The Minnesota BC – Celebrating 150 Years of Rowing in Minnesota

MBC in 1885, a photo taken by Zimmerman. The photographer layered individual images to create this stunning shot. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

1 March 2020

By Sarah Risser

On March 1, 1870, ten young men organized the Minnesota Boat Club (MBC). They wanted to row small boats on the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota, and needed a place to store their shells. Over the ensuing years, the club grew in size and stature to become an elite social and athletic institution. To have been a member during the club’s Victorian heyday was a coveted honor, considered ‘…a distinction highly prized and not easily won…not only a badge of social distinction, but of real manhood—a recognition of the manly quality in a man by other men who were competent to judge…’, according to Leavitt Corning in “The Minnesota Boat Club,” The Razoo, Vol 1 No 3, Feb 1903 p 10.

The founding members of MBC were almost all in their early 20s with the exception of Stanford Newell, who was an ancient 31, and J Dock Dean who, at 17, was the club’s kid brother. Almost all of them had recently arrived in St. Paul with wide-eyed enthusiasm, knowing that Minnesota’s abundant natural resources and expanding rail network would offer rich business opportunities. Their futures were as bright as their boathouse was crude.

MBC’s early members rowed singles, doubles, and, eventually a four out of a covered-over and leaky scow. Their cramped ‘boathouse’ forced membership to be capped at 20. The young oarsmen refined their technique on the Mississippi River, issuing the occasional single scull challenge and engaging the scrappy clubs of Faribault, Red Wing and Stillwater to race in paper four-oared shells. Even after the Minnesotas acquired land and a boat house on Raspberry Island in 1874, their closest established rivals in Wisconsin and Chicago were too inconveniently distant to race.

A Minnesota BC double sculls, unfortunately the crew names are lost. Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.

It wasn’t until 1877 that the men of MBC enthused to compete ‘abroad’ against teams from Wisconsin and Chicago at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. MBC sent its six strongest oars (W. H. Hyndman, H. M. Butler, C. P. Marvin, Norman Wright, E. C. Bell and L. W. Rundlett) to test their mettle against the Mitchells, the Riverdales, the Niles, the Northwestern Rowing Association, and the Farraguts of Chicago. When C. P. Marvin and Norman Wright raced the double against the Downs Brothers of the Farragut club and Barnard and Curtis from the Northwestern Rowing Association, they established an early lead which they steadily increased over the course. They reached the turning stake a gaping 30 seconds ahead of the other crews. The Chicago Tribune praised Minnesota’s ability to maintain 36 strokes-per-minute throughout the race and attributed the cheers from shore to their superb oarsmanship (in Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1877). ‘Hunt’ Butler then prevailed in the single scull, after which the Minnesota four trounced the Mitchells and Farraguts, crossing the finish line several lengths ahead. MBC exceeded all expectations with their outright winning streak at Devil’s Lake. When declared the clear victors, they were emboldened to take on competitive rowing in a more formal, intentional, manner.

A photo showing a gathering at Devil’s Lake. Photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society.

It was at the Devil’s Lake regatta that ‘Hunt’ Butler formulated and articulated a specific ‘club spirit’ that has since been attributed to the club’s many successes. Butler described a unique MBC spirit which wins through wholesome zest, clean living, hard work, untainted good fellowship, and the husbanding of reserve power for the calls of crises. Hunt Butler articulated it well: ‘Remember that no matter how nearly exhausted you may feel physically the other fellows are probably just as badly off, and if you have the head, the nerve, the will, to put forth an extra effort at the finish you are almost certain to win (in P. Kirkwood, “The Minnesota Boat Club,” The Bellman, July 31, 1909 p 910).

Two stereograph photos from the Devil’s Lake Regatta. Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society.

Throughout the late 1870s and 1880s, the men of MBC embraced this club spirit as they competed in the more formal and organized regattas of the Mississippi Valley Amateur Rowing Association and the Northwestern Amateur Rowing Association. They complemented their athletic successes by routinely issuing exclusive invitations to regattas and fetes at their country-club-like venue on Raspberry Island that were visual feasts of Victorian pomp.

After returning from the 1881 Mississippi Valley Amateur Rowing Association Regatta, the men of MBC were met at the station and paraded to the island, which was packed with ladies in flounced skirts edged with lace and men in formal attire. The Mayor and other city leaders gave speeches lauding the victorious oarsman. On June 27, the St. Paul Daily Globe described the scene on Raspberry Island as a sylvan, charming, and fairy-like affair with Chinese lanterns–like fire flies–that cast light that danced and shimmered on the water. It hardly mattered if one had an invitation. The scene was best enjoyed by looking down upon it from the Wabasha Street Bridge.

The Wabasha Street Bridge. Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.

The Minnesota Boat Club, its members, and its venue on Raspberry Island have changed a lot over its 150 years. Yet the club continues to put boats on the water and throw the occasional party in its now-historic boathouse. Given the importance of this date, I may look over the rails of the Wabasha Street Bridge tonight to see if I can catch a glimpse of a celebration that will almost certainly be in full swing to celebrate 150 years of tradition and rowing in Minnesota.

Happy Birthday, Minnesota Boat Club!

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