Historic Detroit

Detroit Boat Club (first)

The birth of the Detroit Boat Club began with the purchase of a single vessel.

While on a trip to New York in 1838, Edmund A. Brush purchased a 26 foot, four-oared boat. He sent it back to Detroit where he and Alpheus Starkey Williams, Dr. James H. Farnsworth and James A. Armstrong named it the Georgiana.

However, there were no boat clubs nearby like the ones on the East Coast, so they decided that if they were to purchase more boats, they would need to first form a boat club.

On Feb. 18, 1839, Brush, his brother Dr. Alfred Brush, Farnsworth, Col. Andrew T. McReynolds, Williams (a future congressman and Civil War general), Armstrong, Alex H. Sibley and John Chester met in Edmund Brush’s office on East Jefferson Avenue to found what has become one of the oldest continuously operating boat clubs in the country. They elected Edmund Brush as president and Armstrong as secretary. Twenty-two of their friends and family signed onto the constitution of their new organization, including Asher Saxe Kellogg, Col. John Winder, Isaac S. Rowland, DeWitt C. Holbrook, Anthony Ten Eyck, George C. Bates, Dr. Rufus Brown, John McReynolds, J. Nicolson Elbert, Samuel Lewis, Capt. William T. Pease, J. Barnabas Campau and Wesley Truesdail. The first formal meeting of the new organization took place in Brush’s office on March 5, 1839.

The following month, on April 10, the following club uniform was adopted: a chip sailor hat covered with white linen and broad black band; sailor pantaloons of white duck with black belts around the waist; shoes with low, sewed heels; white socks; black, silk neck handkerchief knot; shirts, a blue ground with white figure and broad square collar; and a coat of Kentucky jean.

Now that the club had its first members and a uniform, it was time to build it a home.

The first boathouse

The first DBC boathouse was constructed at the foot of Randolph Street, behind the Campau warehouse and east of one owned by the John Chester & Co., with both of these men being members of the new organization. (For many years, the first boat house has been listed as being at the foot of Hastings Street, however this was a mix up with the third boat house which for a time was mistakenly considered as being the first.)

The building was a small, two-story wooden structure built over the river. The boat room on the first floor was 10 to 12 feet high with three boat bays on one side of the building and a dock running along the front. The second floor contained a club meeting room with a small porch along the front, where at times a hammock could be seen slung from side to side.

Despite being founded by several prominent, wealthy Detroiters, this building was nothing fancy. It was built for one purpose: to store their boats and provide a place to row from. Most of their club balls, meetings and other events would take place at various hotels and meeting halls near the riverfront, so there was little need at the time to build anything spectacular.

The Georgiana, rowed by Armstrong, Edmund Brush, Farnsworth and Williams, would be the first boat to row under the D.B.C. name. Later that first summer of 1839, Edmund Brush bought a six-oared boat while on a trip to New York. This one was built by the famous early boatmaker Crolius and cost $255 dollars (about $6,000 today, when adjusted for inflation). He purchased it off the deck of a ship bound for England, where this boat was destined to compete against the English boatmakers.

The boat returned to Detroit through the Erie Canal and was named the E.A. Brush, in honor of the D.B.C.’s president and founder. Club members also acquired a large, six-oared barge, the Pleasure, that was capable of carrying 20 people on excursions up and down the river. Edmund Brush also purchased two private boats for himself; the two-oared, cedar-built Crolius shell the Elise, which was frequently rowed by Brush and Campau, and the single cat sailboat the Belle.

Alex Campau, who joined the D.B.C. in 1844, recalled in an 1897 Free Press article that “almost every afternoon found one or all of the members of the club on the water, for they were capital oarsmen. Dr. Farnsworth was remarkably good. Sam. Lewis, Capt. Pease, the two Campaus and J. Nicholson Elbert were active oarsmen, and did most of the pulling.”

On May 24, 1842, (or May 21 depending on the source), the first D.B.C. boat race occurred. The course was a 2-mile straightaway that went with the current from the foot of Belle Isle, then still known as Hog Island, to the boathouse. There were two boats racing. The first, “the Race Boat,” was manned by Alfred Brush at stroke; E. A. Brush, 3; J. H. Farnsworth, 2; Lieutenant Brooks at bow; and A. Ten Eyck coxswain. The second boat was “the Club Boat,” stroked by George Deas; J. N. Elbert at 3; Alpheus S. Williams at 2; W. Truesdail at bow; and Edward Brooke, coxswain. The race was judged by Col. John Winder. “The Race Boat” won, with the prize being “anything in the shape of refreshments the victors may desire.”

Parties on the river

The D.B.C. members, being “comprised of gentlemen prominent in Detroit society,” entertained many guests from the beginning by hosting large barge parties on the river. They would float down the river in the evenings, while Edmund Brush played his flute and Farnsworth strummed his guitar, usually accompanied by a violinist or two. They would also host chowder parties at the rendezvous in the middle of Belle Isle for their guests and would always host events on the Fourth of July.

