The Detroit Boat Club was quick to adopt the sleek new racing sculls developed around the turn of the century. This 1904 team helped keep the club a major force in rowing. The old Belle Isle Bridge can be seen in the background.
The Detroit Boat Club
It was the river, named Detroit (de trois -- the straits) by the French, that attracted the first settlers here to trade with the Indians. It was the river that enabled the city to grow and prosper with westward expansion. And it was the river that brought a group of the town's most respected citizens together in 1839 to found the Detroit Boat Club, the oldest rowing club in America.
By 1839, Detroit's population hovered at 9,000. Its metropolitan area was bounded by the Detroit River on the south, Grand Circus Park on the north, St. Antoine Street on the east, and Third Street on the west.
The 10-oared barge Henrietta from the Teutonia Boat Club passes the Detroit Boat Club at the foot of Jos. Campau in 1978. The DBC had not yet moved to Belle Isle.
Woodbridge Street and Jefferson Avenue, the town's most prestigious residential areas, were mud roads flanked by crude boardwalks and lighted by tallow and sterine candles and lamps. Little remains today to remind us of those early days of the city -- except the river.
The names of the founders of the Detroit Boat Club are the same names that can be found in any historical accounts of the early days of Detroit and Michigan- - not to mention city street signs. Names like E. A. Brush, Alpheus S. Williams, S.H. Sibley, Alfred Brush, J.H. Farnsworth, James A. Armstrong and John Chester.
The club's original home, on the outskirts of the city at the foot of Hastings Street on the near-eastside, was a modest frame boathouse which provided shelter for the handsome "Georgiana," a four-oared clinker brought all the way from New York.
The following year the group purchased the "E.A.Brush" and brought it through the Erie Canal. Racing began with these two boats on a two-mile course on the Detroit River extending from Hog Island (now Belle Isle) to the clubhouse. About this time Oxford and Cambridge universities also started college rowings and held their first events.
Disaster struck the club in 1848, when a fire burned down the wooden clubhouse and destroyed all the club boats except the "Wolverine".
The Detroit Boat Club in a 1873 view.
Club members refused to allow the fire to destroy their growing social structure and love of racing and moved the club to the ground floor of a carpentry shop.
The popularity of rowing continued to grow. By 1873 the club was ensconced in plush quarters at the foot of Joseph Campau, the easternmost end of Detroit, and had become the center of all water sports. A half-dozen new clubs formed nearby, and most displayed their sailing and rowing trophies at Bidigaire's saloon up Joseph Campau. The Biddle House on East Jefferson and the Russell House, also attracted a thirsty boating set.
The waters of the river provided a fashionable playground and those who participated became known as, in the social notices of The Detroit News, the "Detroit River Navy."
Jefferson Avenue became a haughty street of aristocratic homes as the boat crowd stayed close to their clubs.
When its Joseph Campau lease expired in 1889 the City of Detroit invited the DBC to move to Belle Isle. The Detroit Yacht Club, which had been on the landward side of the Belle Isle Bridge, also went over to the island at that time when informed that the city needed their old site for its new bridge approach.
The Detroit Boat Club's Belle Isle clubhouse has long been a Detroit landmark.
The Detroit Boat Club completed a clubhouse on the island in 1891 but two years later lost it to fire. The boathouse was rebuilt and lasted until 1901, when another fire burned it to the ground.
In an attempt to save the structure, club member and fire commissioner Fred Moran ordered all available firefighting apparatus to the scene. Horses thundered over the old wooden bridge, dragging heavy engines and trucks behind them. The valiant old fire tug, James Battle became grounded in the shallow water and remained stuck fast until the following noon. Fire equipment failed to get close enough to the burning building due to mud and the distance of the old clubhouse from the shore. Helpless, they stood and watched it burn.
The next morning, club members vowed once again to rebuild their clubhouse.
Fred Moran shouted "I'll give $500 toward a new clubhouse." Other members upped the ante. This time, they agreed the building must be fireproof. On Aug. 4, 1902, their new home, the first concrete structure in this country, was dedicated.
