The Schuylkill River boathouses along Kelly Drive are a beautiful mystery for many Philadelphians.
Drivers traveling on I-76 often stare over the water at the decorative lights that outline each riverfront building.
Many know that the lights change color at different times of year, but for those of us that are not members of these old rowing clubs, the closest we come to them is the footpath of the Schuylkill River Trail on Kelly Drive.
Last Sunday, the boathouses opened their doors to share their intimate culture with Philadelphians, and to raise money for a beloved rower, who was severely injured as he was decorating his clubhouse for the holidays.
Just before Christmas, Fred Duling, 67, fell from a staircase inside the Malta Boat Club, where he has rowed for over 50 years.
Although the famous decorative lights on the exterior of the buildings are now LED lights, controlled off-location by PECO, the indoor decorations are still hung the old fashioned way.
Decorating the clubhouse for Christmas, Duling fell down the stairs and was trapped on the floor of the unheated boathouse for several hours before being found and rushed to the hospital.
After more than fifty years on the river, he is now unable to row, paralyzed below the chest.
To raise money for the well-known coach and rower in Philadelphia’s small rowing community, the clubs decided to open their doors to the public and allow visitors to tour these exclusive buildings.
Club members became tour guides leading visitors through the boathouses, most of which started as shacks more than a hundred years ago.
Aura of secrecy
Many rowers acknowledge that for an unfamiliar outsider, seeing the buildings from a distance, across the river, gives their community an aura of secrecy.
Rob Stack from the Crescent Boat Club understands the origin of the mystique, and is glad to have visitors here to discover that members are just “normal people.”
Stack has rowed at Crescent since his freshman year at Roman Catholic High School, and is now the club’s treasurer, also tasked with renting out the club house for parties.
“People don’t really get the experience. They see the lights from the Schuylkill expressway and they drive by on the drive, but they don’t really know what actually happens here.”
Standing below a wooden boat mounted to the ceiling, and surrounded by antique trophies, he laughs, “You know, it’s not a secret society or anything.”
Boathouse Row is also known as the Schuylkill Navy.
There is an elected “Commodore” that serves as a unifying leader for clubs, which often are in serious competition with each other.
But standing on the docks, a visitor is quick to realize how small a backyard this community shares. Even though boats live there, not people, it is as dense as any urban neighborhood is.
The current Commodore, John Hogan, and the previous one, Clete Graham, have both been friends with Fred Duling Sr. for many years, despite not all belonging to the same rowing club.
Since his injury, they have been organizing meetings once a week to plan fundraising to help with the cost of Duling’s rehabilitation and recovery.
Wandering together throughout the boathouses, they endured jokes about the Lionel Richie band, “The Commodores” and teasingly asked children when they plan to start rowing professionally.
The fundraising committee came up with the “Pull for Fred” campaign and contacted members of the US Olympic rowing team, who are currently practicing in Princeton, NJ.
Susan Francia, who won a gold medal for rowing in Beijing, greeted visitors at the University Barge Club below a massive moose head that newly inducted members have been required to kiss for many, many years.
Each guest held her medal, feeling the weight of the gold and the white jade that makes the Beijing medals distinctive.
Originally from Abington, she rowed for Penn out of the University Barge Club, and knows, like most avid rowers, of Fred Duling.
“Even though I had never met him, I know how he put a lot of energy into making Boathouse Row something special. I really appreciate his efforts.”
She had her team sign a calendar they made, called “Power and Grace” which was presented to Duling in the hospital where he is recovering from another round of surgery.
Although Fred Sr. was not able to come to the open boathouse event, his son, Fred Jr. was around, touring the buildings and thanking rowers and visitors for supporting his father on his road to recovery.
He reminded everyone that this community has always been his father’s “second family.”
“My father’s been so involved in Boathouse Row for 50 years. I’m sure he’s been in and out of every one of these clubs hundreds of times.”
Many of the boathouses began in the mid-1800’s as simple shacks, but have since expanded into recreation centers, yet preserving their old charm.
The oldest club is Bachelor’s Barge club which was started in 1853 by private firefighters from the Phoenix Engine Company.
Back then, the club was only open to bachelors.
Since then, all of Boathouse Row has become a much more family-friendly place, however the sport is still a competitive one.
Fred Duling Jr., after touring the Bachelor’s Barge Club noted that “along with the friendly competition,” at Boathouse Row, there is “a sense of family.”
The event raised more than $10,000 for Duling’s rehabilitation fund.