From Eakins’ own letters, we know that he rowed on the Schuylkill River. Even his sister rowed at a time when Victorians frowned on women engaging in “the manly sport of rowing.”
The oral history of the Pennsylvania Barge Club has passed down the idea that Eakins rowed there with his Central High School classmate Max Schmitt, a member of that club. Schmitt is depicted in Eakins’ famous 1871 painting, The Champion Single Scull, hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Eakins painted himself rowing in the background.
But did he also row out of Undine? There are clues but no evidence. In the 1860s and ’70s, the club was renting space in the Philadelphia Skating Club building (#14 Boathouse Row), completed in 1861, just months before Eakins graduated from high school. Eakins’ father, Benjamin, in the 1840s had been a founding member of the Skating Club, which enjoyed a frozen Schuylkill River in the century before global warming. Thomas Eakins loved skating, so surely he was familiar with the building (now #14 Boathouse Row).
The membership at Undine of Joseph Boggs Beale adds to the likelihood of Eakins rowing there. Also, Benjamin Howard Rand – who taught chemistry at Central High to both Eakins and Beale – was president of Undine in the early 1860s. And Eakins later asked Rand to pose for a portrait. So that was another connection to the rowing club.
Beale’s diaries, while mentioning Eakins, do not talk about rowing with him.
Still, Beale’s diary gives us a flavor of his involvement in Undine and the culture of rowing at the time. Beale, after being introduced to the club by his chemistry professor, was elected a member in July 1861. He would remain a member until his death at age 85 in 1926. His obituary says he was then the oldest member of Undine.
Here’s some of what Beale wrote about Undine and events on the river. (Interestingly, he writes in the early days of the Civil War and along with his day’s experiences, he mentions news from the warfront. )
June 23, 1860: I went out in the Arch Street cars to Fairmount to see a boat race for the championship. There was a great crowd out there about ten thousand & all over Lemon Hill or the new city park. The boats started from Turtle Rock in the Schuylkill river, & the first race was between 2 first class boats, outrigger barges, the Intrepid & the Lucifer. The Lucifer is now the champion of the Schuylkill Navy.
About a membership poster he drew for Undine (now missing): June 8, 1861: Today I finished the roll of members of the “Undine Barge Club.” It is for Prof. B.H. Rand, MD of the high school and is 27 by 40 inches… The words on the piece are these: “Undine Barge Club, No 6, May 9, 1856; President B.H. Rand M.D., Coxswain, Vice Coxswain, Secretary, Treasurer, Boat House Committee, Honorary Members, Active Members, Contributing Members & Deceased Members.” The names of the members were written on little strips of paper for me by Prof. Mac Neil and I am to put them on the piece so as to be slipped out, when necessary. There is room on the roll … for 104 names.
Besides the lettering and flourishes, there are two pictures in the piece, one is a picture of Undine [a water nymph] swinging on the branch of a tree over the water, the other a little Indian babe, paddling a canoe; & in the border around the roll there are 8 pictures, one in each corner, 1st and second are American eagles & the shield, & 3rd corner is the sailors apparatus (or “coat of arms”) consisting of oar, captain [? illegible], sail, anchor, American flag, etc, etc., and the 4th corner “out at sea” a little ship by moonlight. At the top of all is a sketch of their boathouse at Lemon Hill, which I went out and sketched from nature, & at the foot of the piece, the club is out in the river in their boat rowing up stream. On each side is a sailor, one with an oar & the other with their flag. Making 10 pictures in all.
June 11, 1861: This evening Dr. B.H. Rand, of the High School, was here to see the roll of members of the “Undine Barge Club” which I have just completed for him. Today news came of a battle in which 3000 of our soldiers participated, many of whom were killed….
June 17, 1861: Today in school I gave up the Undine Barge Club roll as a term piece to Prof. Mac Neill & afterwards I handed it to Prof. Dr. Rand for whom it was made.
A high-wire act: Sept. 7, 1861: This afternoon George, Steve & I went out to Fairmount & Lemon Hill, & saw the man walk the rope across the Schuylkill river, near Wire bridge. At about 5 o’clock he wheeled a wheelbarrow part way across & back again, & about 6 o’clock he was dressed in white & acted some gymnastics on the rope, & the first time he was dressed as a monkey with a false black face on, black hands & feet.
Nov. 14, 1861: I went out to the house of the Undine Barge Club & was introduced to some of the members of the club by Dr Rand who invited me to come out today, & we went up the river as far as the Falls of Schuylkill [now East Falls] & back in an hour & 20 minutes.
July 4, 1862: Steve, Cousin Willie and I stayed home all day & went out to Fairmount Park in the evening to see the Fireworks & got seats in the house of the Undine Barge Club. The fireworks were not noisy but very beautiful & seemed to please the immense crowd gathered to look at them
May 9, 1864: . . . I went out to the Boat Club house and we waited until the rain slackened when we took the Atlantic and the Undine out and rowed up to Tissots at the Falls of Schuylkill where we had our anniversary supper. The club is 8 years old. There were 10 present, … Rand the President, a visitor, Mr. Saul Grant…,. We got back to the house before 10 o’clock tonight.
Dec. 3, 1864:. . . This afternoon I took my white flannel trousers out to the Boat House and 7 of us took the “Atlantic” up to the falls. … I was coxswain coming back, and it was very dark and I most ran into a steam tug boat with canal boats in tow just below Girard Avenue Bridge.Beale, who faithfully kept a diary through 1865, never mentions rowing with Eakins. Rather, he talks about the arduous exam he and Eakins and two others took in September 1862 for a teaching post at Central High. More on that in my next blog post.