Tuesday 27 November 2007

Rowing in Victorian Connecticut

Sooner or later, everyone falls to the temptation to Google their own name. The results are always particularly galling for me because the first two million pages are always devoted to a character from some American sitcom. But googling "Rowing for Pleasure" yielded this little gem, an 1889 article from "Outing" magazine about sculling from Yale in Victorian times. They don't write 'em like this any more - the language is arch and flowery even by Jerome K Jerome standards - but it is an evocation of an age that was truly golden if you were young and wealthy. Not so golden is the description of the waiter who serves them in the seafood restaurant at Savin Rock, which is typical of the casual racism of the period.

Thanks to the admirable LA84 Foundation Library for the text.

Outing Magazine 1889


Or, Rowing for Pleasure.

By Richard M. Hurd,

Yale class of 1888 and author of A History of Yale Athletics 1840-1888

In those good old college days when the sun rose earlier and our hearts were lighter than now, it was not seldom that we turned aside from the graver considerations of mathematical formulas, of logical premises and psychological conclusions, to themes no less dear to us because not included in the curriculum.

How many pleasant hours did we spend, not only in engaging in the various forms of athletic exercises, but in theorizing as to their development, in looking up the fables and facts of their past history, and in collecting statistics to prove beyond question their illimitable value to the race in general. And especially in one branch—the art of rowing a boat—how ardently we discussed the varied styles of rigging and rowing a boat, and how warmly we dwelt upon the power and skill, the pluck and genius of young and old boating men.

How eagerly we studied up the course of the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, the currents, tides and setbacks of the Thames, the system of training of the English University oars, and patriotically announced that Yale could undoubtedly defeat either Oxford or Cambridge. And, again, how patiently we pursued the fate of the two hundred odd Harvard and Yale oarsmen, and showed that, despite the croakers, they did not all die of heart disease within a few years after leaving college.

Few there were, I am sure, more zealous for true advancement, and more devoted “heelers” and backers in general of Yale’s athletic, and especially aquatic, fortunes than the humble occupants of our pair oar.

To say that the Wanderer was a cedar-built, mahogany-trimmed, lap-straked, pair-oared barge, some twenty feet long and twenty-eight to thirty-four inches beam, with two sliding seats and one stationary one, fitted with triple-barred outriggers, would be but a bald and commonplace description. She was the soul of beauty, riding the ardent waves that kissed her sides in homage like the true queen she was. An obedient mistress, quick to hear and answer, a dozen strokes would send her cleaving the waters and throwing off showers of fine spray, while the word “avast” or “hold” would check her impetuous course, like the curbing of a high-spirited charger. What care we that she had “Meaney” slides and “Kerns” rowlocks, or that her footrests were movable and inclined 37½ from the horizontal, when we know that we loved her as a friend to be trusted in, a companion who never wearied us, and a source of pleasure that never lost its zest.

‘Twas in early spring when first we stepped into our pair oar, and, though the sky was a little dark and chill, we donned our rowing suits, loosened our girths, tightened our foot straps, and glided steadily up the Quinipiac. The waves were rolling in gray, with soapy crests from the harbor, but duck-like we rode them, and so gaily kept on past the four bridges to the marshes, where the reeds were shooting up bright green from the brown earth. The clouds floated away one by one, and the sun came out to brown our arms and backs, white with the winter’s covering. On the sunny side of a hill thick with bushes we lolled away our lunch hour, making our meal of a box of crackers, a bag of oranges and a tiny bottle of champagne (from California, be it confessed). And so, on and on, the river winding ever, the salt marshes left behind and the country now a smiling farming land, till the water grows more shallow, the current swifter, and we stop at a farm house on the bank to learn where we are. The sloping sun warns us to be returning, and we swing back in the growing coolness to the boat house, where we meet the ‘Varsity crew ending their day’s pull. Twenty-five miles for the good Wanderer between 12 noon and 6 o’clock and not a weak spot or a cranky touch in all the paces we have put her through! A good draught of ale to the health of our mistress, and long may we swing in her to the tune of “Jolly Boating Weather!”

