The Comprehensive History of Marist’s Cornell Boathouse

Many students wonder why Marist has Cornell’s boathouse on its property. The mystery behind why we never see the Cornell rowing team seemed like it would never be solved. There’s a lot more to where the boathouse came from, though, especially deep in the Marist Archives.

Archivists of the Poughkeepsie Regatta collection, Elizabeth Clarke and Ann Sandri, have been doing research for the past six years. Collective research, however, started long before their arrival to Marist. The Executive Assistant to the school’s president at the time, Susan Roeller Brown, began the research about the regatta and was also heavily involved in Longview Park. “The research went dormant after the Archives website got going and the Quadricentennial started,” Sandri said. “We started out with two boxes of history on the Poughkeepsie Regatta and now I would say we have about fifty boxes.” And they’re not done yet.

The Regatta raceway – Marist Archives

For years, the most competitive crew teams in the country have gathered in Poughkeepsie, New York for the annual Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championship. In 1891, Cornell University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania selected the Hudson River for the regatta due to the convenient four miles of straight raceway.

Poughkeepsie went on to host the regatta for 50 years. The race started from Crum Elbow in Hyde Park and finished just south of the current Mid-Hudson Bridge. At the end of each race, a particular number of bombs went off, the total representing the winning team’s lane number. The college flags were also lowered from the railroad bridge in order of the winners. The regatta developed a schedule of an annual two-mile Freshman Eight race, a three-mile Junior Varsity Eight race, and finally the four-mile Varsity Eight race. The races as a unit became so beloved by the area, and as a result, the IRA Regatta became known as the Poughkeepsie Regatta. The first Poughkeepsie Regatta, held in June of 1895, saw just Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania compete. Still, more than 30,000 spectators attended to watch the collegiate athletes viciously compete for the first title, which was proudly taken home by Columbia.

For each regatta, people eagerly gathered along the banks of the river, on bridges, or on private boats. It became so popular that people began wagering on the race. The West shore had an observation train of about 30 cars for spectators; one private car was equipped with telephones and people of the press. “There was a commentary in the newspaper about everyone’s chances,” Clarke said. “People would monitor practices and take notice of who got sick. It was all done to see what this might mean for the teams come time for the regatta.” This regatta was an investment for all who came to watch.

The observation train – Marist Archives
1916 observation train ticket – Marist Archives

As time went on, the must-watch race would be broadcast on local and national radio. Not only did the Poughkeepsie Regatta gather fans of the set colleges and universities, but local celebrities on occasion. Well, not so local; more universal. The Roosevelts particularly enjoyed the event, so much so they attended more than once. 

Soon, Poughkeepsie became known as the “Rowing Capital of the World.” It was a place where astounding records were set and then broken. There was a huge sense of competition, but it did remain friendly. The races attracted the nation’s top rowing teams including the IRA’s founding members — Cornell, Columbia, and Penn — as well as additional participants over the years like Rutgers University, Georgetown University, Stanford University, University of California Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin.  For a while, it seemed that the regatta was an upstate war between Syracuse and Cornell. That was until the 1920s, when the West Coast teams came to dominate in the East. In 1936, all three regatta-races were won by the University of Washington, the only school aside from Cornell to accomplish such a feat. Later, this team went on to win at the Berlin Olympics. They then returned to the regatta the following year and swept all three races once again. Washington was the first and only to win the regatta two years in a row; they were the hot bet of 1936. 

Not only was there competition between the crew teams, but there was also competition within Poughkeepsie. “ I think there was a level of competition as far as the area goes,” Sandri explains. “Where the crew was going to stay and who was going to house them, who was going to feed them, what products are we going to sell, who can invite them to events around the area.” This also applied to spectators as well. “What big names are going to attend? And of course, that draws in more people, such as presidents or governors,” Sandri continued. “There was also the question of who is using whom’s yacht to view the race? There were a lot of different avenues where there were [publicity] opportunities.”

Regatta programs (left to right) from 1900, 1936, and 1949 – Marist Archives

There was also talk of the regatta moving to a new area. The issue of other areas competing with Poughkeepsie for the rights of the regatta was always on the horizon. “To further the competition angle, there were points when the regatta was talked about being moved somewhere else,” Clarke explains. “Sometimes it was written in the papers, ‘We have a superior this and we have superior that,’ in order to sway the regatta their way.”

