Celebrating the 4th on Raspberry Island

In early 1874, the men of the Minnesota Boat Club finally abandoned the floating boathouse that they had moored to the foot of the Robert Street Bridge and moved into a new boathouse on Raspberry Island[1], an exceptional location with many advantages. Raspberry Island was convenient to downtown St. Paul, accessible via a short walk over the Wabasha Street Bridge. It was undeveloped and natural, with plenty of mature shade trees, offering an escape from the dust and commotion of the city. It was seen as an oasis, one that could be further transformed into something magical, which it frequently would be in the years to come, for celebrations and exclusive moonlit parties.

By 1874, MBC was positioned to be a highly competitive rowing club. Its active membership had almost quadrupled since its founding, it had 18 boats in its inventory[2], and the men were rowing and training out of a new boathouse. Everything under its control was at potential, yet the club was missing the most crucial component to racing: competitive rivals. There were no established rowing clubs within close proximity to St. Paul. Aside from the occasional single scull or straight four match with Red Wing or Stillwater, MBC had no one to race.

To compensate for the lack of competition and to celebrate the opening of their new boathouse, MBC organized its first annual intra-club 4th-of-July Regatta in 1874. This was not only an opportunity to showcase the club and its members' athleticism, it was an opportunity for the city of St. Paul to come out and watch a regatta on their very own stretch of the Mississippi River. The first regatta was a success, and the annual tradition soon became the great distinguishing feature of the club and the focal point of St. Paul’s Independence Day celebrations, always drawing scores of spectators and fans.

The featured rowing events for the 4th of July Regatta did not vary from year to year, always including junior and senior singles, doubles, and fours. Crews would line up near the Wabasha Street Bridge, within sight of the boathouse balcony, race one mile upstream, turn 180 degrees around a stake, and then power back down to the bridge. This out and back racecourse was typical of 1870s racing and allowed spectators to view both the start and the finish of each race[3].

In between the rowing races, ladies previously chosen by committee would christen any new boats with champagne and a witty speech. In 1889, for example, Mrs. Governor W. R. Mirriam christened the four-oared Minnehaha, expressing hope that the new boat might prove as swift as the falls from which it took its name; Mrs. Cass Gilbert, The Osceola, invoking speed and good luck while sprinkling a bottle of Moet & Chandon over its hull; and Mrs. C. Milton Griggs, apparently, sent a shower of champagne spray over the crew of The Spokane, a new double working boat[4].

After the rowing and boat christening, there would always be a 500-foot swim race followed by, for the sake of levity and ridiculous amusement, a 500 foot tub race. The tub race required men to crawl into barrels and do whatever it took to stay upright. Crossing the finish line first was the goal, but for most contestants just staying afloat was the main objective. After all races of all types were over, prominent members of society, often the mayor himself, would close out the day by presenting coveted trophies and badges[5] with the most prized Citizens' Cup (see image to the right) and Mayor's Cup bestowed on the winning crews of the senior and junior fours respectively.

The regatta was always a see-and-be-seen social event. With only a few exceptions, the club sent invitations to select guests enabling them to view races from the shelter of the boathouse balcony or shaded lawn of the Island.

These Regattas are quite important in the sporting world, but perhaps more so in the social circle, to which the popular young members of the club belong…If the presence of fair ladies in gay summer costumes and the countless little bits of gallantry on the part of the opposite sex, rather than the actual breaking of records with the oar, make up the success of a boat club regatta, then the 13th annual Fourth of July Regatta was a big success. [7]

The Great Western Band, or, occasionally, Siebert’s Band would set up, usually in a grove on the south side of the pavilion, to further enliven the three to four hour event with music. The ‘less fashionable[6]’ crowd—those without invitations—would gather on the Wabasha Street Bridge, the High Bridge, or the bluffs along 3rd Avenue, often standing for hours in the hot sun to see the races.

The annual 4th of July regatta never failed to draw thousands of St Paul citizens out to the Mississippi River; in rowing, St. Paul finally had a sport to watch. The 4th of July Regatta remained a beloved tradition for both the club and the city of St Paul through 1895, defining the early years of the club and its importance to the city of St. Paul.

[1] In 1874 the club leased land on Raspberry Island and built their first boathouse for $2200.

[2] By the end of 1874, MBC owned 1 six-oared lapstrake barge, 1 paper four-oar, 2 wooden four-oar, 1 wooden double, and one working boat. In addition, the new boathouse sheltered 12 private boats: 1 pair and 11 single shells.

[3] In 1888 the course was shortened to 3/4 mile each way to enable spectators to view the entire race. In 1894 the course was shortened further – to 1/2 mile.

[4] The Saint Paul Daily Globe, Morning Edition, July 5, 1889, p.8.

[5] Prizes: Corning Prize and a gold badge – junior single scull; Jilson Prize – senior single scull; The Citizens Cup – senior four-oared; The Mayor’s Cup – junior four-oared; Miniature Gold Tub - tub race; gold sea shell – swim race.

[6] Reference to ‘less fashionable’ The Saint Paul Daily Globe, July 5, 1888.

[7] The Saint Paul Daily Globe, Morning Edition, July 6, 1886, p. 2.

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