A Fair Regatta

Lady sculling circa 1900.

16 October 2020

By John Schoonover

While researching the history of rowing in Wilmington, Delaware, for a future HTBS post, I ran across a short, but fascinating article titled “A Fair Regatta” in the Wilmington Daily Gazette, July 19, 1875. I include it here and will follow with additions and comments.

TRENTON GIRLS OF FASHION AND MUSCLE UPON THE WATER

Trenton, N.J. has had its sensation. Inspired by the Saratoga University Races, and a rivalry that has been fed by nightly contests upon the water, a regatta was arranged and took place on the feeder of the Delaware and Raritan Canal on Friday last (7/16/1875). The contestants were miss Nixon, daughter of Honorable John T. Nixon, Judge of the United States District and Circuit Court, Miss H.C. Moyer, and Miss J.M. Slade. The ladies are about 20 years of age, and of fair features. They occupy positions of high social standing, and the novel contest created considerable excitement among the few favored with a knowledge of it. The course extended from Atterbury’s Bridge to Dickinson’s draw, a quarter of a mile, and was regularly flagged at the start, one-eighth mile, and home. The affair was in the hands of the Judges, Hon. J.T. Nixon and Mr. Fred Slade; umpire, Arthur E. Brauen; master of ceremonies, Perry B. Moyer. The ladies wore the following colors: Miss Moyer red, Miss Nixon blue, and Miss Slade green. The boat was of red cedar, and floated upon the water like a swan. The race was against time and was rowed first by Miss Moyer, who passed the eighth mile flag in 1:10, and reached home in 2:07. Miss Nixon followed, passing the eighth mile in 58 seconds, and crossing the home string in 2:11, while Miss Slade, the last one to row reached the half way post in 58 seconds, and crossed the home string in 2:10 1/4. The race was an exciting one and showed the ladies were adept at the oar. They pulled with regularity and power, particularly so Miss Nixon, who held the boat in a direct line from start to finish. The “crews” were presented with a silver cup, a time piece, and “drops of consolation”.

Probable ¼-mile course from Atterbury Bridge to Dickinson’s Draw.

A similar article in the Trenton State Gazette, July 17, 1875, describes the event as a “quietly arranged regatta”, 7 pm in the evening, attended by several gentlemen and some “half dozen” ladies. It does not, however, mention the young ladies’ names. The colors of the contestants appear to have been flags “carried” by the ladies in some fashion. As for race conditions that pleasant evening, the Trenton State Gazette concludes: “This passes off the first grand Midsummer Regatta on the raging canal”. Raging seems a rather imperative description of canal waters.

General Philemon Dickinson

Thanks to Kathleen McGuire at the Trenton Historical Society, I can embellish this story with an 1884 map of Trenton featuring the Atterbury estate with the indicated small bridge, also the start, no longer extant. Using scale, I have marked the probable course on the canal.

Edward J.C. Atterbury, a prominent resident of Trenton, lived on what was previously the Hermitage estate of General Philemon Dickinson of the New Jersey Militia 1777 to 1786, and son of Founding Father John Dickinson.

Honorable John T. Nixon

Judge Nixon, nominated by Ulysses S. Grant to U.S. District Court, also served in the House of Representatives, from 1859 to 1863. Perhaps he was familiar with rowing in that his daughter competed in this “regatta a trois”, along with the daughters of the umpire and master of ceremonies, misses Moyer, the winner, and Miss Slade, second. Miss Nixon received “drops of consolation”, flowers of some variety, for third. Judge Nixon manned the finish while John Stockton, the Judge’s fellow Princeton Alumnus (1843) and U.S Senator (1869 – 1875) served as starter. Stockton became Attorney General two years later, in 1877.

John Stockton

Fifty-seven years hence, John J. Cleary reminisced about the regatta in the Trenton Evening Times (11/3/1932). He described it as a fashionable society event, “almost like a centennial tea party”. He also appeared amused about the social decorum of the day, in that the ladies’ names were not mentioned in the Trenton State Gazette article nor photographs taken. I note, he did not comment on the observation that Miss Moyer was somewhat stronger than the other two, an unusual reference about a woman in the Victorian era. Nor did the mention the title, Girls of Fashion and Muscle, in the original story, certainly an oxymoron in 1875.

Widening the lens on Trenton rowing history, I unearthed an article in the Trenton State Gazette, June 1, 1872, announcing the opening of the Trenton Boat Club the day preceding. The president was Henry S. Little, President of the N.J. Central R.R. according to my notes. The Commodore was Daniel Lodor, Board of Commissioners, Trenton Water Company. That day, they christened the four-oared barge, The Venture. “The affair passed of very pleasantly, and now the Club is an established institution”.

Regrettably, it did not survive as evidenced by a nostalgic article in the Trenton Evening Times, June 16, 1889, lamenting the absence of organized rowing. “About a dozen years ago or more there was a Club of oarsmen in Trenton and much pleasure was derived by its members”.

Delaware and Raritan Canal near Trenton.

The historic venue for this unique regatta is now a ¼-mile snippet of the 70-mile long Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park. As a coincidental postscript, my grandfather, artist Frank E. Schoonover, and great-grandfather, Col. John Schoonover, moved to Trenton soon after the regatta.

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