The Love-Hate Eight: The Men of MBC get their first Eight-Oared Shell and get Salty

“Minnesota Boat Club racing on the Mississippi River, St. Paul”. Members of MBC circa 1890 in singles, doubles, and a straight four, the boats MBC loved to row and race in, just outside of the boathouse. Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

23 June 2017

Sarah M. Risser

HTBS is happy to present another new rowing history website, Rowinghistorymn.com, which chronicles the history of rowing in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. The creator is Sarah M. Risser, who writes that she has ‘spent a lot of time over the winter and early spring researching old club documents and now I’m writing as much as I can.’ Sarah is an avid rower and has been actively training in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul since 2009. She currently rows out of the historic Minnesota Boat Club (MBC) in St. Paul, the oldest athletic organization in the state. Sarah writes: ‘I have had spectacular wins and losses, both on the water and off, which inform and inspire my work’. Her interest in photography and the history of sport prompted her to start writing and blogging and she is excited about her new website. Following is an article by Sarah about how MBC acquired their first eight.

It took more than 20 years for the men of the Minnesota Boat Club (MBC) to get around to acquiring an eight, and it was Winnipeg’s idea.

John W. L. Corning from “Men of Minnesota: A Collection of the Portraits of Men Prominent in Business and Professional Life in MN”. Minnesota Historical Company. St. Paul, Minnesota (1902).

It all started with a single. The first time St. Paul set eyes on a rowing shell it focused on John W. L. Corning’s delicate paper boat. John Corning was the vector that infected the city of St. Paul with a love of rowing, an affliction that slowly spread throughout the state, eventually becoming endemic. When Corning relocated to St. Paul from New York in 1868, he shipped his new rowing shell by the safest, if not the most direct, route. He sent it down the Atlantic Coast to New Orleans and then by barge up the Mississippi River. When he was reunited with his boat in St. Paul, a crowd gathered on the Wabasha Street Bridge, skeptical to see if he would stay afloat. When he did, everyone was delighted. Corning’s fragile boat provided a stark contrast to the rough and tumble frontier backdrop of St. Paul and the working hustle of the Mississippi River. With interest and engagement in sport flourishing elsewhere in the country, this was a welcome diversion that hinted at opportunities to embrace athleticism for the first time.

Two years later – on 1 March 1870 – ten prominent citizens officially organized the Minnesota Boat Club and cobbled together its first, superlatively modest, boathouse. It was little more than a floating, leaky, roofed-over scow, but it served its purpose of protecting the club’s small fleet from the elements. The founding members moored it to the foot of the Robert Street Bridge just below the Sioux City Freight Depot and likely got as much exercise pumping water as they did handling an oar.

By April of 1872, the club was in possession of a small fleet of boats, the biggest being a six-oared lapstreak barge. The six was large enough to accommodate guests – often ladies – and intended for social picnic excursions or leisurely moonlit rows. For more serious exercise and racing the club had in its inventory one paper four-oared shell, one wooden double, two wooden singles, four paper singles, and a paper working boat – otherwise known as a pair – on order from Troy N.Y. (Letter from MBC secretary, J. W. L. Corning Published in the New York Herald 1 April 1872.)

During the club’s earliest years, the men of MBC focused on informal single scull challenges and the occasional straight four match with Red Wing or Stillwater, but because there were no other established rowing clubs within close proximity, St. Paul lacked serious competitive rivals. To compensate, MBC organized its first annual intra-club 4th of July Regatta in 1874, an event that immediately became the focal point of St. Paul’s Independence Day celebrations. The 4th of July Regatta featured six rowing races: junior and senior singles, doubles, and fours. This event line-up – with a focus on small boats and the ever-popular straight four – remained the club’s mainstay throughout the 1880s and into the early 1890s, even as more and more formal racing opportunities with outside clubs and associations opened up. The straight four always drew the most attention. When the Minnesota and Winnipeg Association organized in 1886, the three founding clubs (MBC, the St. Paul Boat Club and the Winnipeg Boat Club) all pledged to send at least one senior four-oared crew to each association regatta.

By 1892, a full 22 years after the founding of MBC, the popularity of rowing had increased significantly throughout the Upper Midwest and Canada. Collegiate rowing was firmly established on the east coast with the coxed eight as its main event. The annual Minnesota and Winnipeg Association Regatta was generating considerable local interest and press coverage. The member clubs were keen to sustain or increase enthusiasm for their annual regatta. Winnipeg instigated talk of expanding the event list to include an eight-oared race and then prompted MBC and the Lurlines to think seriously about investing in their first eight. As reported in the morning edition of the St. Paul Daily Globe on Monday 5 September 1892:

The Winnipeg club is agitating the question of organizing an eight-oared crew, and in a recent letter to a member of the Lurline club, a prominent Winnipeg amateur broached the subject of getting an eight together in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. This is by no means a new plan for MBC men. The feasibility of it has been discussed at length and if the Winnipeggers put an eight in the water it is pretty safe to bet that there will be eight men training in red sweaters before very long. The principal difficulty is, of course, in getting the fellows to work. It is bad enough to keep a four together […] and in the case of an eight there would be double the difficulty […] If the Winnipeg eight goes afloat next summer there will be a movement in this region to match any crew the Canucks send down, no matter the difficulties are to be encountered. If the Canucks get an eight the others will follow.

The attached sketch is from the morning edition on 5 July 1894 of the “St. Paul Daily Globe”.

It is unclear as to whether Winnipeg bought its own eight in 1893, but we know the suggestion was compelling. In 1893, the Lurlines and MBC both agreed to buy their first eight. Moreover, they agreed to compete against each other in Minnesota’s first ever eight-oared race to be held over a straightaway 1.5 mile course at Lake Minnetonka on 8 July of that year. By early July, the men of MBC were primed, chomping at the bit, ready to go. Just a few days before the big race Mrs. J. J. Parker christened MBC’s new eight at the club’s annual 4th of July Regatta. Everything seemed to be in order when things took an unexpected turn. Somehow word got out that the Lurlines never actually bought an eight. They had decided against the purchase, for reasons that are unknown, with no communication back to MBC. The news evoked howls of protest from the MBC boys. Words were not minced in the 25 July 1893 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune:

The Minnesota boys feel considerable disgust at the failure of the proposed eight-oared race to go through. They have just sunk $750 in the purchase of an eight-oared shell of the very finest make and rig, which is lying useless in their boat house. They do not understand why; after they had purchased the eight, on the assurance of the Lurlines that they, too, would purchase one […] The Minnesota eight was composed substantially of their junior and senior fours and had trained and practiced in the shell and were in good form for the race. The Minnesotas say they had the best eight they are liable to have in ten years.

The Minnesota boys were feeling decidedly slighted. And salty. But their frustration didn’t last. They didn’t know it at the time, but 1893 would prove to be the most glorious year in MBC’s history, one of unmitigated victory. MBC enjoyed many unexpected wins over the summer of 1893, including a last-minute opportunity to race and medal in their newly-christened eight.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first part of a series of articles written by Sarah Risser. Read the second part on Risser’s website, here.

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