At the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo had about two dozen rowing clubs, small men’s groups from different sections of the city that competed mostly in single and double sculls.
But in 1912, a group of Hibernians who lived on the West Side and wanted to step up in competition, in larger boats, established the West Side Rowing Club, according to both longtime coach and board member James R. Schaab and a brief history on the club’s website.
West Side has operated at four different sites for more than a century, teaching the sport to tens of thousands of local rowers.
“We’ve never varied from our mission the past 104 years, to teach rowing to the youth of Western New York,” Schaab said. “I always tell the kids that life’s lessons are learned in the boat.”
While West Side started as a men’s club, it made its mark in targeting youths, as the first club to sponsor public high-school rowing in the United States, in 1921, Schaab said.
The club’s first location was on the Black Rock Channel across from Breckenridge Street, where legend has it that some of the wood used in the building came from burned remains of All Saints Church, according to the website history. Expansion of the sewer-disposal plant forced the West Side Rowing Club into a new home, at Broderick Park, near West Ferry Street, where the club stayed from the mid-1920s until it burned down in 1975.
That fire, on July 30, 1975, devastated the club, destroying the boathouse and sparing only nine boats and 29 oars that were out at a regatta.
For five years, as various government agencies worked to acquire land for the current facility near the foot of Porter Avenue, the club operated out of a temporary metal building nearby. The new building was dedicated five years to the day after the fire, with Mayor Jimmy Griffin calling the new facility the first waterfront improvement done without government money, according to the website. That historical narrative was boiled down from 342 hand-typed pages documenting the club’s first 36 years.
West Side rowers have represented the club at top international championships, including the Olympics, Pan-American Games, U.S. Nationals, World Junior Championships and Henley Regatta. Many winning crews have left their colorful marks, literally, on the Black Rock Channel breakwall, in full view from the Niagara Thruway.
Back when full club and college crews battled for Olympic rowing spots, West Side sent two full boats to the Olympics, a four without coxswain in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and the four with cox in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
At least seven people with West Side ties have rowed or coached in the Olympics since then. That includes three in the Rio Olympics: rower Emily Regan and coaches Tom Terhaar and Scott Roop.
Regan’s selection is no anomaly. Women started rowing at West Side in 1978, and female rowers there now outnumber the males.
In 2007, the West Side Rowing Club opened a classy two-story addition that had been more than a century in the making, a boathouse that Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1905 and redrew in 1930. Designed as both a working boathouse and tourist attraction along the Black Rock Channel, the Charles & Marie Fontana Boathouse bears the name of the legendary West Side rowing coach and his wife.
– Gene Warner