Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The 1964 Olympic Rowing Trials Off the Shores of Pelham in The Orchard Beach Lagoon

The year 1964 was tumultuous.  After serving what would have been the final year of President John F. Kennedy's first term following his assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson was battling Republican Barry Goldwater during the presidential campaign.  Three civil rights workers including Michael Schwerner of Pelham, New York were murdered in Mississippi while employed by the Congress of Racial Equality as field workers.  Riots raged in cities throughout the U.S.  United States military forces launched attacks on North Vietnam following the "Gulf of Tonkin Incident."  Congress passed its Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving the President greater flexibility to pursue combat actions in Vietnam.  Turkey attacked Cypress.  Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev was ousted from power by Leonid Brezhnev and his co-conspirators.  The 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted, prohibiting any conditioning of the right to vote in federal elections on payment of a poll tax or any other type of tax.  

In New York, riots raged in Harlem.  The Verrazano Narrows Bridge, then the world's longest suspension bridge, opened.  The 1964 World's Fair was underway.  The New York Yankees were on their way to yet another World Series, though they lost game seven and the World Series Championship to the St. Louis Cardinals.  On February 7, 1964, the Beatles made their first visit to the United States, arriving in New York and, two days later, made their first and most famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.  

In the midst of all the turmoil of that year, world class athletes were preparing for the 1964 Summer Olympics (the Games of the XVIII Olympiad) to be held in Tokyo from October 10 to 24, 1964.  Pelham and the nearby Orchard Beach Lagoon played a role in preparations for the United States to compete in those Tokyo games.  The Lagoon, off the shores of Pelham Bay Park and Manor Shore Park in the Village of Pelham Manor, hosted the 1964 U.S. Olympic rowing trials.  The 2,000 meter raceway course built in The Lagoon ended at Shore Park in the Village of Pelham Manor.

The Lagoon, Also Known as the "Rowing Basin"

Long before then Parks Commissioner Robert Moses led efforts to create Orchard Beach during the 1930s, there was a beautiful bay off the shores of Pelham Bay Park extending from Shore Park and Travers Island in Pelham Manor to Pelham Bay.  (Pelham Bay was filled during the 1930s to create the Orchard Beach parking lot and to connect Hunter's Island to the mainland.)  Before Orchard Beach was built, however, a portion of Pelham Bay flowed between Hunter's Island and the mainland.  Some considered the lovely little area that stretched from Shore Park to Pelham Bay between Hunter's Island and the mainland not to be a part of Pelham Bay.  Instead, they believed it to be a separate bay.  The stretch once was known as LeRoy's Bay.  

LeRoy's Bay long had been a popular area for rowing crews from the New York Athletic Club, among other clubs.  The stretch, however, was blocked for many years near its center by the stone causeway that once connected Hunter's Island to the mainland for much of the 19th century.  Thus, there was not a sufficient distance to create a regulation rowing raceway in the waters of LeRoy Bay.  Moreover, the stone causeway blocked some of the waters as they ebbed and flowed with the tide of the bay, causing silt and mud to build up on the bottom and render the bay quite shallow -- only three feet deep at low tide.

As early as 1902, an initiative began to force the Parks Commissioner to remove the Hunter's Island causeway to clear the waters of the bay for a full-fledged raceway course for public use including use by crews operating out of the New York Athletic Club boathouse on Travers Island.  Those involved in the initiative urged removal of the causeway and completion of a raceway course to attract the National Regatta to New York City.  See Wed., Jan. 28, 2015:  Pelham Manor Resident Pushed for Removal of the Causeway from Shore Road to Hunter's Island in 1902.  They argued that removal of the causeway would allow the bay waters to flow freely and wash out sediments that had settled and made the bay so shallow.

The New York City Department of Parks took somewhat of a middle ground.  It decided that rather than simply do away with the stone causeway, it would replace the stone causeway with a "temporary wooden bridge" that would permit the tides to clear some of the mud sediment that had collected in the bay.  Indeed, in its Report for the Year 1904, the Department of Parks said "Plans have been prepared for a temporary wooden bridge between Hunter Island and the main land, to take the place of the old causeway which at present so obstructs the flow of the channel that at low water only a three-foot stream is left.  It is proposed to remove this old causeway to a depth of five feet below water, so as to give the action of the tides an opportunity to clean out the mud settlement.  It is hoped to build a permanent bridge at this place at some future time."

