Canoe You: Boathouses of the Little Arkansas
In the humid heat of any given Kansas summer, inhabitants are liable to find themselves looking for an entertaining way to beat the heat. For decades, the most popular option in Wichita was a trip to the boathouse on the Little Arkansas River at Murdock Avenue.
It is difficult to ascertain just exactly when the first dedicated public boathouse was built in the Wichita area, but river-based recreational attractions were a feature of the settlement all the way back in its earliest days. The earliest mention is a classified ad in the Aug. 9, 1877 edition of The Wichita Eagle, which announced: "Pleasure boats to let at Clark's boat house, on Little river." Businessman Finlay Ross moved to Wichita in 1876 and soon after took a canoe ride on the Little River; he was sufficiently impressed by the natural beauty of the setting that after his election to the office of mayor, he worked diligently to procure for the city the land we now know as Riverside Park.
The Little River succumbed to boat fever more or less officially in 1886, with the formation of the Wichita Boating Club. The Aug. 3 Eagle of that year noted that the theretofore-informal club had officially named itself and applied for a charter. Eight days later, the same paper reported: "The Wichita boat club has decided on the location for their boat house. They accepted the offer made by the Riverside Land Company which gives them a lot with 100 foot river front immediately south of the Oak Street bridge." (Oak Street was renamed Murdock Avenue in 1899, but for years afterward, locals still referred to the bridge as the Oak Street Bridge.)
The Riverside Land Company was, by the way, the business of J.O. Davidson, who had publicly proposed building a boathouse on the site earlier in the summer of 1886. The generous offer he extended to the boat club was part of his master game plan, which was to make his Riverside development the prime suburban residential neighborhood in town. He considered a boathouse a classy attraction, and was certain the good people of Wichita would agree, drawing attention (and investors) to Riverside.
Modern readers can be forgiven for having difficulty picturing all manner of boats slipping up and down the rivers running through downtown Wichita. But in the last quarter of the 19th century, traveling by water — for business or pleasure — was old hat. The Eagle and Beacon newspapers of the era teemed with stories about boats of all kinds on the rivers. Steamboats, sailboats, rowboats, canoes and even crude rafts provided reliable transportation for people and goods in the pre-automotive era.
The July 31, 1886 Eagle described in detail "the steamboat 'Eagle,' which was inspected by a reporter yesterday at its moorings a little below the foot of Pine street. It is 48 feet long by 12 feet beam, with paddle wheels at sides making 17-1/2 feet overall. Capacity will be 150 passengers."
Over time, the bigger boats and trade vessels on the rivers were replaced almost entirely by small pleasure craft. By 1888 the Wichita Boating Club had 12 small boats and 160 active members. Demand for boat rentals was on the increase, and the club found it necessary to expand their facilities. The June 20 Eagle reported: "The Boat Club have improved their boat house by the addition of new bath and dressing rooms. A refreshment stand has also been erected between their boat house and Oak Street."
(The popularity of the boathouse seems to run counter to the rather humorous note found in the May 25, 1888 Beacon chiding the club's members for not tidying up the area around their headquarters: "Members of the boat club certainly have a 'kick coming' on the present condition of the Little river. It is in a fearful condition. It is full of moss, mud, and bad smells.")
On Independence Day, 1888 the biggest crowd ever converged upon the boathouse. The next day's Eagle ran an article detailing "the boat club's annual regatta on the little river yesterday. During the races the Oak Street bridge was one mass of humanity. The course over which the races were rowed is on the Little Arkansas, beginning just north of the Pine Street bridge of the Riverside motor line, and continuing up stream three fourths of a mile to the turning buoy, making a regulation one and a half mile course."
The next summer, the boathouse saw a huge boom in traffic with the opening of Riverside Park directly across the bridge; at the time, Oak Street was the only avenue into the park, so every visitor had to pass directly by the boathouse. Shortly after the park's dedication, the June 12, 1889 Beacon reported: "The Riverside park was visited by about 1800 persons last night for various amusements of dancing, boat riding, etc."
And then a decade passed in which interest in boating seems to have diminished precipitously. At some point in the 1890s, the boat club disbanded. If news reports from 1897 are any indication, perhaps lower water levels in the rivers had been to blame; several editorials appeared that year proposing a dam be built at the confluence of the rivers to bottle up the Little River, creating a small lake. In the Nov. 7 Eagle appeared both a call for a newly-organized boating club, and the following: "The Little River will be dammed at its mouth thus making the river what it was ten years ago."
To be continued next week.