To say that Minnesota has a strong outdoor recreational culture that revolves around its lakes is probably stating the obvious. Known as the 'Land of Lakes,' Minnesota boasts well over 10,000, and many offer ideal conditions for rowing. Yet, despite the overabundance of available 'still water,' the state's first rowers chose the mighty Mississippi River for the site of their club. The Minnesota Boat Club (MBC), the oldest rowing and athletic club in the state, remains where it has always been - on Raspberry Island - and its members continue to negotiate the unpredictable currents and river traffic as they always have (some believe this makes them stronger, better prepared for any situation they might encounter on a race course).
As the sport of rowing was establishing a foothold in Minnesota in the 1870s and 1880s, so too were the local railroad lines and resorts. Being a popular spectator sport, regattas drew people out to socialize, cheer on their team, and wager money on races. Before the turn of the century, railroads often discounted or waived tickets for rowers and their equipment in the hopes that a regatta would lure large crowds to the associated resort and concurrently increase train ridership, a strategy that benefited everyone. During the early years of rowing in Minnesota, the railroads and resorts actively supported regattas held on Lake Minnetonka, White Bear Lake, and Lake Elmo.
The first mention of rowing at Lake Elmo dates to 1885 when the Stillwater Boat Club sent invitations to the Lurlines (now the Minneapolis Rowing Club) and MBC to meet on August 24 for a series of three races, all with cash prizes, trophies and badges. The event was a huge success, drawing scores of people to the lake. Over 500 people gathered to picnic and watch rowing on what the St. Paul Daily Globe (August 24, 1885) described as ‘that beautiful sheet of water a few miles out on the Omaha & Stillwater road.’
Two years later, on August 15, 1887, the newly-formed St. Paul Boat Club chose Lake Elmo as the site for its first regatta, which was more than just a regatta. It was a see-and-be-seen high society social gathering, the crowning event of the peak summer holiday season. Prominent citizens from Minneapolis and St. Paul attended along with out of state visitors. The St. Paul Boat Club, Minnesota Boat Club, and Winnipeg Boat Club competed in small boats and fours. After the races, a dinner was served at the Lake Park Hotel where prizes were presented 'by charming young ladies who are social queens in St. Paul' to winning crews after which guests ‘repaired to the dining room where they tripped the light fantastic toe until nearly midnight’ (St. Paul Daily Globe August 17, 1887).
After a long hiatus, there was a resurgence of interest in racing at Lake Elmo in the 1960s. This time around it had nothing to do with resorts or railroads. It had everything to do with the venue itself. Clubs were lured to the lake by its beauty and near-perfect 2000 meter course. In 1966, the second annual Midwest Collegiate Fall Regatta, the first of many collegiate regattas to be held at Lake Elmo throughout the late 1960’s and ‘70s, was held there. The regatta write-up describes ‘the deep, deep waters of this uncannily perfect 2000 meter straightaway rowing course with a well-forested, brightly colored, shoreline that affords invaluable protection.’ The University of Minnesota, the College of St. Thomas, Macalester College, and South St. Paul High School competed against each other. St. Thomas won. The Gophers came in second.
That same year the St. Paul rowing community took a keen interest in Lake Elmo as a 2000-meter training venue. In a August 5, 1966 letter, long-time Minnesota Boat Club coach and president, Karl Twedt, expounded on the importance having access to a still water venue for training and coaching:
"A few years ago we built a float at Pig's Eye Lake and conducted some trials before leaving for the annual N.W.I.R.A regatta. We raced 2000 meters over still water. What does this type of racing teach us that we cannot learn on our regular Mississippi River practice course? The answer is: 'Lots and lots of things.' Absent the current it is much easier to see where and how to boat athletes. It is the only way to ascertain whether athletes are of national caliber. Racing over a still water course, in a series of matches, can teach us the correct line-ups for our crews. Our own course [with an unpredictable current] keeps it a guessing game, and is, in many instances, unfair for the fellows who are trying to break into the lineups."
Twedt pointed out that the club had taken high school doubles crews to Princeton, Philadelphia and D.C. yet could never ascertain whether their times justified the 2,500 mile trips. Twedt proposed the establishment of a still-water course at Lake Elmo for weekend rowing with an open invitation for other crews to join in. He included detailed infrastructure needs. In closing he wrote: ‘We believe this could well be the greatest forward step in MBC progress in 50 years.’
In 1967, the Minnesota Boat Club held their 11th Annual Labor Day Regatta at Lake Elmo, and it was historic. It was the first time that women entered the fray as competitive rowers in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area, and I’d be remiss to not point out that this was exactly 50 years ago. Four teams of women—from the Duluth Rowing Club, the Minneapolis Rowing Club, The Minnesota Boat Club, and the Milwaukee Rowing Club—lined up to race in fours and eights. Duluth won. Three of these womens' crews had raced about a month prior in Duluth.
In 1976 the historic Northwestern International Rowing Association Regatta was held for the first time at Lake Elmo.
Lake Elmo boasts a strong legacy of rowing. In addition, today Lake Elmo provides a much-needed rowing venue that is accessible to the east metro. Of the six rowing clubs in the Twin Cities, five are located in either Minneapolis or the western suburbs. In a few weeks, rowing clubs from throughout Minnesota and Canada will once again gather at Lake Elmo to compete in the 114th Northwestern International Rowing Association Regatta (August 11 and 12). The historic NWIRA regatta is the perfect opportunity to take in some races on an 'uncannily perfect 2000-meter straightaway course.' Don't miss it.