While spending a warm and sunny day exploring our surrounding neighborhood, we quite unexpectedly happened upon one of Philadelphia’s more unique tourist attractions. Along the east bank of the Schuylkill River (just north of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) are 15 boathouses that play host to private social and rowing clubs, including storage spaces for their racing shells. All are at least 100 years old, with some being 150 years old, and each has its own history. Houses numbering #2 through #14, comprise a group that is known as the “Schuylkill Navy” (more about this later), while #1(Lloyd Hall) is the only public facility on the Row, and #15 (the Sedgeley Club operates the Turtle Rock Lighthouse (built in 1887 to facilitate traffic along the river).
The history of the Row dates back to the construction of the Philadelphia Water Works (1815) and the Fairmount Dam (1821). The dam was constructed to keep the brackish tidal waters from entering the city’s water supply. One of the benefits was that the dam made the water in this section of the river so calm it was perfect for rowing (and ice skating in the winter). However, the major drawback of such calm waters was the creation of a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. This one issue eventually led to the wealthy being driven from their riverside residences. The city of Philadelphia bought the abandoned estates, with plans to demolish them. When rowing became a popular sport, established private clubs bought the houses and rebuilt, or renovated, them for their boathouses. The clubs also began to regulate the sport against “...unscrupulous practices and fixed races.” In 1835, thirteen of the social rowing clubs formed an informal group known as the “Schuylkill Navy” to further promote the sport of rowing. This simple act ostensibly turned a professional sport into a major amateur one. This was the same year that the clubs held their first formal regatta.
Today, Boathouse Row hosts several racing regattas during the year and is seen as the center of rowing around the country. In 1987, Boathouse Row was designated as a National Historic Landmark and placed on the National Register of Historic places.
This is one of the reasons we love about the way we travel; finding these unexpected gems and learning their history.