1947: California’s Junior Varisty team wins – Marist Archives

As the years went on, regatta row grew immensely. The first permanent boathouse at Poughkeepsie was built in 1913 by Columbia on the Highland shore. It was also the first combination of a boathouse and living quarters. Previously, there were “glorified shacks,” according to Sandri, that were long enough to fit racing shells in, but the teams would have to live elsewhere. The boathouse lasted up until the 1990s at least, but the removal is unknown. “It’s one of those things we haven’t nailed down,” Clarke explains. “I think it was converted into a house and people were living in it. So Columbia eventually did sell it. But what its fate is, we don’t know.” 

Columbia-quarters boathouse (Highland) – Marist Archives

The second permanent boathouse was built in 1929 for the Naval Academy in Quiet Cove Park. The third and fourth permanent boathouses were built in 1931 and 1932 for MIT and California. However, MIT later gave their boathouse to Washington because the crew team had not attended the Poughkeepsie Regatta since 1932. Marist’s historic Cornell boathouse was completed in 1938. It was the first boathouse funded by the WPA and it was the last boathouse to be built, despite the efforts by Princeton and UPenn to make their mark on the regatta. 

The full regatta row consisted of the three full boathouses of Cornell, California, and Washington, along with a dining hall. Sandri adds, “Depending on which year, those teams did not necessarily stay in their assigned boathouses. Some universities would come with a [Junior Varisty] and Varsity team and [Marist] would not be able to house them all in a smaller boathouse. So the men would switch amongst the boathouses.”

The boathouses on Regatta Row (from left to right): Cornell, California, Washington, and the dining hall – Marist Archives

The Poughkeepsie Regatta did have it’s low points, however. It was canceled due to WWI and did not return to the Hudson until 1921. Up until 1917, the Poughkeepsie Regatta was on track to run. However, “all of a sudden, they found out that it was not going to happen. I am not really sure of the reason behind that decision because that is an angle that I have not been able to pursue yet,” Clarke states. “However, they decided that they were not going to hold it and part of it was that they were expecting a lot of their men to go off to war soon, or they did not think the situation warranted having an athletic event.” It also took a leave of absence in 1933 due to finances. This was during the middle of the depression and crew was an expensive sport back then. A lot of money went into it. The universities had to provide transportation through train cars for students, trainers, boat repairmen, cooks, and the equipment itself. The universities had their work cut out for them and it was a mutual decision to not have the regatta that year. 

The declaration of WWII in December 1941 also put a halt to the regatta until 1947. “They figured out pretty early that there was not going to be a regatta because in 1941 there was the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Clarke said. “And I think they just decided that they were going to wait because yet again, a lot of those boys were going to go off to war.” It would take two years after the war’s end to get back together; the war had an obvious, heavy impact on the population, as well as the size of the student body.

Several changes to the regatta took place over those years in flux, specifically in regard to the length of the Varsity race. Up until 1920, it was a four-mile-long race. It was then switched to three miles long, but around 1925 or 1926, it was reverted back to a four-mile race. After WWII, they went back to three miles. “There were concerns. There were serious health concerns over how wise it was to have their students compete in a four-mile race that [was] so vigorous,” Clarke stated. “And at one point, the University of Wisconsin yanked their crews from participating in four-mile races anywhere over these health concerns. They returned to Poughkeepsie once it was reduced to three miles.”

Crews racing on the Hudson near the finish line – Marist Archives

When the Cornell boathouse was finished being built in 1938, the city was hoping to continue expansion. However, after preparing for Princeton and UPenn to move onto regatta row, Poughkeepsie stopped the progress. Not only was the race simply not as popular as it once was, but there were other pressing matters to attend to, such as the variety of reasons that led to the regatta leaving Poughkeepsie to Marietta, Ohio. 

In 1947, the boathouses — Cornell, California, Washington, Columbia, and Navy — housed two teams each. This, in addition to each school bringing three separate teams, ranging from freshman to varsity, contributed to massive overcrowding. Trains also contributed to the move of the regatta. After WWII, there was a train car shortage due to the fact that the country was recovering from the war. “They did not have enough train cars to go around for regular things. So Poughkeepsie did not have an observation train and they encountered the same problem in 1948,” Sandri said. “They tried to do other things to raise money, such as a carnival and a parade, but they could not get the train. It’s a bone of contention because the schools made money off the train. They sold tickets to their students and alums. This was an income source that was now gone.” Money also came into play. Marietta promised to raise at least $10,000 more for the regatta than Poughkeepsie. The race in Marietta was also to take place on a lake. Therefore, tides would not dictate the race schedule. Poughkeepsie kept trying until the 1970s to get the regatta back, but it never materialized. “Other rowing competitions came, but nothing compared to the stakes of the Poughkeepsie Regatta,” Clarke explains.

