Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Detroit Boat Club (third)

Following the reorganization of the Detroit Boat Club in 1856, the club started renting space in a carpentry shop located near the west side of the foot of Rivard Street on Atwater Street. By 1858, the club decided that it would need a building of its own if it wanted to expand.

The third boathouse

In the fall of 1858, a new boathouse was constructed at the wharf of Edmonds, North & Co., located at the corner of Hastings and Atwater streets.

From 1856 until the 1890s, the D.B.C. considered its founding to have been in 1856; that was the year that the club was reorganized, with this building being considered the first boathouse, because it was the first built by the D.B.C. following its reorganization. It wasn’t until later that the club recognized 1839 as being the correct founding date of the club, however, they still would say that the first boathouse was located at the foot of Hastings Street. That is why the real first boathouse (located at the foot of Randolph Street) was mistakenly considered to be at the foot of Hastings and why this boathouse, really the third building, was actually forgotten about and not listed as a building that the club used until it was recently rediscovered).

The club's boats were stored in this new building starting in the winter of 1858-59. During that winter, the D.B.C. hosted four promenade concerts at the Russell House to raise funds to pay for the new boathouse. These concerts drew the elite of the city and “were long remembered as marked social events.” They were a success, raising the funds needed to pay off their $250 debt for the construction of the new building, with enough left over to donate $25 to the Industrial School located at the corner of Grand River Avenue and Washington Boulevard.

The D.B.C. started to grow rapidly, and the following year, the building was enlarged in order to accommodate new boats. At the time, there were no other rowing teams in the city, so the D.B.C. would race their boats against one another. One of these races, held in 1859, put the E.A. Brush against the Camilla with the course being from their boathouse to Grosse Ile, a distance of 12 miles. The crew of the Brush won the race.

Going through the Civil War

Starting in the 1860s, the DBC was joined by several other rowing organizations on the Detroit River. In June 1860, the Zephyr Boat Club was founded by employees of the Detroit & Milwaukee Railway, with the president of their club being James A. Armstrong, one of the founding members of the DBC. The Wolverine Boat Club was founded not long after.

By 1861, the Detroit Free Press was calling the D.B.C. as being “one of the best aquatic organizations in the country” after they purchased a fine new mahogany and rosewood six-oared boat from W. H. & J. S. Darling of New York for $250. Even though nearly half of the D.B.C.'s active members had enlisted in the Army for the Civil War, the Free Press announced in an 1863 article that the club was still “in a flourishing condition” and that the club was “in possession of one of the best arranged and convenient boathouses in the country.”

That year, the boathouse was enlarged yet again in order to accommodate the ever-growing amount of equipment. On May 23, 1864, the club narrowly missed another disastrous fire that started in the nearby H. Crapo Planing Mill and Sash Factory on Atwater Street. At the time, the D.B.C. had $2,000 worth of boats in the boathouse, so the decision was made to move them out into the river, just in case the building did catch fire.

During the majority of the war, the D.B.C. did not host any sort of events or entertainment, and on Jan. 26, 1865, the club hosted its first ball in three years. More than 400 ladies and gentlemen paid $5 a ticket, with guests including Mayor Kirkland C. Barker, a number of city officials and “a distinguished assemblage of Army officers.” Other guests included several officers of the British volunteer force in neighboring Windsor, Ontario, and prominent citizens from as far as the Michigan cities of Monroe and Saginaw, as well as Toledo, Ohio. The room at the Russell House was decked out with the flags of foreign nations, with the U.S. flag entwined with the Union Jack on which “Detroit Boat Club” was written in letters of evergreen. One of the club boats was suspended underneath, surrounded with “profuse decorations.”

“On each side, in festoons of evergreen, each one supported by a pair of oars were the orders 'ready;' 'oars;' 'give way:' 'hold;' 'way enough;' 'steady;' 'aye, aye, sir;' running in order around the hall.”

Over each of the orders was a “jaunty boat hat.” At the opposite end of the room, the Eastern champion boat was suspended in front of a mirror in the hall, surrounded by emblems of the craft. Guests danced into the early hours to the music of “the most proficient of our German performers, under the leadership of Professor Strasburg.” The supper was the grand event of the evening where “everything which could be compressed in a bill of fare was lavishly spread, from the most substantial to the greatest of delicacies the world affords.” Overall, the evening was considered a huge success. An interesting event occurred in June 1866, when, while out for an evening row, the D.B.C. oarsmen were called out to by the Canadian authorities, however, the oarsmen did not hear the call, so the Canadians fired upon them.

