Smith: Rowing on the James
Brooks Smith continues to rediscover Richmond sports history.
Farrar: Brooks Smith is rediscovering Richmond's sports history, and today, Brooks, we're going to talk about rowing on the James.
Smith: That's right, you know, these days to see a sculler on the James River is a rare and wonderful thing, like seeing a falcon swooping overhead, but little did I realize that rowing on the James really has been a mainstay for over a hundred years.
Farrar: Well, what's the origin of it?
Smith: The very first rowing club was organized by a group of sand-lot ballplayers, with a team called the Olympics, and they were just looking for a different kind of exercise, so they bought a 6-oar shell and pretty much took the entire membership to take it out onto the water. In 1888, they merged with another club and built their first clubhouse on Mayo Island. That same year on July 4th, they hosted their first regatta, against teams that were both local and distant, UVA, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, D.C., Baltimore and Boston, and then in 1894, the General Assembly incorporated the Virginia Boat Club through an act that promised to promote the healthful and manly exercise of rowing and for the promotion of amateur oarsmanship and all amateur athletic exercises connected therewith.
Farrar: Well, tell us about some of those big regattas.
Smith: Well, they had regattas it seemed like year-in and year-out, with some incredibly storied victories. We won the so-called Fredericksburg Cup back in 1879, the French Cup in 1880, 1885 and 1894; we went up to Baltimore and won an Open Regatta at the Batapsco Navy Yard in 1889, and as legend goes, we beat New Orleans in the Super Bowl Regatta in 1940.
Looking over the history of our regattas in Richmond, it looked like 1915 was the biggest year in the history of our club and we went on to win practically every race during that 1915 regatta.
Farrar: Some of those dates were not long after the Civil War destruction, of course. I take it that this was a sport that high society enjoyed.
Smith: That's right. It started very much as a physical feat, you know, to take exercise out on the river, but it definitely became a social experience unto itself by the heyday of the club in 1935, it had 500 members; in addition to all manner of boats, they had handball courts and a swimming pool and a gymnasium, so it really was the place to be down on the river.
Farrar: But there were some brushes with disaster, I hear.
Smith: Indeed there were, both fire and flood. The clubhouse burned down on Christmas Day 1930; a decade later, when Tate field burned down, the club was adjacent to the old ball park and almost burned down as well. Then in 1969, Hurricane Camille came through Richmond and left up to five feet of standing water on the second floor of the clubhouse. And the last big flood event was Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and that really took the club down for good; a year later, it was auctioned off to a restauranteur, but before he was able to revitalize it, it was gutted by fire in 1974 and that's where the story of the old club, at least, ends.
Farrar: Is there a future for rowing in Richmond?
Smith: I think so, you know, it's interesting to reflect that it was the oldest private club in the city until it burned down, older even than the Commonwealth Club. There were efforts to rejuvenate it in the 80's and 90's; I think there's still rowing, amateur rowing, on the James today, but I pause to think that, you know, with all this focus on revitalizing Mayo Island, as well as connecting residents to the city and providing public access to the James River, wouldn't it be nice to open a public rowing club over on Mayo Island and try to reintroduce rowing as a tradition for a new generation of rowers?
Farrar: Thanks to Brooks Smith, rediscovering Richmond.