Last time we featured a little bit on the old Albany waterfront and the prominence of rowers of various sorts way back when, and touched on the prowess of the Peters Kiernan, Sr. and Jr. After that, we found this Edgar Van Olinda article from 1943 telling us even more about Kiernan Sr. and, perhaps more importantly, the rowing culture history of Albany. It was headlined, “Peter D. Kiernan, Sculler – Last of Famous Local Oarsmen; Awaits Revival.”
If you should happen to be walking down street most any day and see a six-foot ruddy-faced gentleman swinging along with the elasticity of youth, and a kindly greeting for everyone he meets, you can lay a wager that it’s the dean of Albany scullers, Peter D. Kiernan. You don’t get such a pair of shoulders sitting around in an easy chair, your feet encased in the old carpet slippers, listening to your arteries harden. No sir! A physique such as is the heritage of Mr. Kiernan’s means endless hours of light exercise, self-restraint and many discreet absences from the banquet table. Lionel Strongfort would agree with this premise.
Mr. Kiernan is the sole link to the glory that was Albany’s during the latter part of the 19th century; a period of rowing history which redounded to the credit of this old Dutch city. Rowing in Albany began with the Pioneer club in 1857, the Knickerbocker club in 1858, along with the Hiawathas and the Excelsiors. That was only the beginning.
The first regatta for both amateur and professional oarsmen was held October 11 and 12, 1860, when the name of Piepenbrink and Young of Albany appear in the records. In 1865, the Mutual Boat club joined the newly organized Hudson Amateur Rowing association, and then things began to happen. This aggregation of champions rowed all over the courses in the eastern portion of the United States and won most of their races.
In 1876, at the National regatta held in Philadelphia, the Beverwyck four was defeated by the Atlantas, but during the following week, covered itself with glory and gained world-wide reputation by defeating in the final heat of the International regatta, the London Rowing club four, considered the best crew in England.
Soon we begin to hear of the Gorman brothers, Bulger and Graves who began to clock up some enviable time in the four and six-oared gigs and during the ‘80s and ‘90s, when rowing was one of the major sports of the Albany area. Many regattas were held on Saratoga lake where the Albany crews were often in competition with the college crews, in the pre-Poughkeepsie era. So much for the subject which would fill many volumes.
The picture shown today was taken last Tuesday morning as Mr. Kiernan shoved off from the Albany Yacht club dock for a spin up the river. The weather was propitious and the surface of the river as calm as a swimming pool. The shell which Mr. Kiernan is using in the photograph is built of cedar with oiled paper decks and weighs about 40 pounds. When Mr. Kiernan gingerly steps into dead center, with the oars feathering on the water, he is literally sitting on top of the world.
LAST OF FAMOUS
He is the last member of that group of non-competitive scullers which rowed on the river simply for the beneficial exercise which it affords; a group which included such experts as Al Quentel, Charlie McElroy, Al Keeler and Peter McManus. Of these well known Albanians it might be said that each was a gentleman and a sculler.
Mr. Kiernan is a splendid example of what moderate exercise can accomplish when used with discretion. While contemporaries of Mr. Kiernan are chasing the elusive dollar during the day, this Albany athlete hies himself down to the yacht club, pretty nearly as soon as the ice is out of the river and takes a spin two or three days each week up the river until the chill winds of Autumn admonish him that it is time to put his shell up in moth balls for the winter. He feels, that after the war, a new generation of oarmen will take up the sport, and he is all prepared to do his bit to bring this Albany activity back to the waterway where it flourished for so many years.
There are so many names dropped in a Van Olinda article that it would be impossible to run them all down, but at least one is worth noting. Charlie Piepenbrink (or PIepenbrinck) ran a boat livery at the foot of State Street, which Van Olinda also recalled:
We remember old Piepenbrinck and his barges which he rented out at 25c per hour. They were built for comfort and not for speed. They were the poor man’s nearest approach to the more affluent sport of shell ownership, and one could get a pretty fair workout in one of them. “Piep” had a floating dock down I the Basin. We were a canoe paddler, and often passed by such intrepid outrigger experts as Leo K. Fox and Alex McKenzie, employes of the National Commercial bank when the sign on the front of that institution: “Banking Hours from 10 to 2” really meant what it said.
In another article, in 1962, Van Olinda wrote that the Mohican Canoe Club had its rooms on the second floor of Piepenbrinck’s floating boat livery, which was formerly the bathhouse of Garry Benson’s swimming school, anchored at the foot of State Street before the D and H headquarters was erected. “The Mohican Club, before and after the early ‘90s, was extremely popular with the young bloods of the city. A few of the members who come to mind were Gen. Robert Shaw Oliver, Fred Mix, Billy Wackerhagen, Edward Rodman Perry, Bill Wheeler, “Pepper” Van Heusen, Billy Martin, Matt VanAlstyne and Seth Wheeler.” He said that every summer Saturday afternoon one might see dozens of canoes heading downstream for Staat’s Landing, where they had a clubhouse.
By the way, Lionel Strongfort was a very famous German promoter of “physical culture” and vegetarianism who offered a mail order course in fitness.