Rowing on the River

Rowers are one of the great sights on the Albany waterfront, and they’ve been part of the scene for a long time, including some prominent citizens. In 1953, the old Times-Union columnist Edgar S. Van Olinda gave us a recounting of how things had changed along the waterfront.

The old saying: “All’s quiet along the Potomac” might be a very good description of the Hudson River, since the Day Line and the People’s Line steamers, plying between New York and Albany have disappeared from the local scene.

Time was when the Albany Basin and Steamboat Square were busy places. The Albany Yacht Club Pier, with many of the Saratoga Spring’s summer millionaires’ palatial yachts moored nearby was one of this city’s most delightful breathing spots during the warm months.

Fathers would take their children down to watch the passing aquatic parade, supplemented by the fascinating locomotives which eased across the bridge, gaining momentum for the journey ahead.

One might see Peter Kiernan, Sr., carrying out his cedar shell for a pull up the river as far as Lagoon Island and back. Peter Kiernan, Sr., is now represented by the second generation of scullers, Peter Kiernan, Jr., who, any of these fine days, may be glimpsed following in the wake of his athletic sire or emulating the example of such former oarsmen as Al Quentel, Al Keeler and Peter J. McManus.

At an earlier date, the scions of the wealthy lumbermen of this city gathered at Garry Benson’s floating swimming pool, later taken over by Charlie Piepenbrink for his boat livery. Mr. Benson afterwards opened up his Turkish bath establishment in State Street, which was aptly named: “The Tub.”

On the bosom of the Hudson were countless fleets of canal boats, bound for Buffalo or New York, loaded with lumber from the North Albany District or coal, hay and grain. Or one might catch a glimpse of members of the Mohican Canoe Club, headed for a rendezvous at Staat’s Island, down the river.

Or members of the old Pequod Club in their flat-bottomed boats with a tarpaulin-covered object in the back, suggesting that the oarsmen had had some sort of communication with Messrs. Quinn and Nolan, George Amsdell, George Hawley, Hedrick Hinkle and Dobler and the rest of the boys who knew their hops and malt proportions.

This particular group reached its zenith on Saturday nights and Sundays where the many social clubs along the west bank of the river made merry over the short weekend, those, that is, who did not attend George Parr’s wonderful clam bakes down at the Abbey.

Yes Sir! Those were the good old days. “All’s quiet” on the Hudson today, giving rise to the question: What does the fellow in the control tower of the Parker F. Dunn Memorial Bridge do with himself all day long? Could be he is an expert on the card game, known as solitaire – or one-handed pinochle.

Today we tend to remember Peter Kiernan Jr. for his affiliation with State Bank of Albany, which became Norstar Bancorp. It was under Kiernan’s leadership that Norstar occupied and renovated Albany’s Union Station, which was renamed Peter D. Kiernan Plaza in his honor in 1989. But before going to the State Bank in 1974, he had managed the Rose & Kiernan insurance agency; Peter Kiernan Sr. had joined the Rose Agency in 1901. Both Kiernans, and Junior’s brother James, were noted rowers. A Van Olinda article from 1943 carries the subtitle “Still Rowing,” and says,

“We met the dean of Albany oarsmen, Peter Kiernan [Sr.], walking down State street Friday morning, with his weather eye cocked to the sky and debating as to the chances for a little trip up the river in his cedar outrigger. Since Al Quentel withdrew his competition, the six-foot Albany insurance man has the waterway all to himself, particularly as there are few oil barges coming down through the Barge canal. Pete doesn’t even have to look backwards to see if any Albany-Troy steamboats are headed his way.” Peter Sr. rowed until he was 80. In 1959, the Kiernan brothers were rowing regularly from Van Wies Point.

The mention of Quinn, Nolan and others is an oddly long nod to several of Albany’s prominent brewers, intimating that the Pequod Club was more of a drinking establishment than a rowing club. In the Knick News, Charlie Mooney informs us that the southern end

“…of the city was very thickly populated by Germans. The U.S. Government had built many dikes which impounded the water behind them into miniature lakes. Perhaps the most popular group of socialites was the Pequod Club was one of a number of young men’s social clubs that existed in Albany’s South End shortly after the turn of the century. It was located at 2 Clinton Street, just around the corner from the old First Police Precinct. A part of what is now Division 2 of the Albany Police Department is on that site [in 1967].”

A 1970 bit by Van Olinda tells us that Pequod Club “families rowed down the river in their homemade boats, their craft filled with nourishing food and the inevitable ‘quarter’ of beer propped up in the bow, refreshments to oil up the palates of the Maennerchor or Entracht singing societies for the proper rendition of the endless verses to ‘Ist das nicht ein garten-haus?’ Monday morning, a fleet of brewery craft, called ‘bum boats,’ would cruise down the river and behind the dykes to pick up the empties which had been rolled down to the dock, returning them for refilling against the following Sunday.”

Van Olinda gave us some more details on Peter Kiernan Sr., and the Hudson River rowing culture, which we’ll share tomorrow.


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