Rowing began as a club sport in 1874, though scant documentation survives from those days.
In February 1892, by the union of “the Base-ball Association, the Foot-ball Association, the Tennis Association and the Boat Club,” the University of Wisconsin Athletic Association was formed.
Later that spring, the first (two) eight-oared gigs arrived, and from that time, interest in aquatic sports has never lagged. At least 48 men rowed in the class races of the regatta that year.
A Wisconsin varsity team, selected from the best of the class crews, participated in and won its first non-intramural competition against the Chicago “Navy” (a team selected out of the best men from eleven Chicago boat clubs) on August 27, 1892 on a 3/4 mile course on Lac La Belle in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
Shortly thereafter, in September of 1892, UW named Dr. Charles Kendall Adams as its new President. Adams came from Cornell University, where coach Charles E. Courtney had given Cornell an international reputation through his successful crew program. Adams saw an opportunity to gain notoriety for the university through crew competition, and was an ardent supported of the sport during his presidency.
Construction of the boat-house, just behind the Red Gym on the south shore of Lake Mendota, was started by the old boat club, but the undertaking proved too large for that organization, and during the winter of 1893 the University Boat-House Company bought and completed it. In the spring of 1893, an abandoned paper shell was purchased from Harvard and a crew composed largely of football athletes was put in practice.
Milwaukee beer baron Captain Fred Pabst, through his generous donation, helped secure the first new eight-oared paper shell. With only three weeks experience in the boat, the first varsity team raced the Delaware Boat Club of Chicago on a straightaway course of two miles and lost by three feet.
Adams hired Amos Marston at Wisconsin as a part-time coach in 1894 (for less than 4 weeks) to help the fledgling varsity sport better prepare for only their third non-intramural contest. Marston brought to Madison the rowing and training techniques from Courtney’s world-class rowing program.
A new coach – Andrew M. O’Dea from Australia – was signed and took charge in mid-February, 1895. A new “Shell Fund” was being organized to acquire the finest shell available. The idea of a solicitation directory was brought into use. One man was given from 1 to 250 on State Street for instance and another would be given from 250 to 400. On May 27, the new Davy cedar shell, measuring 61 feet 9 inches and weighing 230 pounds, arrived in Madison.
With their new shell and Coach O’Dea’s “Kangaroo stroke,” the UW, in their first race of 1895, defeated by two lengths the Delaware Boat Club of Chicago. During this period, Wisconsin developed a rivalry with the Minnesota Boat Club as well, and participated in annual races on Lake Minnetonka from 1894 through 1898.
The first Poughkeepsie Regatta (later the IRA’s), organized by Columbia, Cornell and Pennsylvania, was held on the Hudson River on a 4-mile course on June 24, 1895. The race was held over the famous four-mile straight-away below Krum Elbow. The event consisted of only a varsity race, with the organizer schools, Columbia, Cornell and Pennsylvania finishing in that order.
Wisconsin’s first race against a college crew did not occur until a year later when Wisconsin raced the Yale Frosh on Lake Saltonstall, New Haven on June 18, 1896. The following year, the Badger varsity went east to Yale in 1897 and lost to a Yale team which that season had broken the record over a two mile course with a time of 10:54.
With the exception of the 1898 Poughkeepsie Regatta, UW’s 1898 varsity crew team rowed only against club teams. In this year, the freshman began racing St. John’s Military Academy, a series which would continue into the 20th century.
The “Poughkeepsie Regatta” was transferred to Lake Saratoga because the Spanish-American war had made the New York Central’s West Shore Railroad observation train, with priorities elsewhere, unavailable along the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie.
Others worried the Spanish navy might “sail right up the Hudson.” Another influence were “the blandishments of resort hotel-keepers” at Lake Saratoga. Wisconsin entered its first IRA on July 2, 1898. The Badger eight finished third behind Penn and Cornell and ahead of Columbia. Following the IRA race, O’Dea was hired away as crew coach of the University boathouse, one of two boathouses and crews at Harvard.
The following year, Curran C. McConville, Captain of the 1897-98 crew, took over for O’Dea. The 1899 Poughkeepsie Regatta was Wisconsin’s second IRA and first on the Hudson River; this race became legendary at Wisconsin as the “Berry Crate Race” with the “Haymaker Crew.” Leading Penn for 3 1/2 miles of the 4-mile varsity racecourse down the Hudson River, UW coxswain J. G. Dillon was forced to swing into the boating anchorages of spectators in order to avoid damaging his shell on a floating strawberry crate in his course. The sharp turns and the boat-cluttered race path caused Wisconsin to slip behind Penn by 1.6 seconds to finish second at 19:46.6. Coach McConville readily gave up his position when O’Dea sought to return to Madison after a year’s absence.
After O’Dea’s return in 1900, the Wisconsin team made it’s first splash at the Poughkeepsie Regatta. The Badger Frosh, in their first visit and Wisconsin’s third year of attending, won their 2-mile race by three lengths over Penn Frosh, followed by Cornell and Columbia. O’Dea would lead Wisconsin to second place finishes in both the varsity and freshman eights at the 1902 IRA.
The remainder of O’Dea’s years at the university where disappointing. At the 1904 IRA, Syracuse, under their new head coach James A. (Jim) Ten Eyck, Sr., broke legendary Cornell coach Charles Courtney’s string of three victories, while Wisconsin finished sixth. In 1905 the varsity crew had no races prior to the Poughkeepsie Regatta as rough water on Lake Mendota kept the crew on shore an average of two or three times per week, and the crew’s performance suffered because of it.
A recurring problem for the crewteam from the early years until recently has been securing adequate funding. Donations have played an important part in keeping the team afloat in lean years.
On March 1, 1906, U.S. Congressman Isaac Stephenson of Marinette announced a $500 donation for the purchase of a motor launch for Coach O’Dea, however two weeks later O’Dea announced his resignation, largely over the failure of the program to secure adequate equipment and facilities, to be effective after the Poughkeepsie Regatta.
The following month, student Crew Commodore Cudworth Beye personally raised and encouraged campus group benefits to collect $1,800 in subscriptions to send the crew to the Poughkeepsie Regatta. For example, on June 1, 1906, a benefit concert was given featuring the Glee and Mandolin Clubs.
At the IRA race later that year, Cornell coach Charles Courtney, noting his crew and Wisconsin’s would both be practicing on the same side of the Hudson River the morning of June 18, invited UW coach Andrew O’Dea to join him in the Cornell launch, since UW lacked one of their own. O’Dea coached out of one side of the boat and Courtney out of the other. Cornell would go on to win the race, while Wisconsin finished fourth.
The 1903 history of UW rowing [pdf] gives a brief account of these years from a contemporary perspective.
The Archives has also acquired the scrapbook of M. N. Bodenbach, a rower from 1903-1906, which provides a variety of newspaper clippings, programs and images of the Wisconsin Crew in these years.