The growth of Detroit rowing

In 1867, the D.B.C. tacked still another addition on to its boathouse to prepare for a six-oared, 50-foot shell and a four-oared, 40-foot lapstreak from the boat builder James Mackay of New York, which arrived in Detroit in April the following year.

With the formation of the Excelsior Boat Club in 1867, it was decided that an organization should be formed in order to govern the rowing traffic on the Detroit River. Representatives from the various boat clubs, as well as private boat owners, met in the parlors of the Russell House, where they deemed it “advisable for the interest of boating to organize an association for the purpose of having regattas and reviews, hereby resolve themselves into an association to be known as the Detroit River Navy.”

They decided that individual boats, not clubs, could enter the organization with an initiation fee of $1 for every boat and 50 cents for each oar or pair of sculls that the boat had. So, if a boat had six sweep oars (one oar per person), the cost of initiation would be $4: $1 for the boat and 50 cents times six oars ($3). The Detroit River Navy would have a board of elected officers that would include a commodore, a vice-commodore and a secretary and treasurer.

That night, 20 boats were entered into the Detroit River Navy (D.R.N.), and the following officials were elected: Samuel E. Pittman of the D.B.C., commodore; W. C. Wetmore, vice-commodore; F. Raymond Jr., secretary and treasurer. The D.R.N. was meant to be temporary for 1867, to see whether the idea worked well. The following year, in June 1868, they voted to make it a permanent organization that would go on to oversee Detroit rowing and regattas for many years after. That year, the Detroit Free Press wrote that “the Detroit River Navy, which has now sprung into vigorous existence, has its origin in a poetic appreciation of a superb stream, and is the finest expression as yet on the part of the citizens of Detroit, of a love of nature and the beautiful. For many years, the water-beauty, gliding so gracefully past us, like a neglected belle, was denied the homage due her. Tugs and steamers dashed her shining favors aside regardlessly. Now, the young men crowd to do her homage. Parks we have none - but the river takes its place, and boats are the far more picturesque and beautiful equipages which roll thereon.”

Races on the river were separated into classes. The “first class” would usually be boats that were considered “pleasure boats,” rather than race boats. These were usually large barges that were built to carry groups of people for picnics and other events. The other classes were considered to be for “racing boats.” These were built specifically for racing, meaning they were narrower, lighter and faster than the pleasure boats, and were divided up into the other classes based on the amount of oars per boat.

Reviews of the boats of the D.R.N. would take place on Fridays every other week going into October. One such review, held the afternoon of July 1, 1868, was described the following day in the Free Press: “At half-past 4 o’clock, the little steamer Glance, having on board the City Band, representatives of the daily press and a number of invited guests, moved from the foot of Randolph Street to the vicinity of the wrecked propeller Nile, where the fleet was ordered to rendezvous preparatory to the parade. From (Belle Isle) and both shores of the river, the various craft came gliding out, and soon congregated at the starting point to the number of 50. When the signal was given for starting, the boats formed in order, with the Camilla under command of Commodore Lewis leading the fleet, followed by the club boats Haidee and Edmund on the right, and the Irene and Charlotte on the left in single column; the racing boat Ke-wah-din taking position between the columns following the other boats. The private boats fell in line astern of the club boats and the Peerless, carrying Vice-Commodore Willis, flanked by boats managed exclusively by ladies, followed the line of private boats. After forming in this manner, the column moved by the left about and proceeded down the river, the Glance keeping about midway of the column on the left flank.”

The various movements performed by the boats in the review parade were communicated by the signal officer, Samuel E. Pittman, and were seconded by the crew of the signal boat. Once they were opposite the elevator of the Detroit & Milwaukee Railway, the fleet turned and rested while the Ke-wah-din and the Haidee continued up river before turning and racing down the line, dismissing the parade. Detroiters viewed the parade from the shores, or by sailboats and small skiffs. A boat that “attracted a great deal of attention,” that day was a skiff that was fitted with a small steam engine and propeller wheel. The ferry boats were decorated for the event, some carrying bands, and were crowded with people watching the days festivities.

