Philly played a critical role in making rowing popular in America | Philly History

Photos – user-contributed – Girls+Club73
Women of the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club preparing to row, photograph (circa 1940).

On May 11, collegiate athletes from around the nation gathered at Boathouse Row in Philadelphia to participate in the 80th Dad Vail Regatta. The event attracted nearly 3,500 students from more than 100 schools for two days of competitive rowing. While the Dad Vail Regatta stands on its own as a historically significant sporting event, it is part of a larger legacy surrounding Boathouse Row that stretches back centuries.

From the earliest years of the United States, Philadelphia has boasted a vibrant rowing culture. The Schuylkill became a favorite destination for recreational boating in the early 19th century. When the Fairmount Waterworks dam went up in 1821, the conditions on the river became favorable for boat racing, which quickly became the city’s favorite spectator sport. Rowing’s popularity increased across the country, in no small part due to Philadelphia’s cultural influence.

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By the 1850s, clubs began to form and build permanent structures to replace the temporary boathouses that had been used to protect equipment. In 1858, nine clubs organized the Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia to govern competitions among members, coordinate regattas, and oversee the administration of Boathouse Row.

Philadelphia’s Thomas Eakins may very well have attended one of the Schuylkill Navy’s early regattas as a boy, sparking his lifelong passion for rowing. The sport factored heavily into the famous artist’s work, inspiring a number of paintings depicting rowers honing their craft against scenic Schuylkill backdrops.

The 1870s ushered in a new cultural era for Boathouse Row. The University of Pennsylvania’s College Boat Club renovated its boathouse to include a parlor space for socializing. Other clubs soon followed suit, and activities once prohibited—including drinking and smoking—became commonplace. The Malta Boat Club purportedly spent thousands of dollars annually on cigars for its members. The leadership of the West Philadelphia Boatclub disciplined several rowers for inviting prostitutes to a soiree at the club’s boathouse.

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Despite incidents of debauchery, Boathouse Row accommodated an increasing number of world-class competitions as the landmark’s renown grew. In honor of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, the city helped refurbish the boathouses, which serviced teams hailing from England, Ireland, and Canada that traveled to Philadelphia to compete in the first international rowing event in the United States.

In 1887, officials built the Turtle Rock lighthouse to help direct river traffic. After receiving permission from the city, the Sedgeley Club built a clubhouse of its own in 1902. Designed by architect Arthur H. Brockie, the clubhouse integrated the lighthouse into the architecture. The composite structure stands to this day.

While Boathouse Row may have originally been the reserve of wealthy hobbyists, the demographics attracted to rowing on the Schuylkill diversified over the years. A growing number of rowers from working-class backgrounds began participating in the 20th century, including rowing legend Jack Kelly. The son of a millworker who had immigrated from Ireland, Kelly first rowed with the Chamounix Club as a young man. He saved his earnings as a bricklayer to join the Vesper Boat Club. His training and dedication paid off. After a stint in the military during World War I, Kelly went on to compete in the Olympics, winning gold medals in Antwerp in 1920 and Paris in 1924.

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In the 1930s, the Boathouse Row further diversified when Ernestine Bat, Ruth Adams Robinhold, Gladys Hauser Lux, and Lovey Farrell founded the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club. Operating to this day, the club is the oldest women’s rowing club in the world.

Many of the boathouses fell into disrepair throughout the 20th century. Renewed interest in them, however, surged after lighting architect Ray Grenald first installed Boathouse Row’s signature lights in 1979. The illuminated structures lining the row have since become a trademark image of nighttime Philadelphia.

In 1987, Boathouse Row officially became a National Historic Landmark.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. pglennon@hsp.org