The temporary wooden bridge was completed by 1905, but no permanent replacement bridge ever was built.  Eventually the wooden bridge was closed and then removed, although research has not yet revealed the precise date of its removal.  In any event, with the construction of Orchard Beach and the Orchard Beach parking lot in the 1930s, Hunter's Island was connected to the mainland doing away with any need for a causeway or permanent bridge blocking the bay.

With completion of the Orchard Beach complex in 1936, lovely little LeRoy Bay became nearly landlocked.  Consequently, the area became known as "The Lagoon" and "The Orchard Beach Lagoon."  (Because the bay is not entirely landlocked, it is not a true lagoon.  Nevertheless, it is still known as The Lagoon.)  

Chosen as the Site of the 1964 Olympic Rowing Trials

New York City was the site of the 1964 World's Fair.  The fair opened on April 22, 1964.  In conjunction with the World's Fair, New York City made a successful bid to host a number of Olympic trials between April and August for the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo including rowing and canoeing in The Orchard Beach Lagoon, swimming and diving in the Astoria Pool, track and field at Downing Stadium on Randall's Island, volleyball at Queen's College, basketball at St. John's University, boxing at the Flushing Meadow Municipal Stadium, speed cycling in the Kissena Corridor Park east of the fairgrounds, water polo at the Fair's Ampitheatre, as well as fencing, gymnastics, judo, weight lifting, and wrestling at a variety of other New York City locations.  More than 2,000 athletes participated in the events.

The Orchard Beach Lagoon was chosen as the site of the 1964 Olympic Rowing Trials.  In preparation, The Lagoon was dredged, widened, and a small projection of land extending into the waters as well as many tiny islands (actually, small rock outcroppings) were removed to create the raceway.  According to a World's Fair brochure that touted preparations for the Olympic trials:

"[A] four-lane, straight 2,000 meter rowing course will be laid out at the Orchard Beach Lagoon in the Bronx, by removal of a spit of land now jutting out midways in the planned area.  Here, canoeing and rowing contests will be held during the Summer of 1964.  The straightened rowing course will also allow the Lagoon to become the host course for the Middle States Regatta, the 1965 World Rowing Championships, the Dad Vail Regatta, with 23 competing colleges, and the Eastern Intercollegiate Sprints for 13 college teams."

Source:  The United States Olympic Trials of 1964 . . . In The City of New York, p. 2 (Copyright 1961, 1962 New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Corporation).  

1966 Map Showing the "ROWING BASIN" Between Orchard
Beach and the Mainland Extending from an Area Near Orchard
Beach Road in Pelham Bay Park to Shore Park in the Village
of Pelham Manor.  Map from the Author's Collection.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

A rather stark, three-story concrete judging stand was built overlooking The Lagoon near the Orchard Beach parking lot.  (The judging stand still exists, surrounded by a chain link fence blocking access.)  Viewing stands for spectators were built adjacent to the judging stand.  However, spectators lined both sides of The Lagoon during the events, even though some areas along the shore on the mainland side of The Lagoon were difficult to access.

Image of the Judging Stand as it Looks Today, Looking
Over The Orchard Beach Lagoon.  Shore Park Is Out of
View in the Distance to the Right.  This Image is Not Copied
to the Historic Pelham Blog.  Rather, It is Embedded.  Thus,
If the Image is Removed or Moved by Its Owner, It No
Longer Will Display Above.

Remnants of Dock Built Adjacent to Shore Park in the
Village of Pelham Manor in Connection with the 1964
Summer Olympic Rowing Trials.  Photograph by the
Author Taken on April 18, 2015.  NOTE:
Click on Image to Enlarge.

