Founded in 1839 — a mere two years after Michigan became a state — the Detroit Boat Club holds the title as the nation’s oldest boat club. Originally a rowing club, it was one of the organizations that helped form The Detroit Regional Yachting Association (DRYA) in 1912.
E. A. Brush, Alpheus S. Williams, S.H. Sibley, Alfred Brush, J.H. Farnsworth, James A. Armstrong and John Chester were among the founding members, prominent men in Detroit’s society. The first building that housed the Detroit Boat Club was at Hasting street, in an old clubhouse with one boat, the “Georgiana”.
In 1840 the Detroit Boat Club bought a second boat, the E.A. Brush, and began to hold two mile (3 km) races from Hog Island (Belle Isle) and the clubhouse. It was around this time that the famous University Boat Race between Cambridge vs. Oxford races began on the River Thames in England.
In 1848 the clubhouse burned, destroying all boats except the “Wolverine”. The club was then moved to a carpentry shop, and it continued to grow.
By 1873 the club was ensconced in plush quarters at the foot of Joseph Campau Street, the easternmost end of Detroit, and had become the center of all water sports. A half-dozen new clubs formed nearby, and most displayed their sailing and rowing trophies at Bidigaire’s saloon up Joseph Campau. The Biddle House on East Jefferson and the Russell House, also attracted a thirsty boating set.
When its Joseph Campau lease expired in 1889 the City of Detroit invited the DBC to move to Belle Isle. The Detroit Yacht Club, which had been on the landward side of the Belle Isle Bridge, also went over to the island at that time when informed that the city needed their old site for its new bridge approach.
A new clubhouse was built on Belle Isle in 1891, but was burned in 1893. Another boathouse lasted until 1901 when it also burned. In an attempt to save the structure, club member and fire commissioner Fred Moran ordered all available firefighting apparatus to the scene. Horses thundered over the old wooden bridge, dragging heavy engines and trucks behind them. The fire tug James Battle became grounded in the shallow water and remained stuck fast until the following noon. Fire equipment failed to get close enough to the burning building due to mud and the distance of the old clubhouse from the shore. Helpless, they stood and watched it burn. The next morning, club members vowed once again to rebuild their clubhouse.
Because of all the fires, the DBC decided to build its new headquarters with concrete! It was rededicated on August 4, 1902.
The DBC has had its ups and downs over the years. What makes the club’s longevity even more remarkable is the fact it has no real home — at least for now. That’s because it vacated its longtime Belle Isle location, the beautiful but now-shabby looking structure on the left as you cross the MacArthur Bridge, after the city of Detroit changed their sweetheart deal of a $1 per year lease to $10,000 a month (at first) and then $12,000 per month.
That led the DBC to file for bankruptcy in 1992, and by 1996, the club’s belongings were put into storage.
A spinoff called Friends of Detroit Rowing (FDR) remained on Belle Isle and struck a deal with the city: Rowers could still use the spot as a base for their program; in return, FDR would maintain the clubhouse.
With the loss of their clubhouse and boat wells, a core group of DBC membership continued to meet, mostly in Detroit-area private clubs. They also managed to keep their annual regatta afloat.
So while the Mackinac race approaches its century mark, by the time this issue hits readers’ mailboxes, the hearty, 125-member strong DBC will have run its 123rd Annual Sailing Regatta (scheduled this year for June 24, 2016).
The regatta usually attracts over 100 boats in 15 classes, ranging from 19 to 55 feet long. Some of the participants use this race as a tune-up to the more popular Mackinac race.