Conceived in 1881, by Julian O. Davidson1, local artist and marine painter, and his brother in law, Arthur Merrit,2 the Nyack Rowing Association opened to almost immediate notoriety and prestige. The first meeting, reportedly on May 2, 1881, was held in the old Nyack Armory, where twenty-five charter members agreed to create a rowing association dedicated to the sport of sculling, which was immensely popular at the end of the 19th Century.3
Over the next year, funds for the construction of the boat house were raised through the sale of stock and bonds to members of the association and other Nyack residents. Additional monies were raised through various fund raising events, including music and theatrical performances organized by the local “Tout a la Joie Society.”4
By August 1881, the Nyack Rowing Association raised nearly $5,000 to construct a boat house to be located at the end of Spear Street. Construction commenced in January 1882, and was completed at an estimated cost of over $8,000 on May 30, 1882, the date of the first formal meeting of the Nyack Rowing Association at its new location. According to published newspaper articles, the boat house was a site to behold when it officially opened to a gala reception on June 14, 1882. It contained the latest amenities, including running water, gas for heating and lighting, and electricity.5 The building consisted of three levels, including a thirty-four by sixty foot (34′ x 60′) ballroom, two huge fireplaces, central ventilating cupola and a four-story tower.
Built in the “Stick Style” architecture common of many river homes in the Village, the lower level is had boat storage for sculls (one person shells or rowing boats) and other vessels, including large ten-oared rowing “barges,” which the members used to row “their lady friends” on “moonlight rows” across the Hudson to the Tarrytown lighthouse and, occasionally, to Yonkers, New York. Set at the end of Spear Street, the first level opened to the river and provided a launching pad at the end of a ninety (90′) foot gangway.6
The second floor consisted of a main “salon,” or ball room, which was decorated with a crystal gaslight chandelier suspended from a domed, highlighted ceiling of painted canvas designs. The glass transoms over the doors on the salon level showed various nautical scenes, including one entitled the “Knights of the Oar,” a painting of eight “stalwart knights of the oar” gliding through the water.7 At the outskirts of the salon were a janitor’s room and “ladies boudoir.”8 The east end of the salon opened through french doors to beautiful views of the Hudson River and a wide veranda on three sides.9 The grand parties hosted in the shadow of Hook Mountain, before some of the most beautiful views of the Hudson River, were some of the most talked about events of the era.
The third floor contained dressing and bathing facilities for its (male) members. The fourth floor of the tower (at the western or land side of the building) is reported to have contained a very popular billiard table.10 In April 1890, the Association added a bowling alley, billiard and pool table on the first floor.11
Rowing races were held to great fanfare and newspaper adoration throughout the summers from approximately 1882 through 1910. The first annual regatta took place on the nations birthday, July 4, 1883. According to a report published in the Nyack Evening Post12,
At this time the river, shores, and the new and ever attractive boat house of the Association; the steamboat dock and all points of observance were literally packed with people anxious to see the display of skill and endurance promised by the participants in the event. On the river there were gliding the swift steam yacht, the trim and life-like sail yacht, and the row boat of every conceivable design, all gliding, passing and repassing, as if indulging in a grand Neptunian walz. . . .
At about 10:50, the contestants in the race made their appearances on the water and started for the stakes, one mile north of the boathouse….At the word from Referee Underhill, the crews shot off at a very even start, but before many lengths had been rowed Underhill and Hoffman forged ahead and retained the lead to the finish. . . .
The river was at the time of the race very lumpy, and the light shells were constantly shipping water, in fact before the starting point was reached, both crews were compelled to bail the water from their boats. The rain which had been falling slowly for some time made the more disagreeable, and taken all together this was a race under difficulties, and should not have been rowed at the time….
The third race, was the junior sculls, with three entries….from the mile stake it was one of the finest races of the day between Frank Voorhis and Hart, the former making manful and commendable efforts to lessen the gap between him and his opponent, who was pulling a steady even stroke , but without avail, as Mr. Hart came in the winner by a length. Time’€“ Hart 16:32; Frank Voorhis 16:34.
