John W. L. Corning arrived in St. Paul in early 1868, having shipped his single rowing shell from New York by boat: down the Atlantic to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi River to St. Paul. People gathered near the Wabasha Bridge wondering how he could keep such a fragile boat afloat. He did, and the crowd was delighted. By 1870 there was enough interest in the sport to launch the Minnesota Boat Club out of a floating and leaky scow anchored at the foot of the Robert Street Bridge. Early rowers likely got as much exercise pumping water out of their rickety boathouse as they did handling an oar.
In 1873, the club was incorporated, and shortly thereafter a boathouse was built on Raspberry Island. The Minnesota Boat Club immediately occupied a prominent place in St. Paul. It was the first official athletic organization in the state, and many early members were in possession of significant athletic and social capital.
St. Paul residents would gather on the Wabasha Street Bridge, the Smith Avenue "High Bridge", or on the lawn of Raspberry Island to watch club members compete against each other. Rowers would typically race upstream, turn 180 degrees, and then power back down to the boathouse enabling spectators to see both the start and the finish of a race.
By the late 1870s, the club began to focus on competitive racing against clubs from around the country and this was the start of a storied era defined by consistent wins. The club prided itself on successful competitive rowing as much as it did on the 'clean' rowing and upright citizenship of its members, both of which were attributed to a unique club 'spirit.'
It is said that this unique club spirit kept rowers focused during the most challenging races and the club alive throughout the ups and downs of its nearly 150-year history. No other athletic club in the state has such an impressive legacy.
As MBC looks forward to its sesquicentennial anniversary in 2020 it is preparing for the future. A new launch and shell storage site has been opened in the Watergate Marina, upstream of the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. This site has less flooding and less severe river height fluctuations and is an ideal location for learn-to-scull classes, early-season rowing, and, the club hopes, adaptive rowing.