What so rare as that day in June when we rowed out into the broad harbor where the shining undulating waves were reflecting the deep blue of the sky above. As the shores receded all things seemed melted into a world of blue, sky and sea meeting and blending in shifting tones of light, of pearl gray, of cobalt, of warm and restful blue. Alone, seeming in a world of calm and sweet light and color, with lazy sails in the distance and ducks flapping by overhead, we drifted and dreamed for a brief hour. A plunge in the water from a creamy sand spit and a long, lazy swim awoke us to the realities of life, and it was with sharpened appetites that we sought the little hotel at Savin Rock, famous for its sea food dinners. We will pass by the oysters, raw and broiled; the clams, stewed and fried; the crabs, the lobster, the fish, all served by the blackest and most obsequious of darkies, and retake our seats as we start idly homeward. A glory of the setting sun fills all the heavens and is flashed back and forth from drifting clouds, pink, saffron, pale purple and crimson. The abundant rays bathe the Sound in soft and hazy light and show the sand hills of Long Island, a mirage on the horizon. The water is almost motionless, only a slow and gentle swell’ makes shifting gleams of sunset pink and sea blue along our course.

We throw our heads back, bareheaded, regardless of “form” or “style” in our rowing. We have no sharp-eyed ‘Varsity coach in the stern to remind us to “keep our eyes in the boat,” our “backs up,” etc., ad nauseam, and breathe in the fragrant air and revel in the world of richness and light above and about us. The colors grow warmer and deeper, the shores reflect deep browns and madders and purples, and at length are clear cut in black against the transparent lemon yellows and pale greens of the dying day.

It had been a cold and rainy summer up to the end of August, when the good Wanderer brought us together for a week of life on the water, in which Nature amply compensated for her cool behavior by a lavish bestowal of smiles and caresses. Ignoring as much as possible such dull things as names and dates and facts, let us recall only the sweet essence of this joyous trip, the memory of which comes back to us in our routine life like a parched flower’s recollection of a refreshing dew.

The day of our start was one to be remembered, with life and vim in the air, in which all things stood out strong and clear and real. From the old city of Middletown, down past the wharves where idlers in barges gaze stolidly at us, a two-mile stretch takes our thin rowing shirts off our backs, and it is in working costume that we swing steadily through the winding turns that high hills make in the river. Heavily wooded to the top with beech and maple and birch and walnut, a deep shade is cast on the river, and a sense of rare stillness pervades, where the only living thing is an eagle high in air, or a fish rising with a plash. Pleasant it is to loiter along, enjoying each new turn and vista of the changing views, gazing now at forest trees waving their foliage high in air and now at strips of green pasture nestling in bends of the river—new-made land, perhaps never yet trod by the foot of man. But there is work ahead, and for a few hours the crew sticks to its oars, till a rocky point entices us to a noonday siesta. The Wanderer is tied and two weary oars stretch themselves under the shade of dense hemlock trees. A dip in the river cools their backs where the August sun is already beginning to write a story, and the slender lunch disappears quickly. The first and only accident may here be recorded, which was the totally uncalled for excursion of the patented tin clothing case—waterproof, air-tight, non-sinkable, which slid down the rocks, with the cover off, into the river, breaking a bottle of cooling beer and soaking our entire stock of white flannels, blue blazers, striped belts, etc., in the watery element.

We pass now little villages on either bank of the river, all alike, a cluster of white houses with green blinds, in a bower of elms, with here and there an old white steeple pointing upward. Occasionally also a long narrow island, the gift of the river, with, perhaps, a hay house or a corn field to indicate its human ownership, is left behind.

As the rays of the sun fall more and more obliquely upon us, the long bridge of the Shore Line Railroad assures us that the mouth of the Connecticut is reached and that the work of the day is nearly done. We are well tired, we will confess, and we stretch out to rest on a stony beach, compared with which the bed of San Pedro of Alcantara was a downy couch.

