BY RICK SCHULTE
In the early days of the Wyandotte Boat Club, getting to competitions was an effort all by itself. Members would get in their shells and row upstream to either the Ecorse Boat Club or the Detroit Boat Club — both many miles away.
How things have changed since the club’s origination in 1875.
The Wyandotte Boat Club (WBC) is home to several Downriver high school programs, including Roosevelt High School. While the club now has an impressive site at the foot of Pine Street near Biddle, the rich tradition of the sport continues today.
According to Fred Mekolon, who works with the WBC and the high school program, there are approximately 70 athletes representing Roosevelt’s teams (40 for the men’s team, 30 for the women’s team). Additionally, six other high school programs (Gibraltar Carlson, Dearborn Heights Crestwood, Grosse Ile, Riverview, Southgate Anderson and third-year program Trenton) also call the WBC its home.
In local rowing circles, springtime is known as the high school rowing season. Since rowing is not recognized by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, it is a club sport — meaning financial support for the teams generally comes through fundraisers.
And the cost to cover rowing is pretty staggering, especially since there are only two local high school events. The Hebda Memorial Cup kicks off the season April 29, followed by the Wyandotte High Schools Regatta May 6. Roosevelt finished second to Saline’s teams in the Hebda a year ago.
Unlike the old days, there is no rowing to the next regatta. The various shells (the boats used for rowing) are worth up to $20,000 each and are transported by trailer (another hefty expense). The schedule takes the team to venues throughout the region, culminating in June at the Canadian Secondary Schools Regatta in St. Catherines, Ontario. The schedule also includes trips to Saline, Grand Rapids (for state championships) and London, Ontario.
But there’s more to come after that.
“The summer WBC rowing program, that starts after the high school season, combines those athletes from the Downriver schools to create a travel team,” Mekolon said. “Those numbers vary year to year, but on average the club program has around 40 athletes, and then another group that row a development program of around 16.”
The Roosevelt program has various fundraisers throughout the year at the WBC, including an ’80s-themed fundraiser event March 4 and had previous stand-up comedy and bowling gatherings.
The Boat Club building gets a great deal of use. Not only are there training facilities for the rowers on the main level, but upstairs has a large lounge area available for use by club members and their guests — with, of course, a great view of the river.
It’s come a long way since the inception of the organization in the late 19th century. Local workers needed a reprieve after a long day at work in one of the nearby factories, so many took to the nearby waterfront to go rowing. A group of local men, led by John McKnight, organized the WBC. The original club home, coincidentally, was also at the foot of Pine Street. Basically, it was a shed to house the shells, with a small boat house later constructed to shelter a 10-boat barge purchased in Detroit. This two-story structure actually proved to be a town gathering place when the WBC hosted competitions — events that were a true social event.
Later, the club moved to a structure just behind the American Legion building at the foot of Vinewood Street; the facility’s dock also served as a launch point for the rowers until another club building was erected in 1944. Later, with a donation of land from Wyandotte Chemical Co. and through the work of benefactors such as William Kreger, a new boathouse was built at the foot of Mulberry Street.
Donations helped create the new facility and shrewd planning grew the WBC. A clubhouse was built, which was leased to the Wyandotte Yacht Club in 1953. Revenues from the lease continue to support the WBC today.
Eventually, more room was needed. The success of teams rowing from the club, plus the boom among women’s rowing programs, had the longtime facility bursting at the seams. With the help of the City of Wyandotte, community leaders and organizations, plus the club’s longtime advocate Kreger, the current home for the Boat Club opened in 1997. Built at a cost of $1.8 million, it has the reputation of being a world-class facility.
There are more than 600 members in the WBC, who pay dues annually. The club also offers competitive rowing the summer and fall seasons, in addition to an adult recreational program starting in mid-June.
Of course, a good amount of effort goes into developing newcomers to the sport — including young people.
“The WBC also does a middle school ‘learn to row’ program in the summer for those students who have not yet rowed in high school,” Mekolon said.
Interested in attending one of the local regattas? There are some great vantage points along the Detroit River, especially at BASF Park. Races begin both days at 8 a.m., with medal and award presentations in the early afternoon. You can learn more about these events and the programs offered by the WBC at wyandotteboatclub.com.