by Mike Hays
A Hudson River barge party today might look something like a Facebook meet-up event with loud music, laughter, dancing, flashing lights, thundering motors, and swan dives from the deck. On the other hand, an 1889 wood engraving by Julian Davidson, a Nyack marine artist, shows something quite different: a 12-man flat-bottomed barge being rowed toward the Tarrytown Light filled with formally dressed couples. These sorts of nighttime rowing cruises were common in Nyack 130 years ago. Have FOMO?
Rowing was an extremely popular pastime in the Belle Époque era, and Nyack was home to the Nyack Rowing Association (the original N.R.A.) whose dues-paying (male) members headlined the village’s social register and departed from one of the fanciest Victorian boat houses on the Hudson River. Racing was a big part of the rowing club, but entertainment was equally important.
The baseball game barge party to remember
What do young men on a summer afternoon do when they’re planning to watch a baseball game? On an impulse, ten members of the Rowing Association decided they would row the roughly ten miles to Yonkers to see a game between the Haverstraw and Yonkers baseball teams. Taking much longer than expected, they arrived at Yonkers dock at 5:20p, much too late to see the game.
But there was a saving grace: The local rowing club, the Palisades, invited the men to put their boat up at their nearby boat house, and the men enjoyed dinner at the Getty House, a downtown Yonkers hotel and restaurant. Eventually, the night led them to the parlor for singing, and they were accompanied on piano by Julian Davidson, a well-known marine painter and master rower from Nyack. After more singing at the Palisades boathouse, the men rowed back to Nyack, arriving at 12:30a.
Moonlit row to the Hook
In mid-summer 1891, a coed party made up of members of the N.R.A. and members of the Nyack Country Club made a moonlit row up to the Hook starting at 8p from the N.R.A. clubhouse at the foot of Spear Street. On the way back from Hook Mt., the boat stopped at the hill below the Country Club, once located where the Upper Nyack Elementary school is now. Refreshments and dancing ensued before rowing back to the N.R.A. clubhouse.
A night row to a stupefying Victorian
Judge Leo C. Dessar owned one of the most fabulous Victorian summer homes in all of the Nyacks. The house, located in South Nyack, was built with brownstone quarried on the property, and it sported a four-story turret with an observatory balcony on the top. Dresser invited the N.R.A. for a dinner on Friday, July 23, 1892. It was not a long-distance row from the clubhouse to South Nyack but the 12 club members had a hard pull in extremely rough waters.
George Bardin, owner of the St. George Hotel, joined Dresser and the club members for a house tour, dinner, and singing. At some point, toasts were made to the “absent ladies.” The party broke up late, and club members rowed home.
Barge Party on the Tappan Zee by Moonlight
Davidson’s romantic 1889 etching depicts a scene he must have known well as one of the founders of the N.R.A. In the etching, 24 formally dressed men and women crowd the small ten-oared barge. They are approaching the lit beacons of Tarrytown Light, also called Kingsland Island Light, with Kingsland island appearing to the left of the light in the etching. The light was built in 1883 to warn boaters of the shoals near the ship channel.
A hidden moon lights the calm river, and one woman dips her hand. Other boats are shown: sailboats and, on the left, one small steamer similar to a boat Davidson owned and used for sketching. The coxswain is wearing the approved N.R. A. uniform and cap, and he steers the barge. Behind him, a marine flag flutters, balanced by the just visible N.R.A flag in the front of the boat.
As Davidson wrote, “these rowing parties are a keen delight to the lady friends of the members of the association.” Women could not become members but a member’s “lady friends” were allowed into the three-story boat house at the foot of Spear Street for parties and during ladies’ hours on a weekly ladies’ day. At the end of the row, the barge party assembled for dinner and dancing in the club.
A calmer age
Summer was one long holiday for the leisure class that owned summer homes along the Hudson River in Nyack in the 1890s, of which a moonlit barge party was but one romantic moment. On a calm summer night today, punctuated by the lights of the Mario Cuomo Bridge, the sounds of the barge party conversations may still be heard whispering to us of a time to which we can no longer return.
- Historical Society of the Nyacks Newsletter, Spring/Summer 2019 Vol 14 . no 1. Julian Davidson’s Tappan Zee Art
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.