Marist College has been investigating the history of the Poughkeepsie Regatta for the past several years. The purpose of this project is to remind people that the Hudson River and Poughkeepsie, New York were once known for wildly cheering crowds, brightly colored pennants, the crack of a starting gun, and the rumble of a grandstand train. Above all they were known for putting young crew teams to the ultimate test, and determining through a grueling four mile race who had the best crew team in the nation.
For decades Poughkeepsie was famous for the excitement and the glory of the Poughkeepsie Regatta, but that has largely been forgotten. Yet now we are starting to see some of the old magic return. Marist College has developed a highly successful crew program. Both the men's and women's teams have won several MAAC Championships, and are becoming well known internationally. Slowly but steadily, with each pull of their oars, these determined and hard-working young men and women are bringing fame and excitement back to the Hudson River.
In the world of collegiate rowing, one of the biggest annual competitions is the Intercollegiate Rowing Association's (IRA) National Championship, which is currently held in Camden, New Jersey. Yet all of the prestige of the race was established in its original home, in Poughkeepsie, New York on the Hudson River.
The IRA was founded by Cornell University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania. These universities wanted to form an association in order to hold a race every year in which all of the top rowing schools in the country could compete. They chose the Hudson River, outside of Poughkeepsie, as the location to hold the race. It was one of the few places that had a straightaway that was four miles long.
Today, the Regatta is a two kilometer (1.2 miles) race. The officials hold several disqualifying heats to determine the group of finalists that will race for the championship. Today's format differs greatly from the Regatta that was held in Poughkeepsie over a century ago. Only a single race was run to determine the championship - winner takes all. An even more significant difference is that it was a four mile long race. This fact set the Regatta apart from all other crew races that have ever been held. It is the reason why the IRA Regatta became as prestigious as it did, and why the crew team that won was nationally regarded as the best of the best.
The very first IRA race was held in 1895. It consisted of one Varsity Eight team from each of the founding schools racing four miles on the Hudson River. Cornell won the very first Regatta championship with a time of 21:25.0. The Regatta was held in Poughkeepsie almost every year until 1949. During this time, it became the premier college rowing event in the country, and every college with a rowing program hoped to be invited to compete in it. The Regatta also became one of the most popular college athletic events in the nation. Eventually, it became so closely associated with its home town, that it was no longer referred to as the IRA Regatta, but was known instead as the Poughkeepsie Regatta.
In the early years the Eastern schools dominated the race. Typically only a four mile Varsity Eight race was held, but if there were enough teams entered, there was also a two mile Freshman Eight race, and occasionally a Varsity Four race. Eventually, this evolved into a format that included an annual two mile Freshman Eight race, followed by a three mile Junior Varsity Eight race, and finally the four mile Varsity Eight race. In 1923 the University of Washington became the first Western crew team to win the Poughkeepsie Regatta. From that year on the Western schools that participated, namely the University of Washington, and the University of California, became a dominating factor. They consistently placed in the top three, and more often than not, they won. The University of Washington became the first and only school to sweep the Regatta two years in a row.
The Poughkeepsie Regatta quickly became one of the greatest sporting events to watch in the country, and put Poughkeepsie on the map. Every year tens of thousands of spectators would come pouring into Poughkeepsie to watch the races. They covered the shores next to the river, many waiting all day, picnicking on blankets, to ensure they had a good view. The railroad tracks on the west side of the river had a flatbed train which held grandstands from which spectators could watch the race. As the crews rowed up the river, the train would keep pace with them, giving the people on board the best view possible. Hundreds of boats, yachts, and occasionally even Navy destroyers sailed to Poughkeepsie, and moored on the sides of the river to watch the event. The town of Poughkeepsie came alive on the day of the Regatta, with parades, bands, vendors, and banners. In addition, colorful pennants displaying the school colors of all the participants were flying everywhere. The Regatta was extensively covered by newspaper reporters, and as time went on it was even broadcast over local and national radio stations. But the crowds, the cheers, the reporters, parades, and pennants were not the reasons why the Regatta became so intensely popular, the explanation lay in the physical feats of the crew teams. To race at full-speed for four miles required such a breathtaking amount of strength, skill, and endurance that it was awe-inspiring to watch.