And so in the soft twilight we reach Fenwick, and are not ashamed that it is but slowly that we stow away our boat, for we have put forty odd miles to our credit since 8 in the morning, and we are well pleased with our first day’s work. If it were not that the athlete, the oarsman, is a Spartan ever, and disdains to recount the bodily ills suffered in the enjoyment of his pastime, some mention might be made of sunburnt backs, of cold cream, of intermittent slumbers, but, under the circumstances, we forbear.

We were somewhat lazy, it must be confessed, the next day, and after a fine morning plunge in the salt waves did not get under way till about 4 in the afternoon. It was a glorious time to row, however, the water still and a gentle breeze fanning our sunburnt limbs. And a rare old supper we had, sitting on the bank of the river, some eight miles up, discussing a roasted chicken, a loaf of fresh bread and a bottle of new milk. With beauty ever fresh, the sun, about to end another day of labor, painted the glowing clouds, which in turn reflected their changing colors on the calm river. We lingered on and on, loath to leave, and it was black darkness when we reached Deep River.

Our search for an hotel brought us to what had been evidently in former years a flourishing hostelry, and one that might yet be restored to somewhat of its lost prosperity. “Wal, yaas,” the young owner said, “folks hey bin daoun from Hartford tew look at the house and they talked some of buyin’;” but it was easy to see that with the slow caution of the countryman he mistrusted the glib-tongued city folk.

A solid night’s rest and a swim in the river put us in good trim for breakfast, where we met a number of typical New England women, the relatives of the young owner, peaked and sallow in appearance, jerky and whiny in speech and of an irritating nervous energy. One of them, arrayed in rusty black, told continual anecdotes of her departed husband, and evidently derived much importance in the eyes of the others from her loss.

We were not sorry to settle down to work again under the blue canopy of heaven, with the sunshine playing about us on river and fields and hills. A pleasing triumph of the day’s row was our defeat of a steam launch on a three-mile stretch into Middletown. We smiled with renewed satisfaction in the “Bob Cook” stroke— even though, rowed by duffers—as we saw our adversaries “coaling up” without avail. We will not intrude into that rare old farm house where a college friend entertained us over night. The house itself, a hundred and fifty years old, the wealth of fruit and flowers and vegetables, the horses, the dairy, the poultry—all merit a detailed account beyond the limits of the present opportunity.

After half a day’s rest in Hartford we found our row upon the Windsor Canal the most charming feature of the next day’s experiences. A still stream, six miles long, sixty feet wide and thirteen feet deep, winding high above the rocky, dashing river, along the face of a sandstone cliff, it is surely one of the choicest spots in the world. A low towing path on the riverside reveals a view of wide and varied attractions, while nearer at hand is a fringe on either side of tall grasses and reeds, mingled with daisies and buttercups and clover.

The cliff, once harsh and bare, is now covered with drooping bushes of birch and sumach, while mosses and lichens and maidenhair fern hide the gashes in the rock and show only bits of soft red color. We revelled in the beauty of the scene, the tranquillity of the limpid stream and the absence of human life that lent to our advance all the charm of a discovery.

One more blissful day, down the canal, into the Connecticut, and up the Farmington, and the Wanderer's first boating trip is over. A hundred and thirty miles in six days, no mishaps, no casualties, the best of weather, the best of boats, the best of friends, combined to make up a week that, as the Arabs say, will not be counted in our length of days. Let those who will go to the fashionable hotels to dance and flirt the summer away, or to the mountains to walk, or the streams to fish, or the woods to shoot, but give me a light and trim-built boat, a willing companion, a beautiful river, and the radiant health, the buoyant spirits and the sweet scenes of nature that remain indelibly on the mind will repay one more than a thousand fold for the time and labor spent in manning a “pair-oared crew.”

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