1907 Times Picayune Article Outlines History of Rowing in New Orleans

Times Picayune | Sunday, November 17, 1907


History of the Sport Dates Back 75 years (in 1907)
First Organization Was Headed by Joseph Walton, President
Popular Interest in the Races on the Mississippi in 1836
The Tchefuncta Race of 1839 – The St. John Rowing Club – Associations that Still Exist (in 1907)

In our day, the manly sport of rowing seems to have fallen into desuetude when compapred with its popularity among our young men in former years. About 70 years ago, the first rowing club that disported in the city waters was organized by a number of prominent young men of the town, with Joseph Walton as President.

This Club took to intself the name of the Wave Rowing Club by reason of the fact that one of the members of the Club, J. B. Walton, had brought from New York a racing gig of that name, constructed after the fashion of those days, and had presented it to the Club.

Althought the Wave was a very fine specimen of the racing-gigs of the days seventy-five years ago,so different as they were from the airy “shells” of our time, the use which the Club put it to seems to have been simply to afford entertainment for the members of the Club.

The members of the Club had no idea of entering the Wave against any rival heat in the city waters in a trial of speed, for a the time the Wave Rowing Club was instituted, the was no rowing club besides itself in the town and, consequently, no other boat of her kind against which she could be pitted in a trial of speed.

In fact, the Wave Club, which was organized about the year 1831-35 was followed within a few years by six other rowing clubs, it does not appear that the Club ever participated in any rowing race that may have occurred during the period of its existence. It was purely a pleasure club, and was designed for the amusement of its members and their friends, particularly of the ladies among them.

The Club had a fine, clear and straight course in which to row and practice. This was the waters of the New Basin. A smooth course of about five miles to the Lake was afforded the members for their pleasure parties from their boathouse, what was built on the bank of the Basin at about the spot at which the Magnolia bridge now spans the placid New Canal.

The Wave was a racing-gig with a reputation in New York before she was brought to New Orleans in a winner of several races run on the East and Harlem Rivers, but, as has been mentioned, there is no record of her ever having run a race in this city. The racing-gigs of the period in which the Wave flourished were generally about forty feet long. From eighteen to fifty-four inches beam and with a depth of about twenty inches, and were built of white pine or cedar. The were propelled with six oars made of ash and of the shape now called “sweeps”.
But, probably the chief water-craft among the belongings of the Wave Rowing Club were the barges that they owneds, and which were devoted to the delectation o fthe Club’s lady friends on the occasions of the pleasure parties on the Canal.

At the time the Wave Club was organized, there was a popular restaurant at Spanish Fort and frequently, rowing parties of members of the Club and their invited lady friends were formed to visit this restaurant and have a good dinner.
In addition to the Wave, the Club possessed several barges with cushioned seats, which were specially intended for the use of the lady guests of the Club on these social occasions.

While the Wave Club was thus devoting itself to the entertainment of its friends as a rule, several other rowing clubs made their appearance as the years went on, on the Mississippi.

It is a somewhat strange circumstance that a least tow of these clubs selected their name from the stage or its associatioins.

The first of these rowing clubs to be organized after the Wave was a club called the Lady of Lyons Club, named after the well-known play of that name. This Club was started in 1836, less that a year after the Wave was organized. The course of the Club was on the Mississippi, opposite New Orleans,
and a boathouse was built not far from, and above, the point at Algiers.

The Mississippi seemed to be in those early days of boating in New Orleans, the favorite scene for the courses. Within a few years after the Lady of Lyons Club was formed, four more clubs appeared in succession on the river. These were the Knickerbocker, the Locofoco and the Edwin Forrest, the last having been given its name in compliment to the great tragedian, who was then in his prime, and was performing in Shakespeare’s tragedies and in “Metamora”, the play specially written for him at Caldwell’s first St. Charles Theatre.

The fourth of these accessories to the boating clubs was the Washington Rowing Club, which a little later joined its boats to those of the other clubs on the Mississippi. As yet no club had selected the Carondelet Canal and Bayou St. John as its course.

Although so many boat clubs were centered in so close a proximity to each other on the river, the spirit or rivalry which must have existed among them does not appear to have led, for two or three years at least, so far as the records show, to the development of the racing mania in rowing circles.

What seem to have the been the first race for a prize offered was rowed on the Mississippi from a point opposite the second municipality to a point two miles above and return.

The rowers in this first rowing match in New Orleans was amateur oarsmen, and the prize for which they contested was $1,000. One of the boats, the Celeste, was from Mobile, and the other, the Thomas M. Hamblin, was owned in this city.

As was to be expected, general interest in the affair prevailed in the town, for a race of this sort was a novelty to the citizens. People flocked from all parts of the city to witness the exciting spectacle in which human strength along with endurance and skill in rowing were to be the factors in the contest. The wharves, the steamboats and flatboats and such shipping as may have been along the course, were crowded with eager spectators, and even the windows of the stores fronting the levee were filled with sightseers anxious to catch if but a glimpse of the hardy rowers as they should speed by.