1949 was the last year for the Poughkeepsie Regatta; with it came the largest Varsity Eight competition (12 crews competing) and a West Coast sweep (California and Washington went home victorious.) Despite the incredible loss that Poughkeepsie felt once the regatta left, the community found ways to keep the spirit alive. In October of 2009, Poughkeepsie hosted a re-enactment of the Poughkeepsie Regatta, the Quadricentennial regatta, to which they invited the original founders of the regatta in Cornell, Columbia, and UPenn, as well as Navy, Syracuse, and newcomers of Vassar College and the United States Military Academy. They hosted a Heavyweight Men’s Eight race, a Lightweight Men’s race, and a Women’s Eight race. Poughkeepsie hosted two more re-enactments in 2010 and 2012. 

The 2009 Quadricentennial Regatta – Marist Archives

While the regatta is gone, only celebrated infrequently, if at all, this original relic still stands. The Cornell boathouse is the only remaining boathouse from the glory days of collegiate rowing in the Hudson Valley. On May 6, 1957, there was a fire in the dining hall and it caught on to the Washington boathouse. A Coast Guard ship came, but not before the Washington boathouse and dining hall were destroyed. The California boathouse was damaged, but not destroyed. “At that point, most of the Marist campus was trees,” Clarke explains. “There was a road down to their waterworks, which is the plant down by the river. So the fire was probably not seen very well from up there. They at least might have seen the smoke.”

The city elected not to rebuild after the fire, but they did agree to fix up the California boathouse. During this time, the city gave local crew teams access to Cornell boathouse and people could still book it for events as well. “They were not investing money in these boathouses anymore,” Sandri explains. “The regatta had left the Hudson in 1949. They were anchors on the city’s neck because they were no longer making a lot of money off of them. Things started to fall apart.”

By the 1970s, the regatta was in really bad shape. “The Poughkeepsie Journal actually published a piece bringing attention to the bad shape the regatta was in. This was featured on the sports page on May 5, 1976. It caught people’s eyes,” Clarke said. At this point, Marist was well established and the college reached out to the city with an interest in taking over the boathouses. Eventually, the rights were transferred to Marist. Prior to the transfer’s finalization, Marist made minor repairs to Cornell and took down California in 1976 because, according to Clarke, “the floorboards were giving way.” As part of the deal, the city required that the area become a public park for 25 years with the building accessible to the public.

“Marist could not do very much with their new land during this time,” Sandri explains. “But meanwhile, Marist did build their own boathouse, Martin, in 1963. It also held, and still does today, an environmental science water lab where students study the Hudson River water.”

When the 25-year period expired, the Cornell boathouse was completely under Marist control. They immediately began to renovate it and this was completed in 2009 when the Quadricentennial regatta took place. The Cornell Boathouse now is a functional boathouse on the first floor while the second floor is an open space for banquets and other events. They also built a community boathouse that the local crews operate out of now and it’s not on Marist property. Marist‘s NCAA division 1 men’s and women’s crew teams row on the historic stretch today.

Today, the IRA takes place in a new location every year. The IRA was held May 31- June 2 this year on Lake Natoma in Gold River, California. Yale, Cornell, and Stanford all were awarded National Championships for the Men’s Heavyweight Eight, Men’s Lightweight Eight, and Women’s Lightweight Eight.

Marist still embodies the spirit and memory of the Poughkeepsie Regatta in Longview Park. The park features rolling hills, a gazebo at its center, docks, river walkways, the Marist boathouse, and of course the historic Cornell boathouse. As the river flows, the faint cheer of the crowds and crew teams can still be heard, keeping their mark on the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie.

The Hudson River racecourse – Marist Archives

Edited by Will Bjarnar & Lily Caffrey-Levine

One thought

  1. Great Article. I remember rowing past the Columbia Boathouse back in High School (late 1970s), About 20 years later, I was coaching and brought the Dowling College Team up to race Marist and Vassar – The Columbia Boathouse was collapsed upon itself.

    The Naval Academy Boathouse / Facilities at Quiet Cove still exists.

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