History of Rowing in Our Areaby Roderick Boone
Collegiate races, organized by the Intercollegiate Rowing Association, started here in 1895 and were held yearly, with the exception of the war years, until 1948. Tens of thousands of people watched the races, which featured many of the top collegiate teams like Cornell, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Syracuse, California and Washington.
"For a while, Poughkeepsie was known for three things: Vassar College, Smith Brothers cough drops, and the IRA regatta,'' said Poughkeepsie resident John Mylod, a commercial fisherman who's been a member of the Mid Hudson Rowing Association for 30-plus years. It's the oldest rowing association on the Hudson.
Schoolboy rowing, as high school rowing was known before Title IX was instituted and women were integrated in the sport, was also very popular when it first burst onto the scene locally in 1950.
Like today, there were various types of shells back then. But for the most part, rowers used either a four- or eight-oared shell during competition.
The races were timed and the team with the fastest time won.
Ed Decker of Poughkeepsie said he was the first to actually cross the finish line in the initial schoolboy race on the Hudson. Rowing as a junior for Franklin D. Roosevelt High School's JV team in 1950, Decker was seated in the winning boat's bow.
"And I never let the first four guys forget it,'' he said of his crewmates.
National schoolboy championship meets were also held on the Hudson.
But long before schoolboy rowing and the collegiate association, the Hudson was already well-known for rowing. Professional races began in the 19th century in Newburgh. Money - and sometimes amounts as large as $100,000 - was wagered illegally on the regattas.
The races weren't held in the current format, though, which are usually a mile or, at times, three miles long. Instead, the boats jaunted 2“ miles, then would turn around and race another 2“ back to the finish line.
"You started with all the crowd and you finished with all the crowd,'' Mylod said. ``It was tough rowing, but they were quite athletic and quite good at it.''
But corruption began to spread throughout some of the races and the crowds started getting out of control, especially at one particular race in Poughkeepsie in 1865. Thomas DeMott accused William Stephens, the stroke of the Poughkeepsie boat, of throwing a race and DeMott was killed over the dispute.
"There was heavy betting going on,'' said 66-year-old Town of Poughkeepsie resident John Simmons, a rower for Poughkeepsie High School from 1952 to 1955. ``And somewhere along the line, violence for some reason [escalated].''
And because of that, professional races were halted on the Hudson and amateur rowing became more prevalent, leading to today's age of local high schools and colleges hosting meets on the same stretch of water.
Four of the year's biggest meets in this region - three scholastic and one collegiate - are held on the Hudson each year. Club teams also frequently row on the Hudson, proving the sport's popularity is on the rise among valley residents.
"Locally, it's grown by bounds,'' Simmons said. When I first started rowing, there was only maybe one or two people in the river and that was generally singles. Now when you look out on the river, on the weekend especially, you can see anywhere up to 100 people rowing with different clubs.''Excerpt taken from "State of the Hudson" article. Written by Roderick Boone, Poughkeepsie Journal, August 22, 2004.
The Return of River Rowingby Peter Klose
To the uninitiated, the early morning stillness of the water is a distant, disconnected part of life in our river towns—just scenery making the Hudson River Valley a valley. To the initiated, some might say obsessed, the early morning stillness of the great gray river is the bridge connecting our past to our rowing community, and to ourfuture of healthy living.
Before the sun rises, and the wind blows, the Hudson is a quiet, inviting placeoffering rowers of all types a chance to connect to the river, to hear the sound of oars pulling through the water under human, non-motorized power; to escape the often overscheduled life we lead. Until one has experienced the sound and rhythmic swoosh of a rowing shell slip through the water, the surge of power from fellow oarsmen and tasted the slightly salty brine from the river (or your perspiration), one has not been initiated into the cult of the early morning rower. These early morning celebrations of water, oars and sweat are becoming increasingly frequent all along the Hudson River as rowing has returned as a popular sport in the Hudson Valley. High school,college, adaptive rowers, junior or master rowers (age 18 or under or 27 or older, respectively) can be seen rowing from public parking lots, informal boat houses and grand newly constructed community boat houses from Nyack to Albany.
The Poughkeepsie-centered Hudson River Rowing Association (www.hudsonriverrowing.org) declares that its “philosophy” is that rowing is a “life sport,” meaning that you can enjoy it for life. To support that philosophy, in 2006 the Association spearheaded and coordinated the construction and fundraising required to build the Hudson River Rowing Boathouse, which stores over a hundred rowing shells and supports the equipment for nine Hudson Valley rowing clubs, and trains over 600 athletes each year, including high school teams from Rhinebeck toArlington. Across the river on the Rondout Creek in Kingston, the Rondout Rowing Club (http://www.rondoutrowingclub.org/), formed in 1999, now has approximately 40 or 50 members, including rowers of all ages (13 to 70+) and abilities. Their facilities support the Kingston High School Crew Club.
