Spring in Detroit. The sun’s rays shine down. The smell of apricot flowers blossom on trees under which picnics are spread out. People read books while others throw birthday parties in this most picturesque setting. And leisurely visitors listen to favorite Spotify playlists.
On warm spring days, memories are created and cherished on the beautiful 982-acre island known as Belle Isle. Here, Detroiters find a variety of activities to enjoy, including the Belle Isle Conservatory, the James Scott Memorial Fountain, and the Belle Isle Nature Center. Then again, some are happy just sitting under trees dreaming about the future.
And it’s here, on this beautiful island, that the Detroit Boat Club welcomes the larger metropolitan community to take part in competitive and recreational rowing programs for children and adults of all ages and training levels.
Founded in 1839, two years after Michigan became a state and 22 years before the Civil War, the Detroit Boat Club is the first boat club formed in North America. It also holds the honor of being one of the oldest continuously operating rowing organizations in the world, as well as the oldest social club in Michigan.
The club’s boathouse is also located on Belle Isle, and the mammoth Venetian-style structure sits on the site of the club’s two previous homes – both lost to fires. Looking to avoid another disaster, the current boathouse was built in 1902 as one of the earliest structures in the country made entirely of concrete.
Originally started as a rowing club, the Detroit Boat Club has brought together a community of members who share a passion for the boathouse and rowing, and the commitment to be part of Detroit’s past, as well as its future. Many organizations also have ties to the Detroit Boat Club, including Detroit Boat Club Crew, Friends of Detroit Rowing, and the Belle Isle Art Gallery.
From its humble beginnings in the early 1840s, the Detroit Boat Club crews have gone on to successfully compete on local, regional, national, international, and Olympic levels. The rowing program in the boathouse today builds on its longstanding past with a nationally ranked crew.
The Detroit Boat Club Crew, sharing a history with, but separate from the Detroit Boat Club, is sponsored by Friends of Detroit Rowing. This non-profit group is dedicated to the education and promotion of amateur rowing in the Detroit metropolitan community.
Dixon Kirkland, an active member of Friends of Detroit Rowing, spends quite a bit of time at the Detroit Boat Club. It’s a place he and many others call home. The Detroit Rowing Club currently has as many as 300 members, with around 50 to 60 in master’s rowing.
Kirkland explains, “The heart of the club is in the rowing. But even though the club started as a rowing club, it’s now our home. And we think of the members as family.”
Times are changing in Detroit, and we’re witnessing a revitalization of our great city. Belle Isle and the Detroit Boat Club are also experiencing positive change. The state of Michigan has offered its support to help revitalize Belle Isle.
“The state coming in is a blessing. The island is now being protected and restored as a public park that everyone can enjoy,” Kirkland says.
Kirkland and the Friends of Detroit Rowing have a strategic vision that has culminated in a plan called Project Pull Together. This project’s goal is to renovate the historic boathouse and draw on the building and surrounding site as a tool for a sustainable future. The plans include remodeling the boathouse’s current kitchen and creating a place for caterers to come in and host events. The venue can be used for meetings, weddings, or other types of gatherings.
The Detroit Boat Club is also developing programs to revitalize rowing in Detroit. Expanded rowing programs will not only provide athletic and educational opportunities to all ages, but will also draw an increased number of participants to Belle Isle year-round. With a renewed focus on the island and the potential for groups like the Belle Isle Conservancy to serve as project partners, the prospects for a renovated boathouse are brighter now than ever before.
Michele Hodges, president of the Belle Isle Conservancy, would agree that she anticipates great things on the horizon for the Detroit Boat Club.
“Belle Isle is a cultural repository for Detroit,” Hodges says. “And the Boat Club provides Detroiters with a shared history and memories dating back through generations of family members. Detroiters have grown up with the Boat Club and Belle Isle.”
And the Conservancy is also committed to the future of both.
“The Belle Isle Conservancy has a very collaborative relationship with the Boat Club,” Hodges says. “We look forward to opportunities to help with fundraising efforts, as well as ways to create a more sustainable future for the boathouse.”
To help restore this prestigious landmark to its original splendor, the Detroit Boat Club Crew has opened the Belle Isle Art Gallery and is partnering with Michigan’s premier architectural photographer, Gene Chamberlain.
Rowing is a special story to Detroit. It brings together diverse groups with two common goals: To share the sport of rowing and create a welcoming place for Detroiters. Not many cities have the opportunity, the waterways, or the desire to embrace a rowing community the way Detroit can.
“There’s nothing like being on Detroit’s river,” Kirkland says. “You’re out there in a single at 5 o’clock in the morning, and the water’s flat. You hear the whoosh, and you’re gliding across. It’s just Zen.”
Out on the water anything is possible. And the Detroit Boat Club is in a very good place to dream about its future.