It’s common to see rowers on the Hudson River these days. At least a dozen local high schools, as well as Marist and Vassar Colleges, have competitive crew teams that practice in the picturesque stretch of the river from Newburgh to Poughkeepsie. In addition, community rowing programs for adults and juniors have been growing rapidly since the Hudson River Rowing Association opened their doors in 1998.
But many people don’t realize that Poughkeepsie was once the “Rowing Capital of the World,” inspiring a story that’s just hitting the big-time again with the opening of the major new movie The Boys in the Boat on Dec. 25, 2023.
In 1895 Poughkeepsie hosted the first Intercollegiate Rowing Regatta. Only three schools competed: Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania. But the annual event, which was soon dubbed the Poughkeepsie Regatta, continued until 1949 and grew in size and stature, attracting the best college teams from around the country.
These races also drew tens of thousands of spectators annually. The luckiest traveled alongside the rowers. They sat on grandstands attached to flatcars chugging down the rail line on the Hudson’s western shore. The crews raced downstream from today’s Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park to Poughkeepsie’s Mid-Hudson Bridge (passing under the railroad bridge that is now the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park).
The who’s who of the Hudson Valley — including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Astors, and the Vanderbilts — turned out to watch the races. Hundreds of boats and yachts, and occasionally even Navy destroyers, sailed to Poughkeepsie to watch the event. World War II interrupted the Regatta, but afterwards it returned, bigger than ever — prompting massive celebrations, parties, and even the crowning of the Poughkeepsie Regatta Queen.
In the early years, elite Eastern schools dominated the Regatta. But in 1912, Western schools started getting in on the action. After winning at Poughkeepsie, the University of California crews of 1928, 1932, and 1948 all went straight to the Olympics.
But no team received as much attention as the nine scrappy men from the University of Washington who swept the Poughkeepsie Regatta in 1936. The story was gripping: They overcame a world of adversity to upset the Ivy League establishment, earning them a team boathouse on Poughkeepsie’s “Regatta Row,” as well as their own dining hall.
As working-class products of a public school, the team represented such a big win over the elite private-school set that their story resonated nationally. And since their story captured the public imagination, part of their legacy has been expanding the appeal of the sport to the more diverse crews that row today, including many women.
Prior to winning their race here the “boys” also rowed upstream to Franklin Roosevelt’s house, hoping to visit with the president. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in (although his son, himself a competitive rower, reportedly invited them in for a happy evening of chatting about the sport).
Later that year, they had better luck at the Olympics in Berlin, narrowly beating out Italy and Germany to snag the gold medal. Their rags-to-riches story was chronicled in the 2014 bestseller The Boys in the Boat, which has just been made into a movie directed by George Clooney and starring Callum Turner.
In September 2021, the Hudson River Rowing Association and the Mid-Hudson Rowing Association hosted a historic, 5,000-meter race along the course used from 1895 to 1949 by the Intercollegiate Rowing Association. It marked the first time in more than a decade that boats competed for the fastest time on the route. The race was so popular that it has now become an annual event.