History of Rowing

By John M. Duarte (Published Fall 2007)

Rowing happened in Morgantown early on. Although we do not have many details as to what competitions might have happened here, the river and all activities surrounding the Monongahela figured prominently in the life of the city since it’s founding. Life was tied to and dependent on the river for communication and transportation of people and goods. According to Willem (Vim) Van Eck, former WVU professor and a founder of MRA, Morgantown newspapers mention rowing races during the 1880’s, and in 1894 the first edition of WVU’s year book “Monticola” features a photograph of both a men’s and a women’s crew team.

 Modern rowing re-started in Morgantown in 1966 with the formation of the Mountaineer Rowing Club (MRC), reorganized in 1975 as Monongahela Rowing Club  and renamed Monongahela Rowing Association (MRA) in 1982.  MRC secured the services of a retired veteran rowing coach, J. Clarke Wray, to come to Morgantown and coach the first Crew during the 1975-76 year. A Crew of WVU students initiated intercollegiate competition in 1976. In 1978, WVU students formed the affiliated WVU Rowing Club. Rowing in Morgantown and at WVU has had it’s up’s and down’s. Today Men’s Crew is still a Club sport at WVU and affiliated with MRA. Women’s Crew has become a fully supported WVU collegiate athletic program. The city of Morgantown boasts a new Boathouse and docks, shared by WVU Crew and MRA.

Rowing is the tale of one of the oldest sports in the world.  What began as a method of transport and warfare eventually became a sport. From  competing to be the first in delivering a product to market to simply racing for  the sake of it or to prove one’s superior ability. Whenever man has depended on  an activity for living, it eventually was turned into a sport; think Roman  Chariot racing, Middle Ages Jousting, or more recently Bootleggers Smuggling  which originated Stock Car Racing in the USA. (Duarte)

 Even since the earliest recorded references to rowing, the sporting element has  been present. An Egyptian funerary inscription of 1430 BC records that the  warrior Amenhotep (Amenophis) II was also renowned for his feats of oarsmanship.  In the Enid, Virgil mentions rowing forming part of the funeral games arranged  by Aeneas in honor of his father.

In the 13th century, Venetian festivals called regata included boat races among others. Nowadays, rowing competitions are still called regattas (English spelling).

The first known ‘modern’ rowing races, began from competition among the  professional watermen that provided ferry and taxi service on the River Thames  in London. Prizes for wager races were often offered by the London Guilds and  Livery Companies or wealthy owners of riverside houses. During the Nineteenth  Century these races were to become numerous and popular, attracting large  crowds. A contemporary sporting book lists 5000 such matches in the years 1835  to 1851. Prize matches amongst professionals similarly became popular on other  rivers throughout Great Britain in the Nineteenth Century, notably attracting  vast crowds on the Tyne. The oldest surviving such race, Doggett’s Coat and  Badge was first contested in 1715 and is still held annually from London Bridge  to Chelsea.

Amateur competition in England began towards the end of the Eighteenth Century.  Documentary evidence from this period is sparse, but it is known that the  Monarch Boat Club of Eton College and the Isis Club of Westminster School were  both in existence in the 1790s. The Star Club and Arrow Club in London for  gentlemen amateurs were also in existence before 1800. At the University of  Oxford bumping races were first organized in 1815 while at Cambridge the first  recorded races were in 1827. The Boat Race between Oxford University and  Cambridge University first took place in 1829, and was the second  intercollegiate sporting event (following the first Varsity Cricket Match by 2  years). The interest in the first Boat Race and subsequent matches led the town  of Henley to begin hosting an annual regatta in 1839.

 In America, there is also a sizable rowing community. Ports such as Boston, New  York, and Philadelphia required the building of many small rowing boats, and  competition was inevitable. The first American race took place on the Schuylkill  River in 1762 between 6-oared barges. As the sport gained popularity, clubs were  formed and scullers began racing for prizes. Professionals were rowing against  clubs and each other before the civil war. Races were often round trips to a  stake and back, so that the start and finish could be watched. The public  flocked to such events, and rowing was as popular in America during the 1800s as  other professional sports are today. In 1824, ferrymen from the Whitehall  Landing at Manhattan’s Battery raced a crew from the British frigate HMS Hussar for $1,000. Thousands bet on the event and the Americans won. In  1843, the first American college rowing club was formed at Yale University. The  Harvard-Yale Regatta is the oldest intercollegiate sporting event in the United  States having been contested every year since 1852 (except for occasional breaks  due to major wars, such as World War II and the US Civil War). The oldest  inter-high school competition in the United States also occurred on the water,  in the form of a race in six man boats between two New England boarding schools:  Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and Phillips Academy Andover  in Andover, Massachusetts. The oldest continuous rowing club in America is the  Detroit Boat Club, in Detroit, Michigan. (Wikipedia)

 Today rowing is an amateur sport and an Olympic event. Pierre de Coubertin who  created the modern Olympics, modeled the International Olympic Committee on the  Henley Stewards. The stewards organize the Henley Royal Regatta, one of rowing’s  most prestigious events.

 FISA, the “Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron” in French (or the  English equivalent International Federation of Rowing Associations) was founded  by representatives from France, Switzerland, Belgium, Adriatica (now a part of  Italy) and Italy in Turin on June 25, 1892. It is the oldest international  sports federation in the Olympic movement.

 FISA first organized a European Rowing Championships in 1893. An annual World  Rowing Championships was introduced in 1962. Rowing has also been conducted at  the Olympic Games since 1900 (canceled at the first modern Games in 1896 due to  bad weather). (Wikipedia)

3 thoughts on “History of Rowing

  1. Our family has a rich history of coaches in rowing dating back to the turn of the last century. My Grandfather was John Clarke Wray. He was first a jayvee coach for Cornell University where he attended Cornell. In the early 1970’s he taught crew at Winter Park High School in Winter Park Florida before he took the job at Morris Harvey College later University of Charleston. His father, my Great Grandfather James Wray taught rowing for The Union Rowing Club from 1901-1904 before becoming the coach at Harvard University from 1905-1915. James Wray also known as the (Old Man) left at a time when rowing was still an elitist sport that kept certain persons out based on their nationality rather than their skill. He tried to enlist a rower who was Jewish. He was suddenly dismissed. I let you the reader, piece together your own opinion. From the mid 1920’s to just before the 1936 Olympics he was head coach at Cornell University. Although, in that period of history all athletes represented in Olympic sports were truly amateur status. This too, included the coaches of the day. If they were compensated in some way they could not coach for the Olympics. They were considered professional and under the governing bylaws of the Olympic Charter could not coach in the Olympics. The 1936 team was the University of Washington which at that time was an unknown. Most established programs came from college teams from the Ivy League or private rowing clubs in the Northeast. My Great Grandfather like many other crew coaches was a paid professional and thus could not coach in the Olympics. However, he was able to attend the 1936 Olympics as a guest.
    The family would like to thank all the men and women for their continued support of rowing at colleges and private rowing clubs. Additionally, all rowing clubs in the United States continue to pave the way for those heroes long since forgotten that had the fore thought to make rowing truly a team sport in the United States.

    • James Wray was my grandfather..I used to walk in the woods with him and listen intently to his stories about rowing from Shoalhaven to Cornell..He was a fine man and I loved him dearly

      • Grandpa, also know as “Bompy” to his grandchildren, started rowing in Shoalhaven, Australia as a fisherman..The fishermen would gather early in the morning and race to their favorite rowing spots..Grandpa always won and was asked to go to England to race the British champion on the Thames..From there the rest is history

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