Nyack Evening Journal, July 7, 1883, account of the First Regatta.
Fitness must have been prominent in the lives of the Nyack Rowing Association members because reports of all regattas regularly mentioned the names of the competitors in several different races throughout the day. Races varied from one mile “straightaway” to two miles “with a turn” around a stake in the river. Crews included single sculls, single “gigs”, double scull shells, four-oared shells, “Tub”13 and swimming races. The courses ranged in length from a mile long (completed in approximately eight minutes) to longer two mile races lasting up to seventeen minutes and twenty seconds (17:20) at stroke rates of 38 and 40 strokes per minute.14
Rowing was not the only distraction for the members and their guests. Nyack Rowing Association social gatherings often surrounded the day of rowing, and were often more heavily reported than the races:
The past few weeks have been one round of ceaseless gaiety for the amusement-loving people of Nyack and the many guests who come here to pass the season. But of all the pleasurable events which have so far marked the season, none was more so than the hop given by the N.R.A. at the boathouse last night. The evening was an ideal one; a cool and delightful breeze came from the north; the moon, with its silvery reflection made the beauty of the Hudson all the more impressive and the boathouse itself was never more prettily decorated. The mantels were banked with Goldenrod, graceful palms obliterated the sharp outlines of the room, oars neatly tied with ribbons, and flags of various other boating associations were tastefully draped and hung about the room. The veranda, which makes a delightful promenade after a vigorous and inspiring dance, was all aglow with Japanese lanterns. It was here where the merry dancers spent most of their time. Prof. Geinman and an orchestra were “out of sight” behind palms, plants and flowers. The charm of the music could not be resisted, and the merry whirl was kept up until an early hour this morning. . . . The annual mid-summer hop will pass into history as another pleasurable event, and the Entertainment Committee must be given due credit for its work in making the affair an enjoyable success.
Nyack Evening Journal, August 19, 1893.
In addition to rowing, the Nyack Rowing Association pursued other athletic endeavors, merging with the “Outing Club” in 1892. The newspaper reported the”amalgamation,” as follows,
The conditions under which the Outing Club accepts the offer of the N.R.A. is that the initiation fee be suspended and that special efforts be made by the N.R.A. to further athletics, so as to make the Association the first athletic club along the Hudson. The N.R.A. requires that all members of the outing club received into the N.R.A. shall be in good financial standing with the latter club.
Verbal promises have been made the by the N.R.A. to secure a field and put it in first class condition for field and track athletics; to fit up a gymnasium and to purchase all accessories needful to the equipment of a complete athletic organization. It is a well known fact that the outing club has been the foremost athletic organization in Nyack and its entry into the N.R.A., under whose backing it can more successfully compete for athletic glory, is an action thought favorably of by all the members of both clubs.”
Nyack Evening Journal, September 24, 1892. In keeping with the merger, the Nyack Rowing Association apparently maintained a baseball team, which was undefeated through five games in 1893.15
Times were different, and decidedly interesting at the waterfront, especially on “Ladies’ Day”:
Some days since the wives, daughters and sweethearts of the Nyack Rowing Association, determined to give their friends a surprise by way of Reception. They said that they had been entertained so royally during the season that they thought it right and proper to make some return, and a reception was the most fitting return that suggested itself to their minds. . . .
On Thursday the ladies took full and complete possession of the Boathouse, they decorated it, of course calling in the aid of the Florist H. G. Newton who has the choicest array of fine and costly hothouse plants to be found. These were set out in the large hall of the house, and with the other decorations made the place look like the parlor of a grand mansion on some festive day.
At an early hour Thursday evening carriages began to arrive at the Boathouse, and the brilliantly arrayed quarters were thrown open to the guests of the evening. The ladies were handsomely attired in their most attractive dresses, and all brought out their most winning smiles and most attractive ways. It was theirs to show the lords of creation that they know how to manage an affair of the kind so there should be no cause for complaint on the ground of neglect or inattention. Lanzer’s Orchestra furnished the music, and to its pleasing notes one of the happiest parties ever assembled in Nyack danced the hours away to a carefully selected programme of dances. The ladies entertained their guests most hospitably. Frazier was called upon to do his best and the wants of all were supplied.
