On May 16, 1859 – that’s 159 years ago – an intrepid band of rowers from the Bachelors Barge Club set out to row from Philadelphia to New York City.
It was a daunting idea. The six men and their coxswain would have to row 130 miles, even into the darkness of night, with few lights to guide them and passing steamers throwing up dangerous wakes.
Perhaps it was the risk-taking of youth. The club back then was in its childhood, just six years old. But the men persevered even as Bachelors has. It now boasts being the oldest boat club in continual existence in the country.
The seven participants would recount their experience in a letter. First, the rowers, each of whom had a one syllable nickname as was the custom of the club – and still is today: “Bullion,” “Tiller,” “Shaver,” “May,” “Box,” “Flag” and “Admiral.”
Their motivation was fame and boredom: “Tired of the monotony of boating on our favorite Schuylkill River and seized with the desire of gaining notoriety as well as enjoyment, the Bachelors crew conceived the idea of rowing their barge “Linda” to the great village of New York,” they would later write.
Leaving at 6.30 a.m., they had to navigate locks as they rowed down the Schuylkill past Penrose Ferry, Point Breeze Park, then up the Delaware River to Dock Street. By evening they had reached Bordentown, N.J.
“The moon shed her silvery light on us as we rested on our oars in the first of many locks, those necessary evils with which we were to be inflicted seven times before reaching Trenton, a distance of only four miles from Bordentown.” By then, it was midnight.
The next day took them into the Delaware and Raritan Canal where “our only companions were unsightly canal boats moving along snail-like.” By 6.10 p.m. they had pulled 24 miles, arriving in New Brunswick “hungry as hawks.” After dinner, they toured “this large town in New Jersey” where some 3,000 people had gathered to cheer them on, with some exhorting the crew to stop and spend the night.
“Notwithstanding the unfavorable character of the night,” they continued on, launching at 9 p.m. Hours later, they still saw “no sign of our next stopping place….On we pulled for miles and miles until the coxswain discerned a light in the dim distance, which information was hailed with delight.” But rather than an inn, it proved to be a steamer, so on they rowed to Perth Amboy, where, disembarking, they stumbled around for an hour finding lodging only at 2 a.m.
By 7 a.m. they were back on the water and soon “Staten Island Sound rose to view in all its beauty.” At noon, they reached their destination, Castle Garden, “having accomplished the whole journey of 130 miles in 26 and a half hours pulling time and two and a half days from the time we left our own waters. “