Q&A: ‘Boathouse Row’ Author Dotty Brown

The recently released book explores a Philadelphia icon and its vast history.

Boathouse Row has a rich history with not only the city and its suburbs, but the formation of the modern day sport of rowing. Dotty Brown, a longtime reporter and editor at Philadelphia Inquirer and Merion Station resident, penned “Boathouse Row: Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing,” exploring its significance. A rower for 15 years and a member of the Vesper Boat Club, Brown looks at the early history of rowing in Philadelphia. Here, she shares her inspiration and insight into the book.  

MLT: What was your inspiration for the book?

DB: The history of Boathouse Row, in a sweeping sense, has never been done. There were periods of time that were written about a particular race or there was some memoir. There have been little things written, but nothing that ever looked at the Row in a sweep.

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MLT: How did you tell the stories of the past?

DB: What I tried to do was to tell stories about Boathouse Row through the eyes of people who were important in the particular eras of the Row’s history. Thomas Eakins, who was a painter and a rower, captured the 1870s era when he was growing up. The Kellys were critical to the row because they changed a lot of things about rowing in the United States, not just on boat house row, in terms of bringing kids in, starting school boy rowing, which was high school rowing which influenced college rowing. Their story is much bigger than just Philadelphia. Then the women have an amazing story because they had a feminist battle just like they did in so many other areas.

MLT: Did you uncover any stereotypes?

DB: Another thread to the whole book, which was one that was important for me to understand, was the demographics of the Row. It has the stereotyped impression of being very elite. Over the years, it has really reflected the changing demographics of this country. The early years were fairly wealthy men, or at least people who had enough leisure time that they could play on the Row. Later you had immigrants come in, then women, and now there’s a big push to get more inner city kids on the river. We’ve seen the social changes as well.

MLT: Any unique traditions?

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DB: One of the first things I found that started to get me excited was the constitution of the Bachelors Barge Club from 1853, in which they spell out the fact that members had to be a bachelor. If you got married, you lost your voting rights.

MLT: How did your career as a journalist help you with the book?

DB: I was a reporter in many different areas. I was a business reporter, a food writer, medical and science editor, a projects editor, which required pulling together big projects visually and text wise. This book has drawn on every single skill I’ve ever learned because I know how to report. I immersed myself in old archives and newspapers, and then went out and interviewed tons of people. Narratively, in terms of taking this on as a project, I wanted to make sure it hung together.

MLT: What’s one of the most interesting things you discovered?

DB: One is the customs. A couple of the clubs had their roots in firehouses. In the old days in Philadelphia, the firehouses were each located in a different neighborhood and each were separate. People in the neighborhood would volunteer to be in that firehouse. A couple of them moved onto the river when the city started pulling together—the firehouses were being consolidated for a citywide fire department. They brought with them all their customs. They had uniforms, but not just uniforms—there were summer uniforms, winter uniforms, rowing uniforms. The club minutes show every few months that they would switch up their uniforms or add something to it.

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MLT: What was the significance of women in rowing and Philadelphia?

DB: In 1928, a woman named Ernestine Steppacher fell in love with Ernest Bayer, who was training for the Olympics. At the time, if a man got married, it was perceived to hurt his ability and strength. They eloped in New York and kept it secret until after he competed in the Olympics, where he won a silver medal. Ernestine got annoyed watching him row all the time. She eventually convinced Ernest she wanted to row. There wasn’t really much of a facility [for women] to row, but she learned that a boat club was going to be vacant. She and a group of other working class women got together and raised enough money to rent that club. Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club was the first consistently competitive rowing club in the U.S. They fought hard to find people to compete against. The Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club and some of their members—particularly Ernestine Bayer and Joanne Iverson, who, as a young woman fell in love with rowing in the early 1960s and was shocked to learn that there as no Olympic team for women—fought on a national level to get women’s rowing to a higher level.

MLT: What do you hope readers get out of your book?

DB: So many people drive by Boathouse Row. It looks like this pretty postcard—it seems to be this gigantic secret, nobody knows what happens inside. I’m hoping people reading this book understand that Boathouse Row has an important connection to the city. Its history mirrors many of the stories. It’s not this distant, unreachable place.

Learn more about the book and upcoming author events at boathouserowthebook.com

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