In 1868, another feature of the D.R.N. was introduced where it would “vary the regular monthly parade of the navy with an alternate fortnightly gathering of the boats for social purposes, the place of rendezvous being the still water, midway between Belle Isle and the wreck of the Nile.” The central object would be the vice-commodore’s barge, the Islander, which served as a “point d’appuis” for the boats. Guests could come to the Islander to interchange friendly courtesies and enjoy refreshments that would be served “a la pic-nic.” These “water socials” were meant to be informal affairs, during which friends could visit with friends and, if “unpaid calls are heavy on the conscience of any, it will here be en règle and considered, it is hoped, socially valid, to liquidate all obligations of this description, without the fear of “not at home,” or the necessity of cards.”

Boats could row, race or drift at ease, listening to music coming from the Islander in the form of songs, solos and “such open-air music of Mendelssohn or club boat songs as the members may be inclined to proffer,” as well as the music coming from various bands that would be invited to perform. The days that these socials took place varied on what phase the moon was in, as to provide enough light for everyone to be able to row home by.

Women’s rowing

Something that set the Detroit River Navy apart from similar organizations in other cities at the time was the fact that Detroit had some of the first “young lady” boat clubs, where boats were rowed by teenage girls. These boats were allowed to race in D.R.N. regattas and participate in review festivities. The first of these clubs was formed in 1867 and a second in 1868. It was celebrated at the time that these all-girl boats existed because it was believed to be good exercise for everyone. The Free Press wrote in 1868, “We trust that many young ladies of Detroit will form similar clubs, and that rowing and swimming, the one an accomplishment and the other almost a vital necessity, will become common to all.” Most clubs, including the D.B.C., allowed women to row until at least 1879, however, not long after that, women were barred from rowing and would not be able to do so again until almost 100 years later, in 1975.

Winter social events

As with all Northern rowing teams, the river is expected to be frozen for at least four months of the year, making rowing impossible. During these winter months, it became customary for the Detroit rowing clubs to hold grand balls and parties in the various hotels and meeting halls nearby. Popular venues included the Russell House, Biddle House, Arbeiter Hall and many others. By doing this, it allowed the members to meet up, stay together and socialize as an organization, instead of allowing the club to dissolve away every winter.

On Dec. 17, 1868, the D.B.C. hosted the Annual Party of the Detroit Boat Club at the Biddle House, which used the occasion to formally open its new dining room. The Boat Club party was considered “always the grand event of the season in Detroit.” Anyone who received invitations to the event was considered “particularly favored.” The room was “sufficiently decorated to add to the effect, and set off to advantage the handsomely dressed assemblage of beauty and chivalry.”

Four chandeliers of “unique design, similar to those in use in the royal palaces in France,” burned 40 jets, causing all of the jewelry and diamonds in the room to sparkle. Guests, “all so lovely it is impossible to particularize,” were members of Detroit’s elite, with “accomplished representatives” present from other cities. They danced to the “heavenly” and “perfectly elegant” music of the Knights Templar Band, with the dining room being open from 11 o’clock to 3 a.m. so that guests could go and eat at their convenience. The dining room was decorated with flags, streamers, oars and a rowing shell. They “had procured for the supper everything that could be thought of to tickle the palate of an epicure.” The Free Press predicted that “the Boat Club party of 1868 will call up many pleasant recollections in after years.”

Regional competition

Although many boat clubs existed on the Great Lakes (the D.B.C. being considered the first) and others being located on the various lakes and rivers throughout the region, there was rarely an effort made to “fraternize,” other than little rivalries between some of the more local teams. Attempts were starting to be made to organize activities between clubs, with the Detroit River Navy being the first such organization in the region. In 1867, the Milwaukee Boat Club challenged the D.B.C. to a friendly match on the Detroit River between their six-oared lapstreak Kionickinnick and the D.B.C.’s six-oared lapstreak Haidee. Both clubs had a high reputation, and any race between them was expected to be close. The D.B.C. accepted the challenge and set the date as Oct. 3.

An hour before the race, people throughout the city started moving toward the docks, and by race time, all standing room for many blocks above Woodward Avenue was occupied. The course was a mile and a half, with a turn between the Detroit & Milwaukee Railway docks and Wight’s sawmill for a distance of 3 miles. At 4 p.m. promptly, the race began. The beginning of the race was almost neck and neck, with each boat being within a few feet of the lead for the majority. The Milwaukee boat pulled open a several-length gap over the Detroit boat and with its lighter boat, Milwaukee was able to make the turn with ease, while the Detroit boat lost more ground. In the final stretch, the D.B.C. was able to make up several lengths. However, it was not enough.