Remnants of Dock Built Adjacent to Shore Park in the
Village of Pelham Manor in Connection with the 1964
Summer Olympic Rowing Trials.  Photograph by the
Author Taken on April 18, 2015.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

The Olympic Trials Rowing Events and Olympic Trials Rowing Repechages in The Orchard Beach Lagoon

The process of identifying U.S. rowing Olympians in 1964 was very different than today.  There was no United States Rowing Training Center as there is today where prospective Olympians are trained and the best are selected to represent the nation.  Instead, in 1964 members of college teams and rowing clubs competed at "trials" to earn the privilege of representing the United States.  

Perhaps the biggest story of the Olympic Trials in The Lagoon involved the eight men from the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia who raced an eight-man shell during the trials and then proceeded to the Olympics.  Included among the eight men were several aged 47 (coxswain), 34, 29, 27, and 24.  They were called "The Old Men."  When they finished, however, they had beaten college-aged crews from around the country and earned the right to represent the United States.  The July 20, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated included an article about the eight-man crew claiming "ANYTHING THAT BOYS CAN DO . . . men can do better."  The eight man crew went on to surprise the world and won the gold medal in the event at the Tokyo Summer Games.  

The Olympic Trials rowing events were held on The Lagoon July 8-11 that summer.  Olympic Trials rowing repechages were held on The Lagoon on August 28, 1964.  (Repechages in rowing and cycling are so-called "last chance" qualifying events in which runners-up in earlier competitions race against each other with only the winner qualifying.)

The Olympic Trials rowing repechages were marred by an unusual event that caught organizers by surprise.  The New York Athletic Club had constructed a launching dock for the Trials to help oarsmen get their shells into the water near The Lagoon.  The day of the rowing repechages, the skipper of a 55-foot power yacht who was a member of the New York Athletic Club had positioned his yacht blocking the launching dock and refused to move his launch.  According to one account "Jack Sulger, regata chairman and a New York City police sergeant, pleaded with the skipper, a club member, to cooperate.  The plea went unheeded and the oarsmen were compelled to carry their shells to the short side of the dock in order to lower them."

Some of the results of the repechages are available in the following article:  Strauss, Michael, 4 Olympic Gold-Medal Winners Are Eliminated in Rowing Trials, N.Y. Times, Aug. 29, 1964.  Some of the results of the initial Olympic Trials rowing events are available in the following article:  Rowers Follow Form in Olympic Trials, Chicago Tribune, Jul. 9, 1964, Section 3, p. 2, cols. 1-4.  

The U.S. Rowing Team in the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games

The United States men's rowing team performed magnificently during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.  The team took medals in four of the seven men's events and finished ranked first in rowing with the Soviet Union finishing second with two Gold Medals in the seven events.  The U.S. team took the Gold Medals in the men's coxed pairs event, and the men's eights event (with Vesper Boat Club crew).  It also took the Silver Medal in the men's double sculls event and the Bronze Medal in the men's coxless fours event.

Video and Photographs of the Olympic Rowing Trials in The Orchard Beach Lagoon

The Olympic Rowing Trials in The Orchard Beach Lagoon were covered extensively by television, radio, and the print media.  A number of video clips showing portions of the various competitions that formed the Olympic Rowing Trials during the summer of 1964 may be found online.  Brief portions show the judging stand, some of the crowds, some of the television camera equipment, and more interesting elements.  Below are a couple such clips.

This Video, From YouTube.com, Is Not Copied to This Blog.  Rather,
It is Embedded.  Thus, If the Owner of the YouTube.com Video Removes
or Changes the Location of the Video, It No Longer Will Display Here.
Click on Video Frame Above to Begin the Video.

This Second Video, Also From YouTube.com, Is Not Copied to This Blog.

Rather, It is Embedded.  Thus, If the Owner of the YouTube.com Video
Removes or Changes the Location of the Video, It No Longer Will Display
Here.  Click on Video Frame Above to Begin the Video.

Photograph From the Archives of the New York City Parks
Department Showing One of the Events During the 1964
Summer Olympic Rowing Trials During the Summer of 1964.
The Viewing Stands and the Judging Stand Are Clearly Visible.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

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