Historical Markers
Philadelphia [Rowing] Historical Marker
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Philadelphia [Rowing]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
N. Broad St. (Pa. 611) and John F. Kennedy Blvd., just N of City Hall

Dedication Date:
December 6, 1982

Behind the Marker

Oil on canvas painting depicting two boatmen, the Biglin brothers, racing their craft against another boat, along the bank of the Schuylkill River.   Only the edge of the competing boat is visible. The upper and distant half of the painting contains a four-man rowing crew, crowds on the shore, and spectators following in flagdecked steamboats.
The Biglin Brothers Racing, by Thomas Eakins, 1872.
At first glance, it may seem a little surprising that one of the most acclaimed American paintings of the late 1800s freezes a sporting moment for posterity. But since the sport is rowing, the painter is markerThomas Eakins , the subject is the Biglin brothers, and the setting is the Schuylkill River, it is not really so surprising. With the fluidity of its strokes, its heroic demands on endurance, and the serene environment on which it was contested, rowing was then enormously popular, appreciated equally as a competitive endeavor and a recreational activity.

Philadelphia, with its burgeoning Boathouse Row, was the sport's American capital, and Eakins himself was an avid and knowledgeable oarsmen. As for John and Barney Biglin, the rowing brothers from New York were a sensation on the water and sporting idols of their age; their arrival was nothing if not an event. Just look at the painting–and the crowds lining the shore to watch them. Of course, by then, rowing in Philadelphia had come along way. So had the course of the Schuylkill.

In the 1600s, William Penn regularly rowed his barge along the river, though any recreational benefits he might have accrued from the exercise were surely secondary to his primary purpose: determining the navigability of the river's shallow, fast-moving currents. With the river well charted, the city's eighteenth-century gentry kept boats below their homes on the Faire Mount bluffs both for recreation and for transportation into the heart of the city. By mid-century, two Philadelphia social clubs, the Fishing Company and Fort St. David, were challenging each other to the river's first recorded races. By the turn of the next century, crews from the University of Pennsylvania were wetting their feet in this new sport, as well.

Crew boats and boatmen competition on the Schuylkill River near the Columbia Avenue railroad bridge.
Cover illustration from "Schuylkill Boat Song," dedicated to the Atlantic Barge...
Still, the river did not fully cooperate–and would not until the completion of the Fairmont Dam in 1821, which turned the lower Schuylkill from East Falls to above Arch Street into a lake. The dam's main purpose may have been to facilitate shipping and water supply, but it also fostered a sporting phenomenon.

Rowing began in earnest in September of 1835 when a pair of eight-oared barges representing the Imp and Blue Devil social clubs squared off in a three-mile race so anticipated that thousands of spectators lined the banks to watch the Imps prevail. The race was such a hit that a regatta was planned for November. This time, seven entries took to the water. Again, the banks were packed.

Races, especially intercity races, soon became enormous social events lasting several days. After all, the city's pride was at stake. According to a contemporary account, when the amateur association of New York arrived in Philadelphia in 1837, "huzzas went up from such a goodly number of throats, that the verdure on the picturesque hills round about, seemed to quiver in the marker voice of gratulation."

Crew team, 1904, preparing to put shell into Schuylkill River in front of boathouse.
University of Pennsylvania Crew team preparing to put a shell into Schuylkill...
Who rowed? The privileged, mostly. The first clubs, like the University Barge Club founded in 1854, were established by college men from the city's elite families. To distance themselves from common ferrymen, they began racing sleek four- and eight-man shells, and later single and double sculls, instead of the clumsier eight-oared barges. Still, these well-bred society gentlemen were not above reinforcing their crews with the occasional brawny ringer plucked from a fishing boat. While on the surface these gentlemen were rowing for glory, there was also money involved. Wagering on the races had become as much a part of rowing's hoopla as the racing itself.

As the sport continued to grow, clubs built architecturally ornate and distinctive clubhouses adjacent to one another on the east bank of the Schuylkill, establishing what became known as Boathouse Row. Though the competition between the clubs was fierce on the water, representatives of the nine major clubs met in the fall of 1858 and established the Schuylkill Navy, the oldest body overseeing amateur sports in the country, to sanction races, set rules, settle disputes, and promote camaraderie among rowers.

Rowing in Pennsylvania was not confined to the Schuylkill or the well-bred sons of Philadelphia. By the 1830s, the waters of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio rivers in Pittsburgh had spawned a variety of rowing associations and clubs whosemarker races attracted national attention, and by the 1850s, professional races offering substantial purses were staged there. After the Civil War, the sport became especially popular among the working classes. Nor was rowing just the province of men. In 1870, a one-mile race for female rowers with a prize purse of $2,000 drew more than 8,000 Pittsburghers to the water's edge.

Old print of Members of Pittsburgh's Eclipse Barge Club, circa 1860.
Members of Pittsburgh's Eclipse Barge Club, circa 1860.
In Philadelphia, the sport boomed after the war, as affluence increased leisure time. The clubs on the Schuylkill sponsored a variety of regattas in which club and university oarsmen competed, at times against professionals. Equally popular were the professional match races, like the ones that coaxed the Biglins to town, with purses that ran into the thousands of dollars, though the purses themselves palled next to the wagering. Top rowers could earn comfortable livings with their oars.

By the early 1870s, professionalism, coupled with gambling, raised concerns about the threat to amateur ideals. In 1873, the Schuylkill Navy advanced the amateur cause with a new event, the National Amateur Regatta, which continues to this day.

By the end of the 1800s, as rowing was overtaken by baseball, football, and horse racing in popularity, professional racing virtually disappeared. But rowing itself continues to thrive, and, throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Philadelphia and the Schuylkill have been key players, personified most famously by the Kelly family.

John B. Kelly with his son John Jr. sculling on the Schuylkill River.
John B. Kelly with his son John Jr. sculling on the Schuylkill River, Philadelphia,...
From 1909 until World War I, a Philadelphia bricklayer named John B. Kelly was unbeatable, stringing together 126 consecutive sculling victories. Banned by the British rowing powers from competing in the prestigious Diamond Sculls– tantamount, then, to the world championship–at the Henley regatta in 1920 because he worked with his hands and thus could not be classed as a gentleman, Kelly displayed his dominance later that summer at the Antwerp Olympics, beating the Henley champion in the single sculls and adding a second gold medal in the doubles. His son, longtime Philadelphia city councilman John B. Kelly Jr., later added a bronze medal in his four Olympic competitions, twice victorious, in 1947 and 1949, in the Diamond Sculls from which his father had been excluded.

The Kellys were members of Boathouse Row's Vesper Boat Club, and in 1960, Vesper's eight-oared shell became the first non-collegiate eight to represent the Americans in the Olympics since Vesper won the gold medal in Paris in 1900. The team shocked the heavily favored Germans in Rome by winning the gold medal.

Today, the Schuylkill Navy continues to host four regattas a year. Another fifty or so, open to men, women, high-schoolers, collegians, clubs and different weight divisions every year, are staged on the river annually. Some like the collegiate Dad Vail, are internationally renowned. In addition, clubs like Vesper, Undine Barge Club, and the Penn Athletic Club Rowing Association continue to produce national champions and international competitors.
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