Detroit continued to grow. Horse-drawn trolleys were being replaced by electric streetcars, planked sidewalks were paved and gas lamps were replaced by electric lights. On the river, sleek racing sculls became standard equipment, and canoeing became popular. The Detroit Boat Club became even a greater force in the social and sporting fabric of Detroit
An aerial view of the boat club during a rowing regatta in August of 1935.
DBC legends are plentiful, but one epitomizes the club's sporting tradition. During a 1923 regatta in Detroit two middle-aged Grand Rapids Canoe Club oarsmen issued a challenge to any pair whose total ages equaled or exceeded their own --114 years -- to a match race in double sculls at a mile straightaway.
DBC members W.A. (Pop) Warner, 74, and Capt. Fred Standish, 70, --144 years between them -- saw the challenge on the club's bulletin board and vowed to take them on.
It was a tight race until the stretch, where Warner and Standish began to pull away. They beat their younger Grand Rapids rivals by a full three lengths.
In 1956 the Detroit Boat Club put seven members on the U.S. Olympic team coached by Walter Hoover and brought home two silver medals. Rowers Jimmy Gardiner and Pat Costello placed second to the Russians in double sculls while Art and John McKinlay, John Welchi and Jim McIntosh, were runner-up to Canada in the four without coxswain event.
Since 1873, the DBC blue and white colors have flown at every national rowing regatta, and DBC oarsmen have won 54 events and eight national team championships.
In 1960, under coach Ken Blue, DBC crews were invited for the first time to take part in the classic Henley regatta on the Thames River in England. A team made up of Doug Latimer, Jim Plath, Bob Walker, Bill Thorpe, Roger Taylor, Joe Callanan, Al Arbury, Mike Ernesman, and coxswain Bob Kroll placed second to Harvard in the final.
A Detroit Boat Club pair-oared shell with coxswain crew practices on the Detroit River in 1959.
Any account of DBC rowing must include Divie Duffield, the greatest oarsmen in the club's history who came here from Harvard. He won the national singles titles in 1904 and 1905 and also rowed in doubles, pairs, fours and eights that took major championships. His greatest triumph came in the 1904 Olympic singles in St. Louis. He quit rowing in 1915 and coached for the next 10 years.
While rowing remained the cornerstone of the club's activities, other forms of boating became popular. Sailing arrived in 1899 and the DBC regatta is the oldest sailing race in Michigan.
Few know that member commodore Dr. Charles Godwin Jennings and his 65-foot schooner, Agawa, won the first Mackinac Race held in 1904.
The old Belle Isle Bridge, which burned in April 1915, had a swing section which opened at midnight, preventing anyone on the island from reaching the mainline until the next morning. To be trapped on the island was tantamount to disgrace and social ostracism. All club dances ended promptly at 11:30. Long after the present bridge opened in 1923, dances at the Boat Club and Detroit Yacht Club continued to end at 11:30.
In 1969, the Boat Club and Detroit Yacht Club faced eviction from Belle Isle because the city of Detroit, owner of the land the clubs sat on, felt the clubs were too slow to integrate. Both clubs held $1-a-year open-ended leases. An out-of-court settlement reached in the 1974 in which the clubs agreed to accept blacks headed off the eviction. But gaining new members still proved difficult.
"It's pure and simple demographics, said DYC Commodore Edwin Theisen at the time. "Clubs like ours depend a lot on social members, people who don't currently own boats but enjoy the boating environment. As the city has spread out, more of those members just found it impractical to belong to a club some 25 or 30 miles from their home."
In 1992 rent on the Detroit Boat Club property jumped from $1 to $100,000. Utility payments fell behind and membership continued to drop. The club filed for bankruptcy citing a $1million debt. The city announced plans to take over operation of the building. In 1996, the boat club members voted to move out of the city.
"It was certainly difficult for us to come to the decision that if we were going to be economically viable we had to move," club President Larry Breskin said. "If we could have found a way to stay in Detroit, we would have."
However a strong rowing organization still exists in Detroit independent of the boat club. Said rowing enthusiast Denne Osgood in an interview with the News, "I just don't want to see the tradition of the Detroit Boat Club go out of business. We can row as Joe Blow. It's the tradition that's important."
Boating wasn't the only activity at the Detroit Boat Club. Swimming tryouts at the club in 1928 drew huge crowds.
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