The Virginia Boat Club descends from one of the earliest rowing clubs in the United States. In 1876, seven young men from the Olympic baseball team and a six-oared shell founded the Olympic Rowing Club at Second Street by the Kanawha Canal. Led by Captain A.S. Peticolas, they rowed on the canal from downtown to the pump house at what is now Byrd Park. The seven young founders built a one-story house on the old canal bank at the foot of Second Street, on the site of the present Chesapeake and Ohio Round House. The equipment consisted of a six-oared boat, and in the words of one of the seven, "When the crew went rowing it took the entire membership of the club to man the boat."
With the end of Reconstruction, Richmond quickly became the premier city of the South. As Richmond grew commercially and socially prominent, Richmond rowing flourished. In 1888, the Olympic Rowing Club and the nearby Kanawha Rowing Club merged to form the Virginia Boat Club. With their larger numbers and resources, they moved to Mayo's Island by the current 14th Street Bridge where they built the first of several boathouses.
That year, the VBC hosted a large and successful regatta drawing rowers from as far away as Boston. Under the auspices of the Virginia Rowing Association, the regatta featured 5-oared shells from Petersburg, Fredericksburg, the University of Virginia, Washington, D.C., and 9 scullers from as far away as Boston.
The Virginia Boat Club was incorporated in 1894 by its President, Judge Beverley T. Crump and rapidly grew, drawing the business and political elite of Richmond. It survived a series of floods and fires, including the 1929 Christmas fire which led to the last and most grand of the Mayo Island Boathouses.
Adding to the waterfront excitement was the addition on Mayo's Island of Tate Field in 1920, home of the semi-pro baseball team Richmond Colts. The stadium complex was immediately downriver from the VBC, adjacent to the VBC squash courts. In 1922, Babe Ruth played at Tate Field. While the riverfront location offered baseball fans broad vistas, it also brought seasonal flooding. The final and worst blow to Tate Field came in 1940, when the James swamped Tate Field and the VBC boathouse. Tate Field closed and baseball moved up to the Boulevard site by Scott's Addition to a new stadium called Mooers Field, where the current Diamond now stands. The VBC, however, dug-out, refurbished, and opened again for the 1941 season.
French Doors, Shad Roe Lunches & Raucous Card Games
Completed in July, 1930 at a cost of $25,000 nearly double the contracted price of $14,000, the two-story colonial brick boathouse offered handball courts, a swimming pool, shower facilities for men and women, a kitchen, and a ball room set off by French doors. While the Club demonstrated rowing prowess from time to time, members achieved more prominence through the remarkable social life they led at the Club.
VBC veterans recount that during the running of the shad in the spring, they would walk down from Main Street to the Club during lunchtime, receive a baited fishing pole from a jacketed waiter, catch a shad from the teaming waters, return the now full pole to the waiter, and enjoy a cocktail in the dining room while the kitchen retrieved and cooked the shad roe for a luncheon feast. Others who worked in the Financial District revel in memories of raucous Friday afternoon card games of the Club's POETS group - piss on everything, tomorrow is Saturday."
The University of Richmond and VCU rowed at the site, with U of R rowing through the 1950s and VCU rowing until June, 1972. VCU enjoyed a brief but brilliant six years, rowing from 1966-1972.  Donald Bowles, professor of retailing at then RPI's School of Distribution, formed the first VCU [then RPI] crew for the inaugural season of 1966-67. Coach Bowles had been an alternate on the 1926 U.S. Olympic Crew after rowing for Harvard. Alumni recall a daily run from the Shafer Street campus to the 14th Street Bridge: "Everyone would start out together, and there would always be a couple of guys lagging behind. The laggards would hitch a ride and arrive at the boathouse first…Picture us, the '60s hippie gang, running through the middle of three-piece-suit Main Street. People looked at us like we had three heads."
It was no coincidence that as RPI merged with Medical College of Virginia to form Virginia Commonwealth University, the dreams of building a great university propelled the crew. After struggling for three years as a student club, the crew's growing stature earned it varsity status, university funding, and a new coach, D.K. Waybright in 1970. With new shells, new equipment, and Waybright's unorthodox and aggressive coaching philosophy, the crew drew support at home and built a reputation on the road. The crew attracted crowds of picnicking students gathering on the banks of the James as the crews rowed from south of the 14th Street Bridge to the finish line at Ancarrow's Marina on the south side of the river. On the road, VCU crews traveled to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, South Carolina, and Miami and acquitted themselves against established crews such as Georgetown, Notre Dame, and even Cambridge University.
