By Dick Barthelmess
Just previous to the Gay Nineties, a baker’s dozen of hardy San Diegans decided that what the town needed was a rowing club, down around the foot of E Street, where townsmen could gather now and then for water sports. Thus began the organization, at the time dubbed Excelsior Rowing and Swimming Club. The year was 1888.
The location was kept only a short time, when the group moved upbay to quarters on the old Pacific Coast Steamship Company Wharf at the foot of Fifth Street, making use of a part of the San Diego Boat House. After a few nip-and-tuck years the boys began debating over a new and more fitting monniker — just in case, in the future, competing oarsmen and swimmers should meet up with rivals from out of town. So the name San Diego Rowing Club finally was chosen.
Following a struggle for an adequate building fund, a brand new board-and-batten clubhouse finally was built alongside the same wharf; it was on piling and was connected to the main structure by a short entrance catwalk. The members were justly proud of the accomplishment of their goal, and as the club grew, the red-and-white structure on its piling foundation was added to, portion by portion.
As the years rolled on, membership in the San Diego Rowing Club gradually grew to, and passed, the one thousand mark. The organization became the hub of San Diego sports activity – stressing chiefly rowing, swimming, and some handball. Away from the clubhouse bowling, baseball and basketball offered variety, and there even were boxers and wrestlers, from time to time, who appeared in club colors.
The fame of the club now had spread to other coastal cities, as oarsmen and swimmers began to appear in other aquatic competitions up and down the coast. The year of 1919 will long be remembered by old-timers as the one when the club’s “Big Crew” — Hal (Skeeter) Pitts, Dewey Freeberg, Arnholt Smith, John Zimbelman and Coxswain Ted Steinmann brought home the bacon from the Pacific Association of Amateur Oarsmen’s regatta at San Francisco. The coach of the winning crew was none other than San Diego’s famous Fire Chief, Louis Almgren. It was also in 1919 that the San Diego Rowing Club’s swimmers beat the best of the coast’s Amateur Athletic Union competitors, in matches staged here and at Venice Bath House, the Los Angeles Athletic Club, and the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
To produce increased interest in the club’s activities, a “Big Three” composed of Max Winter, Mort Fowler and Milton Epstein organized the “Skeeters” – a sort of sub-club, of some distinction. To belong, one started by becoming a novice “singles” sculler, and then rowing from the clubhouse across the bay, to and around old Beacon 12, and back in 9 1/2 minutes or less. Most of this activity was in the early morning hours, and for years the sight of lone oarsmen, bending to the long spoon oars of spruce as they tried to crack the magical 9 1/2, was a familiar one to sunrise (and pre-sunrise) waterfronters. Then Capt. William F. Sutor came up with the “Killiefish” and “Dolphin” distinctions for swimmers. A Killiefish was one who could cover the 50-yard course in 36 seconds or better, while the Dolphins were those who qualified on much longer swims – the 1 1/8-mile course around Beacon 12, the 2 1/2-mile swim to Coronado Tent City, and finally the 5-mile swim. They also competed in the annual Silver Gate swim of 600 yards across the harbor entrance, from Fort Pio Pico to Ballast Point.
With all of this athletic activity, the club found plenty of time to be a “fun” organization as well, and the annual New Year’s Dip into the bay – at high noon of January 1, rain or shine — might be said to belong in both categories. And during the month of May of each year, on a specified Sunday morning, the big yacht Paxinosa would come alongside, to load with food and with kegs of “San Diego, The Quality Beer” from the city’s one and only pre-Prohibition brewery. Promptly at 10 o’clock Richard Seifert would bellow through locker rooms, gym and sun-decks — “All aboard for Brickyard Cove!” The clubsters would take off en masse for Lew Allen’s shack on the Silver Strand, away below Tent City, for a day of relaxation and “whoop-de-do.” At nightfall the tired but happy boatmen were back at the wharf and heading for the cold showers, which were all that the club had for 38 years.
The club’s sun deck, later glass-enclosed, was a general meeting place for downtown San Diegans at mid-day, and as the sun-baskers stretched out in the warmth, there was not only relaxation but rugged practical joking, and long discussions of world affairs and of the political life of the growing city. The “Fourth Estate” was well represented among the noon-time sunbathers, who numbered Editors Paul C. Edwards, Rodney Brink, James MacMullen, Roy Pinkerton and George H. Thomas. One of the more interesting ones was George Chambers, who religiously hung out a sign “Gone To Rowing Club” on the locked door of his place of business on Sixth Street, every noon. Some times he would inadvertently lock an absent-minded customer inside, and it would be up to the cop on the beat to solve the problem. His daughter is none other than San Diego’s famed swimming star, Florence Chambers.
Much of the discussions of the noon-day crowd in the sunroom — as well as some of their more garish pranks — found their way into the columns of the old San Diego Sun, where they are preserved to this day. The only file of the Sun which is left, incidentally, is carefully guarded in the concrete tower of the Junipero Serra Museum.
While all of this was going on inside, enviously hopeful youngsters would pause outside to contemplate the gold-lettered sign: “San Diego Rowing Club — Private.” To many of these lads it was a thrill, a few years later, to have Neil Brown accept their applications and give them the old Club pep-talk: “The Rowing Club is dear to our hearts because it is different from other clubs — truly a plain club, minus frills, and offering fellowship and a stimulating life to its members.”
That was a good description of the club. In those days it was such a plain, simple sort of a club that it didn’t even have an office or a swivelchair — just perfectionist Neil Brown uptown high-signing “Dues are due!” and a Club Captain steering the activities at the wharf in his off-duty hours.
They were a hardy lot and their talents were varied. There was Charlie (Iron Man) Springer, described by Galloping Jo Grossman of the old Sun as “The terror of West Coast rival stroke-oars” – who won many times for San Diego … Veteran coxswain Charles E. Arnold … and later coxswain Joe Jessop, whose brother George pulled stroke-oar in the same crew…to say nothing of such other staunch sportsmen as Del Beekley … Mouney Pfefferkorn, who introduced handball into the club as a “warm-up” after cold winter plunges in the bay . . . “Charlees” Martin, who came to us as a boatkeeper, from an old fourmaster tied up at the Coal Bunkers wharf … George Freeth, swimming coach who had won the Congressional medal for saving seven people from drowning during a storm at Venice, Calif., and who introduced the standard size of surfboard to local waters … And did you know that Wilbur Kyle was the first one in San Diego to swim other than the traditional breast-stroke?
In 1912, a toboggan-slide was built from the roof of the clubhouse down into the bay, to the delight of the more rugged members. Some years later came Brennan Isle, created as a by-product of a harbor dredging job, and for many years now an important part of the club’s installation. The most important thing about the place, however, is completely intangible – the something which, each year, brings grizzled oldsters back annually to meet and reminisce of the days when sliding seats and long spruce (or Port Orford cedar) oars were an important part of their lives.
The dividends of healthful exercise and stimulating companionship found in this lusty organization – which before too many years will be having its Diamond jubilee – are being reaped today by hundreds of men who have become leaders in the community. They are indebted to that little group of pioneers who knocked together a ramshackle clubhouse at the foot of E Street away back in 1888.
EDITOR’S NOTE — The contributor of the foregoing sketch, a native San Diegan and long-time member of the Board of Directors of the San Diego Rowing Club, wrote the “Rowing Club Gossip” column in the San Diego Sun for many years.