The Milwaukee boat crossed the finish line 15 seconds ahead of the Detroit boat, with a time of 24:45. That evening, Charles M. Garrison of the D.B.C. proposed a toast to “the health of the Milwaukee Boat Club.” In return, Mr. Blanchard, coxswain of the M.B.C. responded expressing thanks from his club for the “generous kindness they had received in Detroit and hoped that at no distant day they may have the pleasure of reciprocating these hospitalities should their Detroit friends ever visit Milwaukee.” After many more toasts and speeches in honor of each other, the party dispersed. This event was one of the first times a club located so far from Detroit came to compete. Following the race, there was more of a push to form a regional organization that would help sponsor racing at a regional level, not just locally.

In October 1868, prominent teams met in Milwaukee and formed the Northwest Amateur Boating Association, later the Northwestern Amateur Rowing Association, with 47 clubs joining. They adopted a constitution and a set of rules and regulations, based off those of the Detroit River Navy, to be followed by all the crews involved. The N.W.A.R.A. would host annual regattas, with races being 3 miles in length. Similar to the D.R.N. regattas, the boats would again be separated into various classes, except for the N.W.A.R.A., the first class would be skeleton lapstreaks and shells (similar to today’s racing shells), the second class would be boats with outriggers, and the third class would be barges and other boats rowed from the gunwale.

Detroit hosted the second annual regatta in July 1870 at the invitation of the Detroit and Excelsior boat clubs. A grandstand capable of seating several thousand people was constructed on the Detroit & Milwaukee Railway Dock by Candler Brothers, giving an unobstructed view of the start and finish of the race (to accomplish this it was common for the 3-mile races to be split into one and a half miles with a turn). Tickets for the grandstand could be purchased from downtown stores for 50 cents. Prizes for the races, which included silver goblets, gold badges, compasses and silver whistles, were exhibited at M.S. Smith & Co. and J.S. Conklin’s jewelry stores downtown. Both companies were longtime producers of trophies and medals for the Detroit rowing teams.

On race day, near the foot of Woodward Avenue, was a line of steam vessels, including the R.N. Rice, Reindeer, Dove, the cutter Fessend, Evening Star, Essex, Detroit, the Michigan, Pacific, Dominion, U.S. Grant and Union, along with many small boats, all of which were decorated with various flags and streamers and were crowded with spectators. Following a business meeting in the Young Men’s Hall, the races for the six-oared shells and single sculls were held.

The morning of the second race began with a review and parade featuring the boats of the Milwaukee Boat Club, Detroit Boat Club, Neptune Boat Club (of East Saginaw), Undine Boat Club (Toledo), Toledo Boat Club, Excelsior Boat Club (Detroit), Duncairn Boat Club (Milwaukee), Undine Boat Club (Erie, Pa.), Xantho Boat Club (Toledo), Wah-wah-sum Boat Club (Saginaw), Chicago Rowing Club, Edmund Boat Club (Detroit), the Peerless (Detroit), and the Zephyr Boat Club (Detroit). The review was lead by the designated flag-boat, the barge Ontario of the Excelsior Boat Club. The Free Press wrote, “Within a few years, organized pleasure boating on the Northwestern waters has grown from almost nothing to an importance second to that of no club sport in the country.” With the rapid growth of rowing in the region, especially in Detroit, the D.B.C. needed to be able to grow with it.

A new boathouse

In March 1873, it was announced that the Detroit Boat Club would build a new boathouse at the foot of Jos. Campau Avenue. The D.B.C. put the 1858 boathouse, all its furnishings and several boats up for sale that May. Several ads were placed in the newspapers that stated; “FOR SALE - The Detroit Boat Club offer for sale on favorable terms their boathouse and fixtures. A fine opportunity is offered to any club in the city desiring a good location and good boats, or to any club throughout the state wishing to purchase boats. Apply to E.C.D. CLARK, secretary and treasurer, No. 64 Griswold Street.”

The clubhouse sold less than a month after being put up for sale. The building was demolished in the late 1870s or early 1880s for the construction of the upper end of the railyard of the Detroit, Grand Haven & Milwaukee Railway. Today, the site would be located just below Atwater Street, near the intersection of Schweizer Place and Atwater Street. in what is currently an expansive parking lot.