The race was rowed under the most auspicious conditions as to weather and water. The surface of the river was calm and smooth. The boats made a fine start, and although the New Orleans boat was slightly in the leads at first, she failed to widen the distance between her and her competitor, and the Mobile boat finally passed her, reaching the upper stake first, about three-quarters of a length ahead of the Hamblin. On the turn, the Celeste still led, but as the lower stake and the conclusion of the race neared, the crew of the New Orleans boat made what is termed in rowing parlance “a spurt” and she passed the boat from Mobile, keeping the lead until the end, beating the visitor from the Gulf City by a length.

The race was very exciting to those who witnessed it, as the crews of the two boats were almost evenly matched. The result was greeted with great enthusiasm in general, as well as sporting circles in this city, for the match somehow formed a part of the friendly rivalry which in former days existed between New Orleans and Mobile. The Mobile rowers chafed under their defeat and they left the scene of their discomfiture although it was admitted on all sides that they had no reason to feel ashamed o fthe degree of prowess that they had displayed, threatening to “get even” as some future day.

The second rowing race of record was not witnessed by som many spectators as the first but, it possessed features, some comical and other quite the reverse, that made it an occasion to be remembered by the rowers as well as the lookers-on who chanced to see the finish.

This race came off on the Tchefuncta River, at Madisonville, on the 11th day of August, 1839. The boats entered for the race were the Thomas Hamblin, the General Dumas and the Pauline. In this race, a difficulty occurred at its beginning, however, between the crews of the Hamblin and the Dumas, which spoiled the sport for the spectators and led to a scrimmage at the conclusion of the contest. The Hamblin, it is related, chanced to get in the way of, or “foul” the Dumas, which circumstance led to a violent altercation between the crews of the respective boats. While the two crews were thus wrangling, the third boat silently and swiftly went on her way to the goal which she reached as the winner of the race. The trouble between the crews of the Hamblin and the Dumas concluded after the race was over in a general melee between the men and the sympathizers, in which the unfortunate coxswain of the Hamblin
received a severe beating.

In April, 1840, an exciting race occurred on the Mississippi, opposite Gretna, over a course of about two miles. The prize offered was a handsome silver cup shaped like a boat. The crowd that witnessed the race was even larger that that which gathered to see the first race, that between the Hamblin and the Celeste, and it is reckoned to have been the largest multitude of people that ever assembled on the banks of the river in this city. The Knickerbocker Club, which was the favorite at the beginning of the race entered the St. Nicholas, the Locofocos entered the General Jackson, the Edwin Forrest Club entered the Gladiator, named for another of Forrest’s great parts, and the Algerine Club entered the Algerine. A large amount of money in wagers was staked on this race, which was exciting throughout, the day being pleasant, althought the current of the river was very swift and much floating wood impeded the rowers at times. The race was won by the Algerine in 26 minutes.

On May 17, 1840, the first rowing regatta of record on the lake took place. This event came off at the Prairie Cottage, situated on the lake shore, about thirteen miles from the city, and was the terminus of the Nashville Railroad, which enterprise was a that time projected. Four boats were entered tfor this race — The Algerine Club entering the Algerine; the Edwin Forrest the Gladiator, the Knickerbockers the Maid of Orleans and the Lady of Lyons Club the Water Witch.
As has become the custom at that time, a beautiful prize was offered, a splendid silver goblet.

The lake was smooth and placid. Although the day was cloudy, an immense crowd of the friends of contestants went down from the city in a special train to witness the sport.

In the beginning of the race, the Knickerbocker Club’s boat, the Maid of Orleans, met with an accident. One of the thwarts broke. This practically put her out of the race so far as any hope of winning was concerned but, she continued on her way showing good speed even under difficulties. For a good part of the way, the other three boats ran almost even with the advantage in favor of the Water Witch which finally reached the goal ahead of her competitors by about half a length.

From 1840 to 1859, the spirit of the oarsmen of the city seemed to be broken, or perhaps it was because of the inauguration, about the period of the first year mentioned, of the sport of yachting among the younger men of the community,
that rowing was relegated to the background in the public estimation for several years.

However, in 1859 the rowing fever came on again, and two rowing clubs, the Monona and the Pioneer, were formed. Considerable rivalry existed between these Clubs, and a race was arranged between them which resulted in the defeat of the Pioneer boat, the Pioneer, and the success of the Delta, the boat entered by the Monona Club.

The arrival of the Civil War in 1861 put and end to rowing and yachting in the New Orleans area for nearly ten years. In May of 1869, the St. John Rowing Club was formed with a membership of about seventy young men.

The appearance of this Club was followed shortly by the organization of two other rowing clubs, The Pelicans and the Orleans Riversides, and it seemed for some time that the old-time enthusiasm for boating and rowing among the young athletes of the city was about to be rekindled. In fact, with all these clubs on the was, the Louisiana Rowing Association was organized, and on September 14, 1874, a date memorable in the annals of New Orleans as the occasion of the sanguinary conflict on the levee between the citizens of the town and the Metropolitan Police Force, a rowing race came off between boats belonging to the associated clubs. But, this race resulted in so much disputing and dissension that the Rowing Association was dissolved.

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