Duluth Boat Club

The 1887 Duluth Boat Club building. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

On July 10, 1886, eleven Duluth sailing and rowing enthusiasts gathered to form the Duluth Boat Club, and by year’s end their membership had grown to twenty-eight. The next year they built a clubhouse on Slip #1 in the harbor, located between Sixth and Seventh Avenues West, roughly where the stage of Bayfront Festival Park stands today. Designed by charter Boat Club member Charles M. McMillen, the boat house stood three stories tall and was wrapped with verandas on its second and third stories; a square tower adorned one corner.

By 1895 the Boat Club boasted 193 members who enjoyed access to a fleet of fifteen rowing shells and more than twenty pleasure boats. By the turn of the century, membership growth and the club’s inconvenient location adjacent to the canal’s shipping lanes (shipping traffic and Boat Club activities often interfered with one another) forced the organization to find a new location. At the same time, Duluth had finally won approval to build a bridge over the ship canal. Since the bridge would give members easy access to Minnesota Point, Boat Club officers chose a site on the bay side of Minnesota Point at Tenth Street and St. Louis Avenue, building a new facility designed by John J. Wangenstein in 1903. The original Boat Club was demolished sometime after the second clubhouse opened.

Built for $5,000, the new Boat Club boasted a larger boat house, a swimming pool, viewing stands, a café, tennis courts, and a dance floor. The two-story central building featured a tower at each corner and, like the original, many verandas for viewing club activities. Five hundred people attended its gala opening. The society columns of Duluth’s newspapers called the dance floor “the most exclusive ballroom in the city.”

To provide members with the experience of boating and vacationing at a resort, the Boat Club built another clubhouse on Spirit Lake in 1907. The facility included a pavilion with dance hall and dining room, cottages, and tents. The Spirit Lake clubhouse even had its own railroad depot, and members could arrive either by boat or train. In 1917 the Morgan Park Good Fellowship Club took over the facility.  U.S. Steel employees remodeled the clubhouse, added a toboggan slide that extended onto the lake, and improved roads and sidewalks to make it easier for Morgan Park residents to access the lake and buildings. The Spirit Lake clubhouse remained active until the late 1920s when the buildings were abandoned and later demolished.

The Duluth Boat Club on Minnesota Point became Duluth’s social center, hosting regattas, water carnivals, and national competitions. In 1912 club membership had swelled to 1,400 members, making it the largest such organization in the United States. Membership had received a boost in 1909 when the Boat Club merged with the Duluth Yacht Club, which had built a facility on Minnesota Point at Vine Street (today’s Fourteenth Street). The newly expanded Boat Club then moved the former Yacht Club facility to Oatka Park and placed it where the old pavilion once stood.

Boat Club president Julius Barnes, who had become a successful grain trader, hired James Ten Eyck to coach the Club’s rowing squads. From 1911 to 1923,  Duluth rowers dominated their national competitors, taking home twenty national championships between 1911 and 1923. The club’s “Invincible Four” — Max Rheinberger, Dave Horak, and brothers Doug and Phil Moore — did not suffer a loss between 1913 and 1916, taking home trophies from twenty-two national and international regattas. In 1922 Duluth Boat Club rower Walter Hoover became the world’s best rower when he won the prestigious Diamond Sculls competition on London’s River Thames. On his return to the United States, a flotilla of boats greeted the Duluthian in New York harbor. In the Zenith City, 65,000 people turned out to greet the returning hero.

Rowing’s popularity declined sharply in the 1920s, about the same time many Boat Club members’ enthusiasm shifted from watercraft to automobiles. By 1926 coach Ten Eyck had left and Julius Barnes was essentially financing the entire club. The club folded in 1926, and although Barnes — then the president of the United States Chamber of Commerce — convinced the City of Duluth to lease the club and operate it for the 1930–31 season, efforts to revive the club failed. The boat house was used to store boats until April 23, 1951, when an early morning fire destroyed the building and sixteen vessels stored within it. The former Boat Club became the site of the Duluth Yacht Basin and later the Lakehead Boat Basin. Winds of more than ninety miles an hour knocked down the Oatka clubhouse in 1964, when the building was owned by the American Legion.

The Boat Club was revived in 1955 as the Duluth Rowing Club and continues to this day.