Duluth Boat Club

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

Foot of Slip No. 1 | Architect: Charles M. McMillen | Built: 1887 | Lost, date unknown

Twenty-eight Duluth sailing and rowing enthusiasts organized the Duluth Boat Club in July 1886. The next year membership had jumped to nearly one hundred, and the group decided to build a club and boat house in the Duluth Harbor’s Slip No. 1 in, located between Sixth and Seventh Avenues West roughly where the stage of Bayfront Festival Park stands today. The location was then more industrial than idyllic, wedged behind a coal dock, a freight house, and a meat-packing facility, making it inconvenient to both club members and shipping traffic.

Among those charter members stood Charles McMillen, one of just two architects then living in Duluth (the other
was Oliver Traphagen). McMillen’s fellow club members put him to task designing the clubhouse, and he came up with a Victorian delight: a three-story wooden building with twelve-foot-wide verandas wrapping around the entire top two levels. punctuated by a pyramid-topped square observation tower. Decorative brackets adorned the gable apexes and either side of the posts that supported the verandas.

The Duluth Daily News’s description of the building called the lowest level the basement. Inside was a large store room for boats, bathrooms, and a gymnasium. Three doors opened to a wide porch. From the center doorway, which was about twice as wide as the others, boats could be walked out to a water-level landing platform. The first floor contained a billiard room, four carpeted dressing rooms (each with twelve lockers), a ladies’ toilette, and a large reception room. The open second story was used for dances and other gatherings, and a spiral staircase provided tower access.

By the time the facility opened, membership featured many prominent Duluthians including Roger Munger, Henry Bell, Andreas Miller, Senator Alonzo Whiteman, Marshall Alworth, and Hamilton Peyton. The Duluth Daily News called the Club’s first reception the “social event of the season.” More than seven hundred Duluthians showed up to dance to the music of Professor T. P. Brooke’s twelve-piece orchestra and dine on various delicacies, including Lake Mackinaw trout in aspic jelly, French sardines, lobster salad, ox tongue, and pineapple sherbet. The club’s first regatta in July 1887 drew over five thousand people who watched attorney Henry Mahon and real estate agent William Silvey win a trophy donated by Frank Bement.

By 1903 membership had risen to 250—and many of them wanted to add other activities at the club. The following year the club opened a new, larger facility on Minnesota Point south of the canal in anticipation of the construction of Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge and sold the 1887 building. Exactly when the building was demolished in unknown.

The 1903 Duluth Boat Club. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

1000 St. Louis Ave. | Architect: John J. Wangenstein | Built: 1903 | Lost: 1951

Having outgrown its 1887 boathouse, the Duluth Boat Club built a new facility in 1903 at Tenth Street South along the bay side of Minnesota Point and away from commercial shipping traffic. Architect John Wangenstein designed a structure not dissimilar from the 1887 clubhouse. While just two stories high, the building occupied a much larger footprint than the first club. Instead of one observation tower it featured four, one at each corner, and much of the roof itself served as a viewing platform. Like the first, a wide veranda wrapped around the structure’s entire second floor. The first floor was essentially a large space for storing boats along with bathrooms and a dressing room outfitted with 250 lockers. The second floor contained a reception room, library, smoking room, and a large dance hall with a fourteen-foot-high ceiling. Duluth’s newspapers called the dance floor “the most exclusive ballroom in the city.”

The Duluth Boat Club became Duluth’s social center, hosting regattas, water carnivals, and national competitions. By 1912 club membership had swelled to 1,400 members, making it the largest such organization in the United States. They also operated a boathouse on Spirit Lake from 1907 to 1917 and merged with the Duluth Yacht Club in 1907, moving the Yacht Club’s facility to Oatka Beach further down Minnesota Point near South Thirty-Eighth Street. In 1917 club president Julius Barnes covered the cost of adding an indoor pool or “natatorium” to the main facility.

Under the guidance of coach James Ten Eyck, Duluth Boat Club rowers dominated American rowing from 1911 to 1923, winning twenty national championships. The club’s “Invincible Four”—Max Rheinberger, Dave Horak, and brothers Doug and Phil Moore—did not suffer a loss between 1913 and 1916. In 1922 Duluth rower Walter Hoover won the prestigious Diamond Sculls race on London’s River Thames. On Hoover’s return to the United States, a flotilla of boats in New York Harbor saluted him. In the Zenith City, 65,000 people turned out to greet the returning hero.

Due in part to the growing popularity of the automobile, rowing’s favor declined sharply in the 1920s, and the club folded in 1926. The City of Duluth leased the club in 1931, operating it as the Duluth Water Sports Center. Activities included swimming, canoeing, archery, volleyball, horseshoes, picnics, card games, and dances twice a week. The sports center sparked a renewed interest in rowing, and the swimming pool was popular, but the facility was not financially successful. It closed in 1933.

The former Boat Club facility was used to store vessels until April 23, 1951, when an early morning fire destroyed the building along with sixteen boats stored inside. The former Boat Club became the site of the Duluth Yacht Basin, later renamed the Lakehead Boat Basin. The Park Point Marina Inn, which opened in May 2014, currently occupies a portion of the site.