21 January 2019
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch goes in for the Schuylkill.
The current partial shutdown of the U.S. Government does not seem to have affected the website of the Library of Congress. Along with other partners, the Library runs the online ‘World Digital Library’, a site which ‘brings together on a single website rare and unique documents – books, journals, manuscripts, maps, prints and photographs, films, and sound recordings – that tell the story of the world’s cultures’. HTBS Types will not be surprised to learn that I put ‘rowing’ into the site search. The result was some historic images of boat racing in Philadelphia, perhaps the earliest home of American competitive rowing after New York. The actual depictions of boats are small, but they are still significant, showing that while young British gentlemen from Eton, Oxford and Cambridge were busy establishing rowing as an amateur sport, their American cousins were doing much the same thing. Before moving to these, I have posted a very brief history of rowing in Philadelphia. The city is sited on the Delaware River, though most rowing takes place on the Schuylkill River (pronounced Skool-kil), which flows into the Delaware.
Rowing in Philadelphia probably began in earnest after 1821 with the construction of the Fairmount Dam next to the Fairmount Water Works of 1815. This and later developments transformed a stretch of the Schuylkill from a tidal river into a slack water river resembling a very long freshwater lake. The placid stretch was ideal for ice skating in winter and rowing in summer. Unfortunately (or not), the calm water provided a breeding ground for mosquitoes. This drove wealthy residents from their riverside mansions and these abandoned estates were bought by the City of Philadelphia. In 1844, the leaseholder of one of these opened a beer garden and allowed local rowing clubs to build boathouses on the estate’s land bordering the Schuylkill. Thus, Philadelphia’s famous Boathouse Row was born. In 1856, the clubs along the row formed the Schuylkill Navy in order to regulate boat racing, making it the oldest existing amateur athletic governing body in the United States (the first boating association in the U.S. was established in New York in 1834, this being the short-lived and strictly amateur Castle Garden Amateur Boat Club Association).
In 1987, Boathouse Row was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Who would have guessed that it was mosquitoes that were responsible for this significant piece of rowing history?