Not only were the members of the rowing association present in full force, but guests came from the Prospect and Tappan Zee Hotels. There were many from New York city, while not a few came from the towns about us ‘€“ from Piermont, Spring Valley, New City, etc. All these guests declared it a festive season long to be remembered.
City and Country, August 4, 1888.
With time, heating facilities were added to the Boat House, and its members opened the Club to year round festivities. In that regard, the headlines proclaimed, “In the Social Whirl. A Grand Reception. The First Winter Opening of the Nyack Rowing Association an Immense Success. Wealth, Beauty, Culture and Refinement, and Joy of the Hospitalities of the Occasion and Dance to Lanzer’s Newest Strains. The Event of the Season for Nyack.”16
Last night’s reception of the Nyack Rowing Association was without a doubt the grandest, most elaborate social affair ever given in Nyack. In every particular, it was an immense success. The forces of nature were most kindly considerate in supplying propitious weather, the company was one which embraced the elite of fashion, wealth, culture and refinement (although any one who had the least possible pretension to an invitation was made most cordially welcome.), the music was delightfully inspiring, decorations were pretty and tasty, and the supper was all that the highest cultivation attainable in epicurean matters could exact. . . .
The Nyack Rowing Association was organized in the year 1881 and one year later its handsome clubhouse, which is an ornament to our river front, was built. Since its organization, the club has been constantly increasing in influence and membership, until it has become an institution peculiarly identified with the welfare and prosperity of our beautiful village. It is an organization of which Nyack has reason to be proud, and of which she is proud. The present membership is almost 70, including many of our best people. . . . The Association had never before given a winter reception, owing to the absence of proper heating facilities, but the new steam heating apparatus recently placed in the building has overcome this hindrance, and annual events of this nature may now be looked forward to with pleasurable anticipation. To the members and friends of the Nyack Rowing Association we offer our heartiest congratulations upon the successful termination of the first winter opening.”
Nyack Evening Journal, February 2, 1889 (Emphasis supplied).
The Nyack Rowing Association remained active as a rowing and social hub until about 1900. As time and fashion saw a decline in the once hugely popular sport of rowing, the membership and activities declined until around 1910 when the club disbanded. The club house was ultimately sold to Julius Petersen’s boatyard around 1900, and was known as Hunter’s Boat Club for a short period of time.
In 1938 a huge September hurricane rolled up the Hudson River and badly damaged the boat house, which was ultimately destroyed by a “Northeaster” in 1950, while it was being operated as a boat storage facility for the Nyack Boat Club.
Rowing has returned as a popular sport in the Hudson River Valley. In fact, the communities of Piermont and Nyack have rowing shells prominently coexisting with cars in public parking lots. In the Village of Nyack, thanks to the foresight of the Village planners and politicians, the River Rowing Association (RRA) has begun rowing many mornings and afternoons from the municipal boat launching ramp located at the foot of Burd Street.
As a community-based rowing association, the RRA has programs in many age categories, but has focused its energies on youth rowers (ages 13-18). It also runs “learn to row” programs for beginners, including youth, open and masters (over the age of 27) rowers. Last spring RRA’s youth team tied with Clarkstown High School for the Rockland County High School Rowing Championship, while the fall saw the RRA compete in several regattas. Approximately thirty (30) local high school and masters rowers traveled around the northeast to race at venues including the Harlem River in NYC, the Housatonic River in Connecticut, and the Charles River in Boston.
In the coming year, the RRA plans to expand its rowing programs, and, with a little luck, lots of hard work and some funding, build a boat house in Nyack. They also hope to eventually start an adaptive rowing program for the physically challenged. If properly planned, residents of the Village and surrounding areas will enjoy public space for rowing, kayaking, and other sports that need access to the often forgotten waterfront.
Anyone interested in rowing, volunteering to coach, or otherwise helping to make a new boat house become reality is encouraged to contact Ivan Rudolph-Shabinsky at www.riverrowing.org .
[©Peter Klose, Nyack, New York 2006].