The banks of the Schuylkill have been crowded on recent weekends by sculling regatta rowers and their friends, families and admirers. And newspaper articles recently have been reporting ominously that the river needs some serious dredging if the traditional racing can continue.
The denizens of those picturesque boating clubs on Kelly drive, and the earnest rowers from schools and colleges, have been hard at work raising consciousness among the city’s leaders.
I remembered reading about Philadelphia’s introduction of competitive rowing in this country in J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott’s monumental three-volume “History of Philadelphia,” published in 1884.
Most of the following information comes from that source. That’s not plagiarism, folks. That’s research.
Rowing clubs were first organized in Philly about 1833. The population of the 24 United States then was about 12 million. Philadelphia had the nation’s third largest city population, about 80,000.
New York was first, with 202,000, and Baltimore second with just a few hundred more than Philly.
Baseball and football barely existed, and basketball was unheard of. But in any city with a suitable body of water, boat racing, by sail or oar, was popular.
Four-oared, six oared and eight-oared boats, with coxswains calling the strokes, were frequently seen on the Delaware. But rough water, and the wakes and intrusions of commercial vessels, discouraged much rowing, much less racing.
So, more permanent clubs developed in the calmer waters of the Schuylkill, above the Fairmount dam.
The first two clubs were the Imp and the Blue Devil. They had eight-oared boats. The Imp crew wore white trousers, red and white striped shirts and red caps. The Blue Devil men had similar blue and white uniforms.
The first formal race on the Schuylkill was between those clubs, on Tuesday, April 14, 1835.
Announcement of the contest attracted several thousand spectators. The river banks were lined with carriages and jammed with people, from Fairmount to the finish line at Belmont, about a three-mile course. The Imp won the 11-minute race, 40 yards ahead of the Blue Devil.
There were 10 other rowing clubs on the Schuylkill, and the success of the April race inspired them all to get together and hold a regatta. The word means “contest.” It comes from Venice, where they’ve always had lots of boats.
The date was set for Thursday, Nov. 12. Seven eight-oared boats signed up, and four six-oared boats in a second race. The course is described as up the Schuylkill and back. The exact start and return points weren’t given in the written account, but the winning time was 20 minutes.
The first prize for the six-oared contestants was a silver cup. The first prize for the winner of the bigger boats was a new boat, named “The Prize.” Runners-up got other donated prizes.
That first regatta drew several thousand spectators, many watching from coaches or on horseback. Some businesses closed for the day.
As years went by, Philadelphia’s Schuylkill became a major world racing site. The name means “hidden river,” bestowed by 17th century Dutch explorers because League Island hides its mouth from ships coming up the river.
Now, 21st century rowers call it nearly too shallow for its rowing sport. Silt coming down the river and invasive aquatic plants are making it dangerous for racing rowers.
Rowing clubs, universities and others have contributed money to the dredging this summer, expected to remove some 60,000 cubic yards of silt.