A Brief Memoir

By: Dale F. Linch
The Louisville Boat Club is wrapped in colorful tradition and has a history as interesting as the rise of this country itself.  We are the oldest social club in Louisville and Jefferson County, and additionally hold the distinction of being one of the oldest clubs in the country. Many famous names have appeared on the membership roster over the years, and our clubs contributions to the social and pleasurable well-being of Louisville have been rich and full.

Way back in September of 1879 about ten (10) rousing, river-minded men banded together to form a social club to feature river activities calling this new establishment, “The Louisville Boat Club."  Their original clubhouse was an oversized houseboat moored in the river at the foot of 6th Street. Huge war canoes and outriggers used for rugged races were the main activity. It was strictly a men's club and women were as ostracized as the measles. From 1879 to 1911 the Clubhouse was moved upriver to various stations from time to time; for awhile at the foot of Pipe Line Lane, now known as Waterworks, and finally ending at a spot next to what is now Turners. During this period of the Club's existance, sports were the only activity providing the Boat Club an advantage during most of the competitive meets held. About the only purely social activities, when the gals were acknowledged and allowed, were an occasional trip up the river in a huge war canoe to a picturesque picnic spot, with the mode of power being muscle and paddle, not motors! Once a year a huge gala ball was given at The Galt House, on Main Street, which at the time was one of the South’s leading hotels. The Boat Club Ball was one of Louisville’s outstanding social events each year.
In 1911, certain events transpired that put the Boat Club at its lowest ebb and what property was then owned, exclusive of the war canoes, was sold to Turners for $1000. The membership then looked for a new Clubhouse location (on land) and purchased an old farm house on our present location where we have been here ever since. This farm house has long since lost its identity in the development of the present attractive Clubhouse. Many interesting events transpired around 1911 and 1912, including the settling of a division of opinion of the membership as to the future course and it even reached the courts. The basic spirit prevailed and ye ole Boat Club carried on.

For a number of years, even at this location, girls were a rarity at the Boat Club and ruggedness was the outstanding qualification of members. River activities were still predominant, but a few members played tennis and the game was so well liked that it grew rapidly in favor over the years.
Throughout the balance of the years, until the early 20s, the Boat Club was strictly a men's club, filled with rather hardy members. As evidenced by a few who called themselves the Polar Bears and plunged into the icy water of the Ohio each New Year’s Day regardless of the weather.

Members were beginning to acknowledge that perhaps a few more conveniences around the Boat Club might be accepted. So, one caretaker’s wife was allowed to cook some meals now and then for members and the membership was split wide open on the proposal to install hot water in the showers. The third floor of the old Clubhouse was used as a dormitory, and a few of the single guys lived there throughout the spring and summer.
The Boat Club was still considered way out in the country and the main transportation to and from was via the interurban line which ran from the back of the Club on up to Prospect. The last street car headed for town around 11:00 p.m., and if you missed it you were caught and either had to hoof it or stay all night.
In the late 20s and early 30s the Boat Club saw more activity on shore and the gals were more welcome. By this time even children were in abundance on the grounds. A small swimming pool appeared, more tennis courts, a softball diamond and a golf putting area to make the Boat Club a more rounded club.
Ole man river had always been a threat and had often flooded the grounds, but in 1937 the river really vented its wrath and almost covered the Clubhouse. The social minded members prevailed in the reconstruction after the flood and the first big expansion took place which included adding a new kitchen, men’s shower room and other new facilities. Again in the middle 40’s the expansionists took over and enlarged the Clubhouse adding a new entrance driveway and two new all weather courts. In 1950, the Clubhouse was completely revamped and a new large addition creating a new ballroom and men’s locker room appeared along with other major interior changes. Again in 1955, a major expansion program resulted in additional facilities, including air conditioning and a completely new equipped kitchen. During recent years the river front and dock facilities were enlarged and a constant program of improvement is carried on here today.
The twelve (12) all weather courts are the best in the country, and we hold an enviable reputation nationally for producing outstanding tennis tournaments which have attracted the top ranking players of the United States. The Boat Club has been the host for two Davis Cup Ties. In recent years, two (2) hard surface courts have been added, making “year round” tennis a reality. In 1967 a specially constructed diving pool was added on the front lawn, which completed the swimming pool. Then a new wading pool for the young fry was added in 1978.
One of the most important steps in the history of the Boat Club was accomplished in 1961 through the purchase of the neighboring 28 acres formerly known as Fairview Beach, thus giving us a total of 40 acres. This added 585 feet to our river front, making a total of over 1,400 feet on which to accommodate the ever-increasing demand for more boat slips, which presently amount to 86 well-constructed slips. The financing of this sizeable purchase resulted in the issuance of Membership Certificates for the first time in the history of the club. In November 1974, the Boat Club purchased another acre just west of the old Fairview Beach property (Paglina). This increased our river frontage by 70 feet to a total of 1,470 feet.
Indoor tennis facilities in Louisville developed rapidly in recent years and typical of the desire to offer our members the latest in any desirable sport, a group of ambitious tennis enthusiasts designed and promoted the construction of an indoor tennis facility in 1977. There are four (4) courts of the latest and best surface material. It is one of the best indoor tennis facilities in the city or perhaps anywhere. The hard-working and farsighted committee so designed the financing that it should be self-liquidating as players pay for playing time.
Probably the most important event in the long history of the Boat Club occurred on March 1st of 1969 when the Club House burned to the ground, taking with it all furnishings and equipment. It was a total and tragic loss. Again, the strong basic spirit of the Boat Club prevailed and through prodigious work of members and committees, detailed building plans and financing grew out of the ashes and today’s modern and attractive club house is the result—finished in the spring of 1971.
Several years later the men’s locker room—the only portion of the old Club House still standing after the 1969 fire—was remodeled into a pool house. Further Club House improvements including new stairs at the rear, plus an elevator to the second floor were completed in 1980. The informal dining room was enlarged offering a view of the players on some of the outdoor clay courts. In the “80s” the Boat Club’s waterfront property was further expanded westward with the acquisition of the Shamrock Club and “Stilt House” properties and boat slips.
In 1992 the club completed the largest Improvement Program in its history. This included an award-winning new 25-meter pool, baby pool, athletic pavilion (with snack bar, dressing rooms, game room and terrace) and parking lots. The finest squash complex (2 single courts, 1 doubles court) in our area was built. The tennis viewing porch expanded and a stadium built for the championship court. A new dining deck and cocktail deck were added. The men’s and women’s locker rooms and the exercise room were expanded and renovated. Baby-sitting facilities were added. On the waterfront, a new dock house and small boat launching ramp were constructed. The old pool house was converted into a maintenance building. And to keep these and all other Boat Club assets in top condition, a Long Range Building and Grounds Maintenance Committee was established.
Probably the strongest single motivating factor responsible for the healthy well-being of the Boat Club and its steady progress over the years is that certain generous, intangible spirit of cooperation. A spirit of “oneness”—which causes the tennis enthusiasts, the social enthusiasts and the swimmers, all to pull together for the good of the Boat Club as a whole. We guard and nurture this spirit zealously—may it ever survive!