One of these outings, held on July 4, 1841, was described by George C. Bates in an 1877 Detroit Free Press article: “On the third, a detachment was sent to clear away the grounds, pitch marquees and tents borrowed from the army, and there they entertained among their guests Misses Isabella Cass, Emma Schwarz, the Misses Griswold, sisters of Purser George R. Griswold of the navy, and all the elite of Detroit society; Maj. Robert A. Forsyth and Henry Ledyard were always assigned to the duty of brewing a big bowl of sailor punch, half and half, a duty that was performed to the satisfaction of everybody; and toasts were drunk to the memory of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and so on down to Gen. Harrison in successive goblets filled to the very brim, and just tipped and touched on the edge with pineapple rum and arrack.”

It was said that Ledyard was a great hand at mixing drinks that were considered “seductive but treacherous,” and if Charles Brush mixed the drinks, “the effect was still more manifest, and resulted in many ludicrous events.”

In one such occasion when they made it back to the boats, they attempted to use fence rails to row back to the clubhouse because they couldn’t find their oars. If they floated down to the foot of Belle Isle, they would find themselves at a red brick house that Capt. Jenkins rented from Alex Campau. Capt. Jenkins was described as “a small man, a trifle over 5 feet in height,” and he lived in this house with his wife and 22 kids. They were “very respectable people, who served refreshments and had a room for dancing.”

The Christening of Belle Isle

It was on one of their Fourth of July outings that, in 1845, members of the D.B.C. renamed Hog Island as “Belle Isle,” in honor of Isabella “Belle” Cass, daughter of Gen. Lewis Cass, who was a very popular woman on the D.B.C. outings.

The day that they christened the island was described in an 1897 Detroit Free Press article: “It was a long day for them, beginning in the morning with the row in the barges to the island and luncheon under the large tent, or marquee; in the afternoon, the men made songs for the ladies, and time was whiled away till twilight, when they rowed down to Capt. Jenkins’ house and danced till midnight. Several of the boat club members were very attentive to Miss Cass, but she later married Baron de Limbourg, then minister from the Netherlands to Washington.”

They continued these excursions for many years, until disaster struck.

Up in Flames

There was a strong wind blowing out of the east on the morning of May 9, 1848.

Several steamships were making their way up and down river on what was a fairly normal day — until a cloud of inky-black smoke streaked with flames burst out of the rear of Chester’s large yellow warehouse on the riverfront.

Chester himself had moved his shipping business down to the foot of Second Street a few months prior, however, a furrier rented space on the top floor of his old building. They used the space to store, pack and clean their furs, the floors and cleaning benches being soaked in oils, fats and grease that had been removed from the furs. The windows were open that day to catch the wind that was blowing in.

Half past 10, the steamer St. Joseph was firing up at the warehouse’s dock, spewing out smoke and sparks, which blew into the open windows of the furrier. The wooden floors, after having been soaked in grease, lit up like kindling. Within less than a minute, the warehouse was enveloped in a roaring fire, with the flames being fanned by the winds. With most of the buildings in the city made of wood, it didn’t take long for the fire to destroy the entire riverfront , including the boathouse, by 4 o’clock that afternoon. Citizens and firemen did everything they could to prevent the spread of the fire. Furniture and possessions rescued from the fire’s path filled Jefferson Avenue. Buildings were demolished in hopes of stopping the fire from progressing.

In Bill Clare’s billiards room, located on the first floor of Alex Campau’s brick building, both billiard tables were in full swing. The players decided to keep playing, despite the city burning around them. The only thing that made them stop was when the iron shutters at the rear of the building began to get extremely heated. The strong winds were blowing sparks into downtown, starting fires up on Congress Street, but fortunately the winds shifted, possibly preventing what could have been a repeat of the Great Fire of 1805 that leveled the entire city.

By the time the fire died down, more than 100 buildings were reported lost, with 300 to 400 families left homeless. The damage was listed at between $200,000 and $300,000, (about $5.8 million to $8.6 million, when adjusted for inflation). Miraculously, there was only one death reported as a result of the fire — a drunk who had fallen asleep near the Berthelet Market. The major buildings that were lost included Woodworth’s Steamboat Hotel, Berthelet’s Market, the Wales Hotel and the old Gov. Hull Mansion.

One D.B.C. boat, the Frolic, formerly the E. A. Brush and the second boat purchased by the D.B.C. in 1839, was pushed out into the river in order to save it from burning. After the fire, the boat was retrieved and stored in Capt. Jenkins’ barn on Belle Isle.

The D.B.C. members didn’t have much of a plan to rebuild the club, as they had lost much in the fire and needed to help rebuild the lower section of the city. Brush lost a section of his estate, including the old Brush Mansion, as well as his office. Other members lost their warehouses or homes or offices also. Their lives, as with many Detroiters, were based around that riverfront district. The members were also starting to get older, with several moving away, and they felt it best to not do their outings anymore.

They would still meet up and still call themselves the Detroit Boat Club, however, nothing was to the scale of what they had done in the years before.

It wasn’t until 1856 that another D.B.C. clubhouse would be built.