By: Dick Garver
The number of rowing clubs in the Boston area was at its zenith in 1900. Many were neighborhood-based. In addition to Cambridgeport’s Riverside Boat Club, they included its archrival, the Bradford Boat Club, located just above the Cottage Farm Bridge; the Jeffries Point Boat Club, the East Boston Athletic Association and Boat Club and the Columbian Rowing Association of East Boston; and the Shawmut Club of South Boston. Farther afield were the Millstreams of Chelsea and the West Lynn Boat Club.
Most had Irish roots. The city of Boston was America’s second largest immigration port, with a population of 560,900 in 1900, of whom, counting native-born children of immigrants, 246,100, nearly half, were Irish. It was a turbulent time, rife with labor discord and bitter politics, but it was also the “golden age of fraternity,” when social, benevolent, and sporting organizations of all kinds were formed for the welfare of neighborhood, class or ethnic group members and as sources of identity and pride. Several area rowing clubs were the centers of social programs that were as strong or stronger than their rowing programs. The names of some of their presidents indicate their social affiliation: Shawmut, Healy; Jeffries Point, Rowan; Columbians, Foley; and Bradford, Phelan.
Religious faiths also formed organizations intended to raise their constituents’ welfare, as well as to recruit new adherents. Because the popular idea of welfare merged spiritual and physical well-being, they included athletic associations. At least two Catholic, parish-based fraternal organizations rowed. In keeping with their mission, each had both a lay and a spiritual leader. St. Joseph’s Church in the West End formed St. Joseph’s Boat Club, located on the industrial West End shore of the Charles. Its spiritual leader, Rev. Peter J. Walsh, was quoted in the Globe as saying, “The object of the training in the association was to prepare (members) to take an active part in the battle of life.”
The other parish-based rowing organization, the St. Alphonsus Boat Club, was linked to Riverside’s history for over thirty years. It was an outgrowth of the Mission Church, the grandest Catholic sanctuary in city, constructed by the Redemptionists Fathers in 1878 on bucolic Parker Hill in what was then the suburb of Roxbury but is now considered Mission Hill, after the church at its apex. By the turn of the century the area had become heavily settled, in great part by Irish and Germans. In the spirit of period, around 1900 the church formed the St. Alphonsus Athletic Association as a club for young men and as the parish’s social center. To attract members, it set low fees and offered a wide range of sporting activities. The association’s grand hall on Smith Street contained a bowling alley in the basement, a theater on the first floor, and a large gym on the second floor, as well as a reading room, a lecture hall, club rooms and lounges. It fielded teams in football and other popular sports of the day.
Despite its landlocked location, the association’s full participation in the sporting life of the city required that it offer rowing. At roughly the same time it was building its hall on Parker Hill it obtained control of a site just below Brookline (now B.U.) Bridge on the Boston side of the river. Until it could put a boathouse in place, however, its rowing activities were largely limited to machines in its gym. A February 1901 Boston Daily Globe article reports that 1000 people attended an exhibition in the hall that included gymnastics and wrestling but whose feature event was a double scull rowing machine contest between the amateur champions of America, E. H. Ten Eyck of Worcester and his partner Charles Lewis, and the famous Greer brothers of East Boston. The rowing machines were apparently connected by pulleys to a dial that—unreliably—reported the rowers’ progress. There were also four man rowing machine contests among Riverside, the Millstreams, Jeffries Point, Bradford, the Columbians and the Shawmuts. Note the absence of Yankee Union Boat Club or the Boston Athletic Association. The association repeated the event in 1902, with participants from as far away as New York.
In 1901, St. Alphonsus conducted a failed negotiation with the BAA to purchase its floating boathouse. In 1904, the organization, which was said to have only one eight oared shell, explored a merger with the Bradford club, which had a boathouse and a large number of boats but few active rowers. The merger collapsed when Bradford insisted that the merged club keep its name. Finally, in May 1909, St. Alphonsus opened its own boathouse. It was the former Weld Boathouse, acquired from the Harvard Rowing Club, which was building the present building, and transported to association’s site on the Boston shore. Inaugural festivities included refreshments, river excursions, a concert by the Mission Church band and a performance by the association’s 50-man minstrel company, reprising the hits of its recent show. Famous oarsmen from Riverside and the other clubs attended. The Globe reported a strong demand for membership from “the professional men in the Back Bay and Brookline…owing to their inability to become members of the B.A.A. and Union boat club due to the long waiting list at both organizations”–and perhaps due as well to more socially grounded reasons.
Two years later, in 1911, Riverside’s boathouse burned to the ground. St. Alphonsus offered to accommodate its rowing program, an offer that was appreciated but proved unnecessary when Riverside built a new boathouse in 1912. The two were regular competitors in regattas over the next decade. Riverside’s senior eight won the New England championship in a special match race with St. Alphonsus in 1923. In 1927, an accident in the construction of the Cottage Farm (B.U.) Bridge destroyed a portion of St. Alphonsus’ boathouse, presumably the upstream section on the right in the picture. It is not clear whether Riverside reciprocated by offering space in its new boathouse, but St.Alphonsus continued to compete into the 1930s.
One of the highlights in the relationship between the two clubs occurred in 1935. The Great Depression was in full force and rowing was in decline. Attempting to revive the public’s interest, Riverside held its first regatta in fifteen years that September. Shawmut Boat Club was the big winner on the day, but to the spectators the highlight was a celebration of Boston area clubs’ past rowing and boxing glory, an “Old Timers” race. Nineteenth Century rivals, some of their clubs now disbanded, joined each other in an eight from Riverside and another from St. Alphonsus. Riverside’s winning boat included Bradford’s Joe Maguire, the 1897 national singles champion and now a 64 year old retired Boston police captain; Fred Hynes, national sculling champion in 1893; 1888 New England champion Dick Fleming, 73; and Riverside’s James O’Brien and Bob McKinley, both once national amateur 105-pound boxing champions as well as oarsmen. In 1936, the two boats rowed to what the newspaper called a dead heat, intending no pun. Riverside’s fall Old Timers and Club Regatta became one of the most popular rowing events on the Charles. It was run, with the ancients’ race as its concluding event, each year until World War II intervened in 1941 and was the first regatta held on the Charles after VJ Day, four years later, at which point St. Alphonsus Boat Club had ceased to exist.