What’s behind this fitness craze? Many dedicated volunteers, donors, and athletesand . . . . a pretty spectacular past. The revival of rowing is only appropriate for the mid-Hudson Valley where, from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth-century, hundreds of college-aged boys vied for sporting immortality and nearly a million spectators poured into Poughkeepsie (some over the soon to be revitalized iron railroad bridge) to be a part of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta (IRA). The ghosts of old Regatta Row (boathouses of Cornell, Columbia, Penn and Navy), still haunt the river banks where the Hudson River Rowing Association has established its shiny new rowing community of colleges, clubs and individuals.
Revival of Poughkeepsie’s waterfront is only a part of the excitement surroundingthis summer’s Quadricentennial Celebration. In honor of Henry Hudson’s 1609 trip up the Hudson, Marist and the Hudson River Rowing Association are planning to host a new “Poughkeepsie Regattta” under the newly reconstructed pedestrianRailway Bridge connecting Ulster
and Dutchess County (the longest in the world). Last year, the HRRA quietly pre-viewed a revitalized the regatta along the historic IRA racecourse starting roughly at the Culinary Institute of America and finishing in the shadow of the Railroad Bridge (2.3 miles).
The story of the Poughkeepsie Regatta begins with Harvard and Yale’s long rowing rivalry. Inspired by their example, several other Ivy and non-Ivy League schools—Columbia, Penn, Cornell, Navy, and Syracuse among them—to hold their owncompetition. After investigation of other locales along the Hudson, Columbia University proposed Poughkeepsie as the site for the regatta and festivities. TheHudson near Poughkeepsie offered a wide stretch of river able to accommodate many lanes of shells, was deep enough to permit steam launches, and was protected enough to protect the crews from excessively windy conditions, while offering close proximity to view the sporting event from observation trains along the four-mile course. At the same time, the Railroad Bridge offered spectators easy access as a crossroads of rail transportation between New York, Boston, Hartford, and the South.
The Poughkeepsie Regatta was born in June of 1895, and was held every yearthereafter until the last race in 1949 except for the war years 1899, 1917–1919, and1942–1946. Conditions on the Hudson River were not always ideal. For example, there were reports that 1929 Regatta saw more than fifty percent of the crews’ boats sunk by rough water. Finally, in 1950, for various reasons, including the difficult weather and tidal conditions of the Hudson, the Regatta moved to Marrietta Ohio, and then to Syracuse. Gone are the days that the IRA stays in one place. As rowing has nationalized and increased in popularity, other universities have become major competitors to the traditionally strong East Coast rowing powerhouses, so the IRA moves from place to place.
In its day, the old IRA was one of the most storied and celebrated events of its time. According to the New York Journal, the banks of the Hudson River and the Railroad Bridge served as a back drop to the annual race in grand style: “one of the grandest of rivers deploying its fairest of reaches under a glorious blue cloud-flecked sky; its lofty banks lovely with foliage, crowded with stupendous masses of human beingsfluttering with bright colors; and its bosom freighted with a thousand of the prettiest and most graceful pleasure boats ever designed, all bejeweled with tinted flags; and along its western shore a serpent half a mile in length, red, white and blue, with a head of steam at each end of it, gliding swiftly up and down; and shoutings, steam screamings, and cannon firings . . .”
The “serpent” referred to in this depiction of the crowd was a spectator trainoperated by the New York Central Railroad that followed the entire four mile race. One famous Cornell oarsman from the 1897 championship crew, Mark Odell, described the tumultuous Poughkeepsie race atmosphere this way: “The only sounds I realized for three miles were the words of our coxswain and the hoarse cheer of exultation from the train when we began to lead. The other yells I did not hear or did not notice, although the din I know was terrific and constant. The last mile was along a flotilla of yachts, which kept up the most infernal pandemonium you can imagine. Not a word could we hear of our coxswain's orders. Cannons were going off right above our heads, which made it feel as though the top of the skull was coming off at each shot.”
It’s been nearly sixty years since the last Regatta in Poughkeepsie, but all is notforgotten. Picture the possibility that navy frigates may soon line the shores of theHudson Highlands as Navy competes against the Ivy League schools at the newlyrevamped Poughkeepsie Regatta (honored as a Quadricentennial Regatta by Marist).According to a sports information officer from Marist University, Marist has firmcommitments from many of the old crews (including Columbia, Penn, Cornell, Syracuse and Cal) to celebrate the past on Saturday, October 3, 2009.
