Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Rotown in Motown

HTBS’s Tim Koch writes:

A trawl through YouTube can often be an uninspiring experience, housing as it does many pointless and prosaic video clips. However, gems are there to be unearthed such as these home movies uploaded by ‘katbaleu’ in September 2011. They are best viewed mute. Katbaleu writes:

An excerpt of film footage that my grandfather and family took over the years. This is footage of The Detroit Boat Club’s Rowing Team sometime around 1948-1952 when my uncle, Richard Langs, was on the team. I unfortunately don’t know what regattas are shown here or have any exact dates but perhaps some others might know. Please leave any info you may have about this footage in the comments. Thanks!

I take it that most of this was shot on the Detroit River but between 3min 6secs and 5min 45secs there is film of the DBC rowing in Philadelphia with some nice shots of Boathouse Row. The scene changes again at 7mins 32secs but I do not know where this is.

I confess that I knew nothing about Detroit Boat Club and was surprised to find that it was founded as long ago as 1839. The website for the club’s sailing section (which is now separate from the rowing club) proudly proclaims:

Sixty-three years after our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, twenty-two years before the Civil War and two years after Michigan became a State, while Abraham Lincoln was still a 30-year-old lawyer in Illinois, the Detroit Boat Club was founded. Organized by oarsman on February 18, 1839, it is the oldest continuous rowing club in the world, the oldest boating club in the United States and the oldest social club in Michigan.

I am afraid that I must question the claim to be ‘the oldest continuous rowing club in the world’. Without doing any research I can think of three British clubs that are older (Leander 1818, Eton Excelsior 1829 and Royal Chester 1838) and also there are various pre 1839 college boat clubs at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Outside of Britain, I know that Hamburg’s Der Hamburger und Germania Ruder Club dates from 1836. However, I have no wish to be churlish, a founding date of 1839 is very impressive and the exact definition of ‘continuous’ may be important here.

DBC’s Wikipedia entry gives a history of the club which still thrives today. My attention was especially taken by the Spanish Colonial Style boathouse on Belle Isle which was built for the boat club in 1902. Some wonderful pictures of this once grand building were posted here in February 2010.

Clearly it was once an important sporting and social centre for middle classes of Detroit. However, the city’s population shifts and enormous economic and social problems of recent years mean that neither the rowing and sailing clubs or the city government are able to raise the money to maintain the crumbling boathouse. The Wikipedia entry states:

In 1992 rent on the Detroit Boat Club property jumped from $1 to $100,000. Utility payments fell behind and membership continued to drop. The club filed for bankruptcy citing a $1million debt. The city announced plans to take over operation of the building. In 1996, the (yacht) club members voted to move out of the city. Since (then) the historic building has fallen into disrepair. Current assessments put the needed repairs over $20 million. The club has around 200 members who pay $400 in dues a year...  The organization that runs the rowing program, Friends of Detroit Rowing, are currently looking into building a better boathouse and structure for competitive rowing.

The website ‘detroit1701’ subtitled ‘Detroit: The History and Future of the Motor City’ claims some shocking background to this story concerning racial politics in the city.

I suspect that the old boathouse will soon be lost to rowing forever. The Friends of Detroit Rowing must think so as they have produced these impressive plans for a new boathouse (though I do not know if funding is in place). In September 2012 it was announced that there are grand plans for improving all of Belle Isle including the ‘reopening of the boathouse’. I hope to be proved wrong but I think that the ‘reopened boathouse’ could be a shopping mall rather than a boat club, something which is not ideal but is preferable to losing the building altogether. Perhaps someone from Detroit could keep HTBS up to date with developments?


  1. My Dad John McKinlay and his twin brother Art McKinlay are in this video. The beginning Detroit scenes and the Scenes in Philadelphia. I also recognize Jim McIntosh who rowed with my Dad and uncle in the fours without in the 56 Olympic's (rounding out that boat was John Welchli). It looks like the location changes back to Detroit around the 8:11 mark. I wonder if that's Walter Hoover Jr at the 10:06 mark?

  2. I believe that the DBC claims to be the oldest rowing club in North America but not oldest in the world. My connection to the club goes back to the early 1960's that was always the claim. I grew up being told that the oldest rowing club in the world was in Germany.