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Penn History

Rowing at Penn: The Early Years, 1854-1901

This exhibit, created in April 2006, includes research and writing by Seth S. Tannenbaum, Clifton R. Hood, Bob Bonn, and Mary D. McConaghy

When rowing first emerged as a sport in America, New York was the primary center of activity, but the sport soon grew popular in New England and Philadelphia as well. In the mid-nineteenth century, as regattas and rowing clubs appeared in Philadelphia, the sport attracted the attention of Penn students.

In the early years of rowing at Penn, students organized as members first of the University Barge Club (founded 1854) and then of the College Boat Club (founded 1872). Competition among class crews began in the 1850s and continued throughout the rest of the century.

An all-university or varsity crew, made up of Penn students from different classes, did not exist until 1879. In this year the Penn University crew, based in the College Boat Club, engaged its first trainer, Ellis Ward, and participated in its first intercollegiate races. Ellis Ward served as the coach of Penn’s crews until 1912, with only two interruptions, when Samuel Powel, Jr. served as crew coach in 1887 and then when George Woodruff coached crew along with football from 1892 to 1895. It was Ellis Ward who was responsible for establishing Penn as a major rowing power, even mounting a significant challenge to British rowers at Henley in 1901. By that time, Penn and Philadelphia had emerged as an important center of American rowing.

The early history of rowing at Penn reveals much about the early development of college athletics at the University of Pennsylvania and, more generally, in America. Penn’s early crews illustrate the difficulties of funding, the tension between professionals and amateurs, the still-evolving rules and practices of the sport, and the uncertainty over the placement of the sport within the context of the American university. As in cricket, baseball and football, the impetus for creating a Penn crew team came from the students, was aided by alumni, and then finally embraced, financed and regulated by the University administration.


  • University Archives Alumni Records Collection
  • University Archives Photograph Collection
  • The Papers of Edward Potts Cheyney in the University Archives
  • The Record, Penn’s undergraduate yearbook
  • Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper
  • U.S. Census records
  • History of Athletics at Pennsylvania, 1873-1896, George W. Orton, ed., pages 63-101
  • History of Athletics at the University of Pennsylvania, volume 1 (1873-1913) and volume 2 (1896-1897 to 1907-1908)
  • “A Brief Time-Line of Rowing” by Thomas E. Weil JR., copyright 2000, published in the 2000-2001 American Rower’s Almanac, previously available on Boathouse Finder
  • “Rowing: An Historical Overview of the First Modern Sport” by Thomas E. Weill Jr, published in the 1996 American Rower’s Almanac, previously available on Boathouse Finder
  • “Penn’s Visit to Ireland in July 1901” by Greg Denieffe, available at Hear the Boat Sing