For those interested in learning more, reading more, or seeing wonderful photographs of history nearly forgotten, the Marist College Library has a fabulous on-line tribute to the history of the Poughkeepsie Regatta http://library.marist.edu/archives/regatta/about.html .
A Brief History of the Poughkeepsie Regatta
In the world of collegiate rowing, one of the biggest competitions of the year is the Intercollegiate Rowing Association's (IRA) National Championship, which is held in Camden, New Jersey. Yet all of the prestige of the race was established in its original home, in Poughkeepsie, New York on the Hudson River.
The IRA was founded by Cornell University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania. These universities wanted to form an association in order to hold a race every year in which all of the top rowing schools in the country could compete. They chose the Hudson River, outside of Poughkeepsie, as the location to hold the race. It was one of the few places that had a straightaway that was four miles long.
Today, the Regatta is a two kilometer (1.2 miles) race. The officials hold several disqualifying heats to determine the group of finalists that will race for the championship. Today's format differs greatly from the Regatta that was held in Poughkeepsie over a century ago. Only a single race was run to determine the championship—winner take all. An even more significant difference is that it was a four mile long race. This fact set the Regatta apart from all other crew races that have ever been held. It is the reason why the IRA Regatta became as prestigious as it did, and why the crew team that won was nationally regarded as the best of the best.
The very first IRA race was held in 1895. It consisted of one Varsity Eight team from each of the founding schools racing four miles on the Hudson River . Cornell won the very first Regatta championship with a time of 21:25.0. The Regatta was held in Poughkeepsie almost every year until 1949. During this time, it became the premier college rowing event in the country, and every college with a rowing program hoped to be invited to compete in it. The Regatta also became one of the most popular college athletic events in the nation. Eventually, it became so closely associated with its home town, that it was no longer referred to as the IRA Regatta, but was known instead as the Poughkeepsie Regatta.
In the early years the Eastern schools dominated the race. Typically only a four mile Varsity Eight race was held, but if there were enough teams entered, there was also a two mile Freshman Eight race, and occasionally a Varsity Four race. Eventually, this evolved into a format that included an annual two mile Freshman Eight race, followed by a three mile Junior Varsity Eight race, and finally the four mile Varsity Eight race. In 1923 the University of Washington became the first Western crew team to win the Poughkeepsie Regatta. From that year on the Western schools that participated, namely the University of Washington, and the University of California, became a dominating factor. They consistently placed in the top three, and more often than not, they won. The University of Washington became the first and only school to sweep the Regatta two years in a row.
The Poughkeepsie Regatta quickly became one of the greatest sporting events to watch in the country, and put Poughkeepsie on the map. Every year tens of thousands of spectators would come pouring into Poughkeepsie to watch the races. They covered the shores next to the river, many waiting all day, picnicking on blankets, to ensure they had a good view. The railroad tracks on the west side of the river had a flatbed train which held grandstands from which spectators could watch the race. As the crews rowed up the river, the train would keep pace with them, giving the people on board the best view possible. Hundreds of boats, yachts, and occasionally even Navy destroyers sailed to Poughkeepsie, and moored on the sides of the river to watch the event. The town of Poughkeepsie came alive on the day of the Regatta, with parades, bands, vendors, and banners. In addition, colorful pennants displaying the school colors of all the participants were flying everywhere. The Regatta was extensively covered by newspaper reporters, and as time went on it was even broadcast over local and national radio stations. But the crowds, the cheers, the reporters, parades, and pennants were not the reasons why the Regatta became so intensely popular, the explanation lay in the physical feats of the crew teams. To race at full-speed for four miles required such a breathtaking amount of strength, skill, and endurance that it was awe-inspiring to watch.
The Regatta left Poughkeepsie in 1949 and went to Marietta, Ohio. Unfortunately it never returned. There are two main reasons why the Regatta left Poughkeepsie: Marietta promised to raise at least 10,000 dollars more for the Regatta than Poughkeepsie, and the race was to be held on a lake (which meant that the date and times that the race was scheduled would not have to be planned around the tide, as it did on the Hudson River). The Regatta left Poughkeepsie, and over the years the rules and the length of the race evolved into the Regatta that is held today in Camden, New Jersey. Some people feel that the Regatta has never been the same since it left Poughkeepsie, they feel it lost some of its glory, spectators, publicity, and prestige. While this is a matter of personal opinion, the fact remains that in its day the Poughkeepsie Regatta established college rowing as one of the major competitive sports in the nation.