Dusty Relics of Arkansas History
August 6-12, 2018
By Bob Denman
The Boat House Club
I bet most of you have never heard about the Athletic Association of Little Rock. I hadn’t either until November of 2014. It has quite an impressive history and certainly qualifies as a Dusty Relic of Arkansas History.
It was founded in the late 19th century and for over 60 years it was simply known as the Boat House Club. It owes its origins to a group of four young gentlemen who gathered regularly at the Bernays and Maxwell men’s store in the Capital Hotel to discuss how they might best spend their leisure time. The Bernays and Maxwell store was made popular by their creative advertising that appeared in local newspapers during the 1880s. Their meetings led to the founding of the Athletic Association of Little Rock aka the Boat House Club in 1882. They began with 40 members paying $25 annual dues to enjoy the club facilities from 5 a.m. to midnight. Many of those founding families went on to develop the Little Rock metropolitan area we enjoy today. Membership peaked at over 250 members.
The Boat House Club predated the Country Club of Little Rock by 20 years and quickly gained prominence as the social hub of city. The club held debutante balls, vaudeville and minstrel shows, dances, softball games, bowling, swimming and diving competition. There was even a football team that traveled and competed all across the south. They had the fastest racing skills in the Mississippi Valley with crews competing from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. But what they were really known for was their Labor Day Regatta on the Arkansas River headquartered in their posh club headquarters at the foot of today’s Main Street bridge on the Little Rock side. That first regatta was held in 1883, with only men competing in boats named for the most popular Boat House Club debutantes.
The club house was a popular lodging location for famous athletes visiting our city. It was even leased to the Federal Government during World War I to house naval officers in training on the river.
The club was plagued by fires in 1887, 1920, and 1938 and eventually ceased operations in 1945.
The Arkansas Boathouse Club rose from those ashes in 2006 and currently occupies a clubhouse and boat yard at the foot of the I-30 bridge on the North Little Rock side of the river. It was here in November of ’14 that I toured the club house and deck overlooking the river. They have nice workout equipment, designed of course for rowing, and an impressive fleet of boats.
The group brought back the 60 plus year tradition of Labor Day regattas in 2014 with the inaugural Six Bridges Regatta, governed by the United States Rowing Association. Over 400 rowers from across the south competed in 65 racing heats. It was a huge success and has become an annual event. The final race of the regatta is a salute to the old Boat House tradition – a sprint between the best Little Rock and St. Louis crews.
The Arkansas Boathouse Club is – thankfully – no longer a Dusty Relic of Arkansas History, but extremely active.
Today the Boat House Club is known as the Arkansas Boathouse Club. Annually, the club puts on the Six Bridges Regatta, as pictured above. (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)