What a true Louisiana treasure – an old scrap book from a woman who went to the St. John rowing races in the 1800s!
Rowing Becomes One the Most Popular Sports after the Civil War
Because yachting was considered a rich man’s sport, many American’s favored rowing as their aquatic sport of choice. A rowing resurrection occurred after the Civil War ended in 1865, and, by the 1870’s, the United States had over 200 clubs. Most clubs were governed by the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (now known as US Rowing), founded by Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Navy in 1873. The NAAO’s purpose was to sponsor annual national championship regattas and to keep rowing an amateur sport by restricting professionals in all forms. With a governing body and a plethora of clubs to compete, it’s no wonder that, for a generation after the Civil War, rowing became one of America’s most popular sports to participate in (Somers 151).
St. John and Pelican Rowing Clubs Form in 1872
In the middle of 1872, seven years after the Civil War’s final battle, the rowing resurrection arrived in New Orleans. The New Orleans Daily Picayune reported, on May 14, 1872,that the city’s “first and best young men” founded both the St. John Rowing Club and the Pelican Rowing Club. With boathouses on Bayou St. John and race schedules posted, word spread. By 1874, New Orleans was home to more than a dozen clubs, and by 1900, there were at least thirty clubs in town. The growing number of clubs called for more governing bodies, and so more rowing associations formed accordingly. Boats were soon all over the city, with boat docks and clubhouses on Bayou St. John, Lake Pontchartrain, and the New Basin Canal. Some clubs were even braving the Mississippi (Somers 151-152).
Bayou St. John No Longer Sewer of the City
On September 5, 1872, The Times Picayune excitedly reported that Bayou St. John would no longer be the “sewerage drain of the city.” The waters were purifying slowly but surely, and the city hoped that Bayou St. John would return to the clear, pure stream of its former life. Due to this reclamation, more rowing clubs were formed and more people were exposed to rowing. In fact, crowds of at least five hundred people packed the bayou to watch the St. John Rowing Club beat Odalisque.
Women are Hot for Rower’s “Sinewy Frame”
Rowing was so popular and oarsmen were so revered by women that rowing terminology entered the dating world. The New Orleans Bulletin reported, on August 15, 1875, that “young women no longer ask for an arm; it is, ‘Give me your starboard oar, please.’ …In the evening, not a waltz, but a ‘double-scull race’ is suggested.” Many women desired to hold the arm of an oarsman – and this lasted for quite some time. A June 4, 1880 New Orleans Daily Picayune article claimed that women were weak for rowers: “Women, who are by nature weak, delight to gaze upon the evidences of strength in the other sex. The brawny arm and sinewy frame, which the oarsmen develop to the utmost, are objects of the deepest admiration to them. The victor in the athletic struggle finds his sweetest reward in the bright glance and smiles of approval from their eyes and lips.” When a fine woman is a winner’s prize, a man finds himself with no other want or need of motivation (Somers 156).
Louisiana Boat Club Holds 1883 Barge, Pirogue, and Tub Races
In the 1883 article, “Pleasant Evening with the Louisiana Boat Club,” the Times Picayune proved that the Louisiana Boat Club’s reputation for throwing a grand day at the races was true. They provided good music, great hospitality, wonderful scenery, and exhilarating competition. Spectators were treated to a “pluckily contested” pirogue race and a tub race that “afforded no end of amusement.” During the tub race, “contestants who fought for glory in the treacherous tubs which slipped from under when they seemed most willing to behave” would be “followed to the other side by the laughter of the ladies.” That had to be the hardest part for the athletes. The racing concluded with a barge race, and the victors were especially proud because “each oarsman had his chosen lady beside him, and it was to win her a beautiful souvenir in the shape of a monogram pin that he put forth his best efforts.” And then there was dancing. That night, the Louisianas proved themselves on the dance floor and on the water, “bringing smiles and blushes to the faces of the fair partners.”
The Rowing Hype Sadly Diminishes in the 1890’s
As other sports like baseball gained more popularity in the 1890’s, many rowing fans grew distracted and rowers from the lower and middle class grew disinterested. A few storms also caused devastating damage. Rowing once again fell under the jurisdiction of “athletes from the upper levels of society who showed little desire to revive popular enthusiasm for the sport.” These athletes wanted the sport socially exclusive and were most concerned with “preserving the sport as a pastime for gentleman.” The West End and St. John Clubs limited their activity to state championships and an annual anniversary regatta, and only close friends and relatives were invited to in the clubhouses. The St. John Club let their huge grandstand, capable of seating 5,000, slowly rot on the bank (Somers 157).