Hoboken’s history is inextricably entwined with the Hudson River. From its earliest days, the little city by the river has attracted and nurtured more than its fair share of world-class sailors, rowers and nautical engineers. Rowing and sailing were the most popular sports of 19th century, the “March Madness” and “bowl season” of the day among Ivy League colleges.
Regattas were covered by all the major newspapers, and stars of the sport had their own trading cards, printed and sold by tobacco companies, instead of in chewing gum packs like today’s baseball stars.
Hoboken was well-situated as a hub for water contests, with a popular rowing course stretching up the shoreline from Hoboken to Guttenberg. The wide-open New York Harbor, protected from heavy tides and waves by the narrows to the south, was perfect for yacht racing.
In the early 1800s, when Hoboken was still a bucolic resort getaway for New Yorkers, the city’s founder Col. John Stevens competed neck and neck with Robert Fulton to invent the steam-driven ferry.
The history books chalk the honor up to Fulton, but Stevens reaped the rewards of bringing thousands of recreation-seekers to his River Walk and Elysian Fields. They came in droves to watch rowing and sailing regattas, among other pastimes.
Raised by the river, Col. Stevens’ three sons, John Cox, Robert Livingston and Edwin Augustus Stevens, became avid sailors. John and Edwin were part of the syndicate that built and raced the legendary yacht America in 1851 to capture the British trophy that became the America’s Cup. The brothers were the Richard Bransons of their day – innovative businessmen with an adventurous streak that drove them to compete at the highest level of yacht racing.
From an early age, in 1809, a 24-year-old John Cox Stevens already built his own 20-foot sloop called the Diver, which he raced against any boat he could challenge in the harbor. By 1844, he had progressed to a sleek 51-foot racing yacht named the Gimcrack, custom-built for him by renowned yacht-maker William Capes of Hoboken.
That same year, recognizing that the New York Harbor was full of fellow sailors with well-built boats, John Cox Stevens convened the first meeting of the New York Yacht Club aboard the Gimcrack. The group built its first clubhouse the next year in Hoboken, near the Elysian Fields where the famous Base Ball match between the Knickerbockers and the New York Nine was played just a year later.
His brother Edwin was commodore of the NYYC a few years later. He and brother Robert Livingston Stevens, a pioneer in the railroad business, also designed and built some of the first ironclad ships on a commission from the U.S. Navy.
Edwin married Martha Bayard Dod, a descendant of the original landowner, William Bayard, a British loyalist who lost the land in the American Revolution that Col. John Stevens bought in 1784. Edwin and Martha were major philanthropists; she founded the Martha Institute for Girls and Holy Innocents Church, while he left the endowment that founded the Stevens Institute of Technology, which has been involved at the cutting edge of racing yacht design for over 100 years.
From the 1850s to the early 1900s, rowing and sailing clubs jostled for space along the banks of the Hudson. Clubhouses that ranged from simple, utilitarian structures to ornate three-story buildings with Victorian gingerbread balconies, housed the boats and meetings of the Active Boat Club, the Atlantic Boat Club, the Germania Boat Club, Hoboken Yacht Club, and Valencia Boat Club, and more. Some were floating, some on stilts, some sat securely on shore.
These clubs will be featured with other clubs that reflect the diverse interests of the fast-growing population of immigrants that populated Hoboken in the exhibition, “I Belong: A History of the Civic and Social Clubs of Hoboken,” running from July 29 – Dec. 23, at the Hoboken Historical Museum, 1301 Hudson St. The Museum collections, including the searchable online database, www.hobokenmuseum.org/research/collections, contain dozens of photographs and postcard images of them jutting out from the natural shoreline.
The New York Times covered the races sponsored by the Hoboken Amateur Rowing Association and various yacht clubs races as major sporting events. The groups would tow large barges out into the middle of the river to hold spectators and host floating parties, while teams of four, five, eight and ten rowers competed for cups, ribbons and glory. Many groups, such as the Valencia, spawned related activity groups for equestrian and other athletic pursuits.
The Hoboken Yacht Club’s reputation rivaled the NYYC, as seen in trading cards from Duke Tobacco featuring a popular actress, Annie Sommerville, sporting the colors of the Hoboken Yacht Club (c. 1900). An example is in the Hoboken Museum collections.
Eventually, the busy piers of the great passenger lines from Europe squeezed most of the boat clubs to the margins of the waterfront, and then cargo shipping operations and factories took over the waterfront.
From the decades between the World Wars on through the 1980s, the waterfront was literally off-limits to recreational uses, though a few boathouses were still standing, dwarfed by the warehouses and giant ocean liners. One old boathouse was still standing in 1953, when the movie “On the Waterfront” was filmed here. It made cinematic history as the setting for the dramatic final scene: the brutal fight between Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) and Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).
A poignant story in The New York Times in 1946 reported the demise of one of the prettiest clubhouses. The Atlantic Boat Clubhouse (built in 1858) had been damaged in 1945 by a ship of the Holland America Line, and the structure finally collapses, taking out the adjacent clubhouse formerly belonging to the Hoboken Yacht Club. Cups and trophies from its past triumphs, as well as an historic 10-oar racing barge were lost.
The remaining membership of about 25 men were in no position to salvage the lost property, as 20 were listed as inactive due to military service. The club had boasted over 100 members at the turn of the century.
Homage to the glory days of boat clubs can be seen today in the boat storage facility in Maxwell Place Park just north of the Union Dry Dock property along Sinatra Drive. Its design was inspired by images of the New York Yacht Club’s original Hoboken boathouse, a gothic-style building with gingerbread trim, which was later moved Glen Cove, Long Island, and Mystic Seaport, CT, and now sits on the club’s Harbor Court property in Newport, R.I. (Their main clubhouse is the ornate ship-inspired building at 37 W. 44th St. in Manhattan).
But life along the water goes on. The Maxwell Place building is now home to the Hoboken Cove Boathouse organization, a nonprofit, volunteer-run group that sponsors free kayak excursions for Hoboken’s modern water sports enthusiasts. More than 8,000 paddlers have benefited from these kayaking programs in the group’s nine-year history. From June – August of 2012, another seven days are planned (weather permitting).
Anyone interested in reviving Hoboken’s former waterfront pastime is invited to join the group. For more information, visit www.hobokencoveboathouse.org.
Photos courtesy of the Hoboken Historical Museum.