between the amateur and the professional oarsmen. The pamphlets urged Americans to emulate the British ideal of the unpaid amateur, the gentleman-coach, rather than the unsavory pro­fessional with his suspicious associations with gambling and gamblers.

The Schuylkill Navy took the lead in furthering the cause of amateurism by host­ing the first all-amateur regatta on June 13, 1872 . Interest in the regatta was so great that the entrants had to compete in heats for the first time in this country. The popularity of the regatta also led two months later to the formation of the National Association of Ama­teur Oarsmen in New York. The organization’s inaugural event, the National Amateur Regatta, was first held on the Schuylkill River on October 8, 1873, and has been conducted annually ever since.

By the opening of the twen­tieth century, professional oarsmen had disappeared, and in many places, so had the sport of rowing. Public interest had turned from regattas to horse racing and baseball. Along the Harlem River in New York, once one of the country’s busiest rowing cen­ters, boat houses were leveled to make way for industrial development. Other cities followed suit, reluctant to dedicate valuable riverfront property to frivolous recrea­tion.

In Philadelphia, the influ­ential Schuylkill Navy and the city itself assured the rowing clubs of a continuing exist­ence. The leadership of the Navy enabled the clubs to flourish, while the city, and later the Fairmount Park Com­mission, guaranteed the clubs a permanent residence in the heart of the city.

The ornate structures, rem­iniscent of nineteenth century summer resort architecture, bear no resemblance to the buildings originally erected in the early days of Boathouse Row. The first boathouses were strictly functional frame sheds that housed the boats, oars and other equipment, too small to be suitable for social activities. One of the most popular boathouses in the early days belonged to an Englishman known only as Charlie, who kept rowboats for hire in the shelter of the canal that fronts the present­-day Boathouse Row. The area formerly had been a wharf constructed to handle coal and similar cargo from upriver, but time and the elements had diminished the wharf to a row of pilings. When rowing be­came popular, the pilings were sawed off about four feet be­low the water’s surface, but they were a continual source of anxiety to the coxswains, whose duty it was to guide the shells safely past these sub­merged obstacles.

The future of Boathouse Row was, perhaps, insured early in the nineteenth century when the city purchased the five acres near the Fairmount Water Works for nearly seven­teen thousand dollars on June 28, 1812, the nucleus of what would someday be the largest city park in the country. By the close of the nineteenth cen­tury, four thousand acres had been purchased and set aside as park land.

The city – while judging the members of the rowing clubs to be “reputable young men with athletic instincts” – was considerably less enam­ored with the rickety buildings occupied by the clubs. In 1859, the city ordered the frame houses to be demolished, but permitted the erection of four more houses, providing that they be constructed in stone. Two of these structures, con­sidered the second generation of boathouses, still exist today: the west portion of the Fair­mount Rowing Club, once the property of Quaker City Barge Club, and the old Philadelphia Skating Club building, since 1965 the property of the Phila­delphia Girls Rowing Club.

In 1867, the newly formed Fairmount Park Commission tightened the restrictions on construction by ordering that existing brick houses must be replaced by stone structures. Considered the third genera­tion of dwellings, and built between 1870 and 1885, the structures are generally re­garded as the most aestheti­cally pleasing on Boathouse Row. They were primarily designed in the Victorian Gothic style, an eccentric style favored by Landscape and park architects of the period and popularized by the architec­ture of the Centennial Exhibi­tion of 1876.

The most famous of boat­houses, the Undine Barge Club, was designed by noted Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. Considered primarily a Victorian architect, Furness’s buildings – as evidenced by Undine – actually defy categorization. Most of his buildings – totaling about four hundred – were an eclectic mix of styles, but al­ways with that distinctive Furness flavor. Above all, Furness believed that a build­ing should be a visual delight, but that it must be utilitarian as well. “Any building” he wrote, “should proclaim its use and serve to the maximum degree the use to which it should be put.”

The Fairmount Park Com­mission in 1893 relaxed its stringent rules and allowed Bachelors to replace its stone house with one primarily constructed of brownstone and designed in the Mediterranean style. The relaxed regulations ushered in the fourth genera­tion of boathouses, whose styles were varied and ranged from the Georgian Revival of the Fairmount to the Colonial Revival of the Sedgeley to the Tudor style of the Malta Boat Club.

The completion of the Fair­mount Boat Club in 1904 brought to an end the con­struction of boathouses along the Row. Construction since then has been limited to addi­tions to existing houses – sometimes prompted by the needs of a growing number of women rowers – and reno­vations to the aging and crum­bling houses.

While several of the houses have grown shabby and suf­fered from less than aesthetic renovations, Boathouse Row was nevertheless enhanced by the addition of lights in 1979 by architect Ray Grenald. Initially, Grenald had been approached by the city and asked to light the Franklin Institute, but he persuaded officials to instead install the lights on Boathouse Row. The architectural features of each house are highlighted by ap­proximately eight hundred five-watt bulbs, presenting to the riverside at night a stun­ning and unforgettable view of the ten structures that are Boathouse Row.

“I wanted to save Boat­house Row and the way to do that is to draw people’s atten­tion,” Grenald told a newspa­per interviewer in 1979. “The lighting is intended to put an exclamation point on the houses.” Since the installation, the lighted boathouses have been a source of wonder to travelers on the parallel Schuylkill Expressway and to train passengers that travel daily between Philadelphia and points north. To the row­ers who glide swiftly over the gentle, glistening water, they are a beacon in the night, a welcome sight as they round the bend in the river by the Sedgeley Boathouse and dig down for the final strokes of a long day. On Boathouse Row, the next day will dawn soon and early for the oarsmen, just as it has for more than a century.

 

For Further Reading

Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Hazard, Willis P., ed. Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Edwin S. Stuart, 1898.

Shinn, Earl. A Century After. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane, Scott and Lauderbach, 1875.

Weigley, Russell F. Philadelphia, A 300-Year History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982.

Westcott, Thompson, Ned Spencer and J. Thomas Scharf. History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884. Phila­delphia: L.H. Everts and Com­pany, 1884.

 

Sara Freligh, a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, received her bachelor of arts degree from Adri­an College, Adrian, Michigan, and was awarded her master of arts degree in mass communica­tions by the University of South Carolina in 1980. Currently a resident of Philadelphia, she served as sports features writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer for five years. She has been a freelance writer since September 1987, and is an instructor of journalism at Temple University. The author is currently working on a book devoted to her favorite topic, Boathouse Row.