11 Things You Might Not Know About Boathouse Row

Did you see the special show the Row put on Saturday night? Here, we shine a light on how those lights got there.

Ben Yanis | Flickr

Ben Yanis | Flickr

It all started with a dam.

In 1821, the City of Philadelphia dammed the Schuylkill River as part of a complex plan to provide clean water to the city. The dam, the longest in the country at the time—its walkway was 235 feet long and 26 feet wide—and the Water Works on a bluff above it called Fair Mount, became famed tourist attractions. Perhaps more importantly, the dam created an enormous stretch of calm water on which citizens could practice and observe what soon became the most popular spectator sport in the country: the racing of rowboats. In her forthcoming photo-packed book Boathouse Row: Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing (Temple University Press), former Inquirer reporter Dotty Brown delves river-deep into the history of the city’s rowing culture and the landmark clubhouses built to further it, as well as some of the city’s most enduring characters. Last Saturday night, in conjunction with the first-ever Philly Free Streets festival, Boathouse Row celebrated an upgrade to its LED lights with an Instagram-worthy light show. Here, some of the history behind Boathouse Row and how those lights wound up there.

  1. With the Jersey Shore too far away for visits on hot summer days, Philadelphians in the 19th century took to their rivers. A popular outing was a trip by rowboat to the Falls of Schuylkill, to eat fried catfish and waffles at the inns clustered there, followed by the trip home under the stars.
  2. Baseball and football weren’t popular until the 1870s and basketball wasn’t invented until 1891, so rowing was the city sport in the mid-1800s. Young men bought boats and oars and threw up sheds to store them; spectators along the shore bet on their races. In 1853 a group of young friends organized the first official club, Bachelors Barge Club, for “mutual enjoyment” of “the manly art of rowing.” Why “Bachelors”? Members lost their voting rights when they wed.
  3. In 1854, 10 Penn underclassmen who’d been renting boats bought their own four-oared barge from the Bachelors Club and formed the University Barge Club. By 1858, there were so many clubs that a governing organization, the Schuylkill Navy, was created to set rules for racing, arbitrate disputes, and organize regattas.
  4. In 1859, the city ordered the haphazard sheds along the shoreline to be torn down and began to require permits for new structures. Boathouses weren’t all that were built; as traditional social strata eroded, Philadelphians flocked to join all sorts of clubs: gun clubs, horse clubs, riding clubs, tennis clubs, fishing clubs, and a wide range of fraternal organizations.
  5. In 1873, Penn’s new College Boat Club kitted out a second-floor space for relaxing and socializing, creating a craze for new boathouse amenities, including parlors for entertaining women and bars for smoking and drinking, which most clubs had hitherto forbidden. The Malta Boat Club was soon spending $3,300 a year on cigars. A few years later, the West Philadelphia Boat Club expelled one member and suspended two more for entertaining prostitutes inside.
  6. Competition on the river intensified as well, and clubs began to vie for the services of the finest rowers. In August of 1876, the year of the nation’s Centennial Exposition, a handsome row of new Victorian clubhouses was the backdrop for rowers from Ireland, England, Canada and the U.S. competing in the first international rowing competition ever held in the States. A crew from London won.
  7. In the early 1920s, school dropout Jack Kelly, one of 10 children of an East Falls millworker, became intrigued by the rowers he saw on the river from his  home and started rowing at the Chamounix Club. By his late teens, while working as a bricklayer, he could afford the Vesper Boat Club’s dues. He soon became a star at the sport and, after serving in World War I in France, determined to row at Henley against Jack Beresford, the world champion. Kelly’s application to compete was turned down for somewhat murky reasons (dealt with by Brown at length), and he turned his attention to the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, where he beat Beresford by a mere second in one of the most famous boat races of all time. He then joined his cousin in a doubles scull a half-hour later and won that race, too.
  8. The Stotesbury Cup Regatta, the largest high-school rowing competition in the world, started here in 1927 with a single race among local private and parochial schools, including Germantown Academy, La Salle College High School, St. Joe’s Prep and West Catholic High, competing for a silver cup provided by wealthy Philly banker Ned Stotesbury, who promised that any team winning the cup three years in a row could keep it. West Catholic won that first year and the following two, laying permanent claim to the cup, so Stotesbury bought another, with the same promise. West Catholic won it again. For the third cup, Stotesbury insisted it be passed from winner to winner each year. The Stotesbury is still held; last May’s was the 90th annual regatta. Women have competed since the mid-1970s.
  9. In 1947, trying to avenge his father’s honor, Jack Kelly Jr. competed at Henley—and lost by three lengths. The following year, though, he took the singles race in front of a crowd of 20,000 spectators—by eight lengths. Kelly Jr. later became a longtime Philadelphia City Councilman; his sister, an actress named Grace, married a prince and became the princess of Monaco.
  10. By the 1960s, the boathouses were in bad shape. Many had only survived by renting space and equipment to high-school and college programs. The passage of Title IX in 1972 increased pressure on the clubs to admit women as members, creating rifts in the culture of the Row. Then, in 1979, Ray Grenald, a lighting architect based in Narberth, decided the posters he saw for Philadelphia were boring and proposed illuminating the boathouses for a better photo op. The idea wasn’t particularly well received, but the then-mayor, Frank Rizzo, loved it. Once work was under way, Grenald discovered that many of the antique boathouses were fire hazards, with outdated wiring and underpowered electrical boxes. His lighting scheme, based on what he called “the negligée effect”—“A naked woman is not as appealing as one wearing a negligée”—lit up just the outlines of the houses, and probably saved them from destruction.
  11. In 2005, Grenald’s original incandescent lighting system, by then experiencing outages and failures (each year, replacing spent bulbs cost $50,000), was replaced with a computerized system of LED string lights. Those lights went dark in April of this year after a donor offered to pay for a wholesale upgrade. It was completed just before the Democratic National Convention in July, and the lights came back on in red, white and blue. Now they’re back to good old white but can be programmed in more colors for special occasions. (Hint: Our birthday’s in October!)

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