May 9, 1972 proved to be the last day of VCU crew at the 14th Street boathouse. A month later, Hurricane Agnes roared through Central Virginia leaving a wake of destruction, including the 14th Street boathouse and VCU's fleet inside.
Crew at VCU would remain a distant but bright memory until the spring of 2002 when a stalwart group of students re-formed the VCU crew to row out of the VBC's Power House in a mottled fleet of borrowed and begged boats. With pluck, a heroic work ethic on and off the water, and some timely assistance from the VBC, VCU Crew has earned a reputation as boating fast crews that compete with Virginia Tech, Mary Washington, ODU, American University, and other regional crews throughout the Middle Atlantic. The crew enjoyed its first two years under the disciplined coaching of VBC oarsman Dan LeBlanc. A Canadian Henley medalist himself and nephew of an Olympic oarsman, LeBlanc instilled a work ethic and dedication to finesse that continues to this day. LeBlanc’s 2005 novice men won gold, Champion of the Chase, at the October, 2005 Occoquan Chase. The Crew is now coached by Yuriy Levitsky. Coach Yuriy, a former captain of the VCU Crew, comes from a long rowing tradition, that includes his father, a nationally ranked Soviet oarsman. Coach Yuriy ’s crews have gained a reputation for superb conditioning which has paid off; their 2007 fall season included 3rd place finishes for both novice men and women at the Occoquan Chase. The novice men finished third only behind University of Virginia’s first and second place winning crews.
Rivers of Ruin
Rowing and social activities peaked prior to WWII. Rowing continued at the Mayo Island site until June, 1972, when the Club folded after being inundated by floods from the 1969 Hurricane Camille and 1972 Hurricane Agnes. Hurricane Camille brought storm waters and debris flowing up to the five foot level of the second floor dining areas and temporarily closed the Club. Although the Club re-built, it staggered under mounting debt and the declining interest of the times in the VBC's formal setting, formal social activities, and team sport programs. Hurricane Agnes brought the death knell in June, 1972 when the James River roared through the house, smashing the VBC and VCU fleets downstairs, and leaving the polished pine floors of the second floor ballroom, dining room, and kitchen piled high with a soaking debris. The Club never re-opened. An auctioneer's hammer closed the Virginia Boat Club for good on May 27, 1973.
The current Virginia Boat Club springs from an eclectic group of five enthusiasts who gathered on the banks of the James River in 1986, after chemical engineer Michael H. Jones returned from a summer in Austria where he had learned the sport that summer. Jones, several engineering colleagues, a paramedic, a chemist, a nurse, and Jones' Springer Spaniel Rupert spent months locating, purchasing, and renovating a venerable but decrepit fleet that consisted of a Pocock women's quad from Philadelphia, a Pockock men's 4 from Alexandria named the Alexandria Police, and a remarkably unstable single from England. The daring few who attempted to scull christened the single the "Lead Pencil" for its top-heavy build
In 1987 the Club incorporated under the name Virginia Boat Club, and moved from its quarters at the Raschig warehouse next door to its current quarters at 4708 East Main Street, the Sternheimer Building. The turn of the century Sternheimer building was originally the generating station for the Richmond trolley system.
New Look, Timeless Values
The Virginia Boat Club can not claim and does not attempt to re-kindle the social graces of the aristocratic old club nor would it be appropriate in our time and day. Rather, the Club has focused its energies on growing the sport of rowing through community outreach programs such as our sponsorship of collegiate rowing at VCU, and high school rowing at James River High School and our adult learn to row programs. The VBC also has a number of elite competitors who have brought back gold from as far as the Canadian Henley, and who routinely challenge the nation's elite master rowers in East Coast regattas including the Head of the Schuylkill, Head of the Charles, Head of the Potomac, Head of the Occoquan, and Diamond State Sprints.
Our diverse and active membership shares our heritage of love for the James River and the joys and challenges of this elegant and timeless sport.
Written and compiled by Paul D. Georgiadis
About the Author
The author joined the Club in 1986 and served as Club President. He welcomes corrections and additions to this on-going work, last updated on November 1, 2007. Sources include the archives of Richmond Newspapers–the Times Dispatch and News-Leader, Dementi Studios, and interviews with former members of the VBC.