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In the midst of a national rowing craze, the Minnesota Boat Club brought the sport to St. Paul

By the late 1860s, rowing had become a national craze, with professional rowers in the spotlight as the country’s first sports celebrities.

historical photo of minnesota boat club members near their boathouse
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Minnesota Boat Club, ca. 1885. Photograph by Charles A. Zimmerman.
The Minnesota Boat Club (MBC) was founded by ten young men in 1870 at a time when rowing was wildly popular throughout the country. Over time, additional clubs were established in Minnesota, intensifying the competition. After earning a national reputation, MBC encountered financial difficulties and faltered.

In 1868, John W. L. Corning relocated from New York City to St. Paul. Like many enterprising young up-starts, he was drawn to Minnesota’s untapped resources and rapidly expanding transportation network. He had shipped his single rowing shell down the Atlantic coast to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi River to the head of navigation in St. Paul.

By the late 1860s, rowing had become a national craze. Professional rowers were in the spotlight as the country’s first sports celebrities. When Corning launched his shell into the Mississippi River for the first time, a crowd gathered on the Wabasha Street Bridge to watch, thrilled that the sport had finally arrived in St. Paul.

Rowing quickly took hold in the city, and on March 1, 1870, ten ambitious young men formally organized the Minnesota Boat Club (MBC). With limited resources, the team stored its boats in a leaky, floating, covered-over scow anchored to the foot of the Robert Street Bridge.

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Despite MBC’s crude boathouse, the new club attracted a steady influx of new members, including men of means who were able to secure its finances. On December 18, 1873, the Minnesota Boat Club was formally incorporated, and immediately thereafter it leased the western half of Raspberry Island from Daniel D. Merrill. By early 1874, MBC had completed construction on its first boathouse.

When MBC hosted its first Fourth of July Regatta in 1874 to showcase the new boathouse, the event immediately became a crowd-drawing annual tradition. Invited spectators watched the races from Raspberry Island; others watched from the Wabasha Street Bridge or the bluffs along Third Avenue. The men of MBC competed against each other in single and double sculling races in which they held two oars, one in each had. They also raced fours, in which each man held just one oar. After the starting pistol’s shot rang out, the men raced from the Wabasha Bridge upriver one mile, turned 180 degrees around a stake, and then powered back downstream to the boathouse. This out-and-back racecourse enabled spectators to see both the start and the finish of each race.

In 1877, MBC purchased the land they had been leasing on Raspberry Island, securing an advantageous location just a short walk from downtown St. Paul. That year they attended their first out-of-state regatta at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, where they competed against clubs from Milwaukee and Chicago. They captured victories in the single-, double-, and four-oared races, marking the beginning of a more competitive era.

By the mid-1880s, competitive rowing was intensifying throughout Minnesota. In 1885, a second rowing club, the St. Paul Boat Club, was organized in St. Paul, with a boathouse situated just east of MBC on Raspberry Island. The following year, the two St. Paul clubs, together with the Winnipeg Rowing Club, formed a new international rowing association: the Minnesota and Winnipeg Amateur Rowing Association. The association presented Minnesota’s rowing clubs with a formal opportunity to compete for trophies and prizes. A victory in its signature event, the Senior Four (senior events were for oarsmen who had secured a previous victory), was a coveted honor.

In 1887, MBC retained John A. Kennedy, an ex-professional rower, as its first coach. Kennedy had a reputation for instilling a sense of courage and determination in his crews. Under Kennedy, MBC became increasingly competitive, benefiting from his dedicated, long-term leadership. In 1893, the team enjoyed an outright winning streak that earned the club and their coach a national reputation.

MBC’s glory years were short lived. By the mid-1890s, golf and tennis were overtaking rowing in popularity. MBC encountered financial difficulties and its fleet fell into disrepair. In 1897, MBC laid off its beloved coach, John Kennedy, and by the end of the 1890s competitive rowing in the Twin Cities had come to a halt.

For the next decade, MBC continued to train and put boats on the water, but without a coach and in a much-reduced capacity. In 1903, the Minnesota Boat Club began positioning itself again for competitive rowing. Today, nearly 150 years since its founding, the club continues to put boats on the water and sends competitive athletes to local, regional, and national regattas. 

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Correction: This article has been corrected to accurately state the Minnesota Boat Club’s activity since 1903.