Oregon Yacht Club - sailing strong after 118 years
On any given day, especially during the summer, Portland's waterfront abounds with speedboats buzzing along the water, the Portland Spirit riverboat cruising up and down the Willamette, and jet skiers – and even dragon boats – filling the waterway.
Portland's history with the Willamette River can be traced back to its beginning in 1845, when Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove canoed up to the banks of a landing on the west side of the river, and flipped their famous coin to determine whether the future city would be called Boston or Portland.
Flash forward over a century: Motor boating and speed racing were especially popular during the 1950's, as suggested in many men's magazines. Advertisements included a smiling faced man amid bikini-clad women enjoying the spray of the water in a speedboat, with a tag line, "Why not own your own island of Adventure". Another showed mom and the kids enjoying an outing on a lake, with dad at the helm of a classy wooden speedboat, and the suggestion, "What a sensible way to make every weekend a family experience."
The golden era of leisure boating was in the late 1940's and the 1950's, when speed boats became affordable for the middle class, and competitive boat racing drew crowds. But boat racing in the 1890's on the west coast was just as popular – although an expensive hobby. Boating was becoming such a favorite pastime that clubs were started, for those interesting in enjoying water activates year round.
Thus it came to be that the Oregon Yacht Club was unofficially established in March of 1899 by a group of boaters who wanted to share ideas on boat-building, to find suitable equipment for boating, and to share in the camaraderie of water activities.
While the Oregon Club wasn't the first boating organization on the Willamette – that honor belongs to the Columbia and Portland Yacht Clubs – it would become one of the oldest ongoing Yacht Clubs in Oregon.
The Oregonian newspaper credited Captain C.F. Todd with being the founder of the Oregon Yacht Club, when it officially opened on October 1st, 1900. Most of the original 22 Charter Members of the new organization came from the Portland Sailing Club, which had ceased operations the previous year. Club activities were held in a structure south of the old Madison Bridge – where today's Hawthorne Bridge is located.
Sailing competitions and racing regattas were popular spectator sports during the summertime then, often attracting thousands of to the Willamette's banks from as far away as Corvallis, Salem, Albany, and other parts of the state. Special excursion trains were available for people who bought tickets to the regatta competition, and a grandstand was built near that old Madison Bridge for viewing the weekend events.
Boat manufacturers weren't around yet, and most boats were built by the owners themselves – sometimes with help from other boating enthusiasts. Contestants were arranged in two separate categories: Those who owned large 19-foot sloops, and those who brought small canoes. Competition started at the Madison Bridge and sprinted southward toward Ross Island, where a buoy was situated at the north end After circling around the marker, they headed back to the starting line, where rousing applause from the spectators greeted the winners.
An annual Labor Day regatta was begun by Oregon Yacht Club members, which included competitive boat races, an evening dance, and plenty of activities during the day. During the first few years, races were limited to large boats and canoes; but, as boating evolved, more classes of boats were added – including sailboats, launches, and speedboats, along with the yachts. In the course of one year, water craft ranged from a 40-foot yacht, to a catamaran, to a special folding canvas canoe that could be tucked away in an ordinary suitcase – and was the highlight of that year's event.
Women were welcomed into the club, and it wasn't uncommon to see ladies piloting boats and, strangely enough, some of the new enrollees in the club were allowed to be members even though they didn't own a boat.
As enrollment increased through the years, Board Members proposed building a new clubhouse, and finding a new location that benefitted water excursions. The Willamette River was a busy area as schooners, riverboats, launches, and ferries trolling the river daily delivering supplies, and carrying passengers to destinations. Leisure craft captains had to weave in and out of the congested waterway, and yacht club personnel wanted to find a more private landing for their boating, away from the rush of downtown.
The site the club settled on was a small point of land located north of where construction was just completing of an amusement park, to be called Oaks Park. In 1905, a new three-deck clubhouse was built at a cost of $5,000 to serve over a hundred club members. The first floor of the new building served as a reception hall, where annual events like the Commodores' Dance were held, and where billiard parlors were close by.
The upper floor of the new structure provided several sleeping apartments for bachelors, and dressing rooms that could be used to clean up after boating activities. Open-air verandas surrounded both first and second floors of the clubhouse, on which groups of partygoers could watch a romantic sunset, lie about on chaise lounges, or view the river as boats leisurely moved along the river.
Something unusual occurred in 1911 – Yacht Club member W.G. Collins captured two baby bear cubs while on vacation in eastern Oregon, and he brought the cubs back to the clubhouse. The furry twins were quickly adopted by the bachelors who were residing there. They were given the names Romulus and Remus, and they spent most of their time climbing a small tree that was cut down and nailed to the boat dock near the club house. News reports about the bears centered on the humor and carefree activities of the wild bears, which swam in the Willamette and startled visitors who tied up a boat to the docks near the yacht house.
No mention can be found in the newspapers of 1911 – including in THE BEE, which was five years old then – about whether the bear cubs were finally taken back to the woods and released, or were donated to the Portland Zoo – but apparently there weren't any incidents involving any missing club members at that time…
Canoeing apparently was a favorite pastime at the Oregon Yacht Club, as groups of 20 to 30 members packed provisions and camped out along a point near Lake Oswego. In fact, canoeists outnumbered yachtsmen – club records reported nearly 30 boats of various sizes belonging to their members, as well as 100 canoes being used in various activities.
As the second decade of the Twentieth Century proceeded, large crowds lined the riverbanks and multitudes visited the new clubhouse for the yearly water events and regattas sponsored by the Oregon Yacht Club. By 1914, its races included sailboats, cruisers, and motorboats that raced at high speeds across the water and splashed the spectators.
Other side competitions during the yearly regattas included diving contests, a 50-yard swim for men and women, donkey rides, greased pole contests, and plenty of jousting and clowning.
Portlanders got to witness the first hydro racing boats coming down from Seattle to the Yacht Club for an event co-sponsored with the Rose Festival Committee in 1916. These new inventions were designed to glide over air bubbles above the surface of the water, instead of floating on top of the water like most boats. They were fast and loud, and many spectators were thrilled by their speed. Their appearance in 1916 helped make that year's Rose Festival exceptionally memorable.
Boaters loved the river so much that many were given the opportunity to live in houseboats near the clubhouse in the summer months. It wasn't long before members were so enthusiastic about living on the river that the Yacht Club granted year-long residents slips built especially for such purposes. Houseboat residents survived the Columbus Day Storm in 1962, and also the various floods along the Willamette in the 1960's – as well as Portland's memorable 1996 flood, when the Willamette River rose 10 feet over the flood stage at Oaks Park.
A fire in 1943 destroyed the majestic wooden clubhouse and ended the annual regattas, the Commodores' Ball, and many other traditional events that were widely enjoyed. The Oregon Yacht Club is steeped in history, and was for a long time the master of river racing and the source of regatta trophies. Today, it is mainly known for the 38 floating houses that now line the Willamette's eastern banks just north of Oaks Park.
In 2018, luxurious floating homes have replaced the small one-story houseboats that once hugged the muddy river bank.
And the sound of the City of Portland's historic steam locomotives on the nearby tracks offering summer passenger excursions from OMSI and back, or the Holiday Express Christmastime excursions, remind one of the days when the Interurban took thousands of commuters to and from Portland's premier amusement park – The Oaks.