The sport of rowing began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1854 with the founding of the University Barge Club. This initiative was taken by students, specifically ten members of the freshman class: George H. Waring, John W. Williams, J. Ashurst Bowie, J. Beauclerc Newman, Horace G. Browne, James H. Peabody, Alexander B. Coxe, Edmund A. Robinson, Pemberton S. Hutchinson, and Chas. I. Macouen.
These young men, like many Penn students at the time, were in the habit of frequenting Tom Barrett’s Gymnasium after classes were done for the day. Here on the upper floors of a building near 8th and Market Streets they learned sparring and fencing. The sport of rowing was becoming increasingly popular in Philadelphia, so when the weather turned warm, these freshmen went out to Charlie’s boathouse on the Schuylkill River near the Fairmount Waterworks; before too long they purchased a “barge,” a boat named the “Hesperus,” from the Bachelor’s Barge Club for one hundred dollars and formed the University Barge Club.
In these early days, club members wore uniforms and participated in drills. The daily drills included tossing and storing the oars, handling the boat hooks and lines, practicing pushing away from and landing at the boat slip. The required sailor’s uniform consisted of a white shirt cut low at the neck with a wide, turned-down collar, bell-bottomed white duck pants, a pea jacket with brass buttons, a wide belt, and a straw hat trimmed with long ribbons. All was purchased from clothier Jacob Reed; both the hat and the belt were monogramed with “U.B.C.”The club’s rowing activities included competitive racing, regattas and also pleasure trips to various destinations on the Delaware and Schulykill Rivers. The University Barge Club was not listed as a student organization in the first yearbooks of 1863 and 1865, but in 1867 the yearbook mentions that the University Barge Club had won the championship flag of the Schuylkill Navy after a lull in competitions while many rowers were involved in the Civil War. According to the 1867 yearbook, the University Barge Club at that time rented part of the Philadelphia Skating Club house where it kept its two boats, the four-oared shell Hesperus and the six-oared outrigger barge Lucifer. It was common for club members to launch their boats here and then travel to their upriver house, “The Lilacs.”
At first, membership in the University Barge Club was restricted to Penn students, but when the Club began to open membership to alumni and even those not affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, student enthusiasm for the Club declined. By 1871 when the University Barge Club built its own boathouse on the Schuylkill River’s Boathouse Row, there were few Penn students on the membership rolls.
The University Barge Club and its members, including some students, many alumni and others, were included in the yearbooks of 1868 through 1870. Penn students, however, were seeking an alternative. Thus, the College Boat Club was founded in the fall of 1872, a year after the University Barge Club built its own boathouse on Boathouse Row. While College Boat Club members are listed in the yearbooks from this year forward, members of the University Barge Club were omitted from the 1871, 1872 and 1873 yearbooks. When the University Barge Club members were found again in the 1874 yearbook, the following comment also appeared:
The University boasts of two boat clubs, viz. the University Barge Club, one of the most flourishing clubs on the river, composed chiefly of graduates; and the College Barge Club [College Boat Club], a young, energetic organization, engaged at present in putting up a boat house at Fairmount Park.
By the fall of 1874, just two years later, the College Boat Club also had a new boathouse nearby. On May 11, 1877, a race was held between the College Boat Club and the University Barge Club on a mile and a half straight-away course on the Schuylkill River, in which the all-sophomore crew from the newly founded College Boat Club defeated the Barge Club crew made up of four Penn seniors. The crew members were:
College Boat Club:
- Reginald L. Hart, Class of 1879, stroke
- Davidson Kennedy, Class of 1879, No. 3
- William Moore Stewart, A.B., No. 2
- George Wood Hunt, A.B. 1879, bow
University Barge Club:
- Edmund A. Crenshaw, Jr., A.B. 1877, stroke
- Walter Cox, A.B. 1877, No. 3
- Josiah O. Hoffman, A.B. 1878, No. 2
- Ernest Law, A.B. 1877, bow
For a time undergraduates were found in both clubs, but the University Barge Club catered more to alumni and others, while the College Boat Club focused more on training class crews for student competitions at both the intramural and intercollegiate levels.
The University Barge Club still exists today on Boathouse Row in Philadelphia. However, the connection with Penn no longer exists. Instead this boathouse now provides accomodations for the rowing programs of Chestnut Hill Academy and Springside School. It also hosts the Thomas Eakins Head of the Schuylkill Regatta in October of each year.