Canoe You Too: Boathouses of the Little Arkansas
Editor's note: This is the second part of a 2-part story on Wichita Boat houses. In last week's F5, we covered the rise and fall of the Wichita Boating Club from 1877 to 1897 and its boathouse at Oak Street (now Murdock Avenue) and the Little Arkansas on the edge of what is now Central Riverside Park.
Whatever had caused the mass loss of interest in boating in the 1890s, it was temporary. By 1898, the public once again demanded its boats.
Enter R.C. Israel, a local tradesman whose family lived just around the corner from the Oak Street Bridge, at 915 N. Waco. Israel purchased six cheap rowboats and put his two adolescent sons in charge of them in order to keep them out of his hair in the summer. During the day, the boys would rent them to eager customers, and at night the boats were simply tied up beneath the bridge. Each summer the business got a little bigger until 1905, when Israel built a proper facility — the Murdock Avenue Boathouse — and went into the amusement business officially.
Within months, Israel had company. The Aug. 9 Eagle reported: "The Wichita Canoe Club yesterday leased a plot of ground on the Little Arkansas river below Murdock Avenue and will build a boat and club house as soon as the plans can be made. The boat house will have room for 32 boats. The club was organized about two weeks ago and now has about 25 members. The land was leased from R.C. Israel and is just south of the Murdock avenue boat house … Stairs will lead from the building to a platform, to which will be attached a floating platform from which the boats will be launched. A chute will be installed to take the canoes easily into the club house."
Just up the river a few blocks, the Riverside Club joined in the fun in 1909, building a magnificent club and boathouse at the corner of Briggs and River Boulevard. All of Riverside was now one big Sunday canoe excursion.
1911 saw a further expansion of Israel's business, with the June 18 Eagle reporting: "With completion of the new dam and remodeling and enlarging of the Riverside Boat House, Wichita now has the largest fleet of rowboats and the finest scenery and water for rowing of any city in Kansas. Yesterday the boat company received another car load of pressed steel row boats. They now have 55 boats in their fleet, ranging from fourteen to eighteen feet in length." Their newspaper ad read: "Launch ride tickets at Riverside Boat company are ten cents. Mullins safe pressed steel row boats 25 cents per hour."
By 1912 the Riverside Club boasted 360 members and its own sand-dredging boat, which it allowed the city to use to widen and deepen the river channel all the way north to 13th Street, all the better for boating. The club built an annex to its boathouse to handle the increasing business.
In the winter of 1912-13 a fire broke out at the Murdock Avenue Boathouse, which was closed for the season. The beautiful stone arch at the east end of the bridge into the park was damaged in the blaze, and subsequently removed. By early summer the boathouse was repaired and ready for action. The April 6 Eagle noted: "Grand opening of Riverside boat house about 25th of this month. Capacity of boat house and pavilion has been more than doubled. R. C. Israel, owner, has secured 90 steel rowboats costing $40 each. A number of new launches will be seen on the river this summer. The Wichita Canoe club's boathouse adjoins that of the Riverside company." A month later, on May 17, the Eagle added: "Largest shipment of boats ever to arrive here received by R. C. Israel, including one launch, 25 row boats, and five canoes."
The June 6, 1915 Eagle commented on Wichita's obsession with boats, noting the sheer number of watercraft to be found on the Little River. "There are more than 100 boats, 80 canoes, and a dozen launches. The Riverside Boat House, under lease to Robert C. Israel, has 80 steel boats and a few launches. Adjoining it is a canoe club housing 60 canoes. Riverside club has sixteen canoes, and the Old Town Canoe club boat house has perhaps ten canoes." This was the golden age of boating in Wichita.
The Riverside Club, whose membership was perhaps diminished by America's participation in World War I, sold its lovely club and boathouse to the Midian Shrine in 1918; the building was torn down in 1924. (Today Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, where many Riversiders vote on Election Day, stands on the spot.)
Also in 1924 came the death of R.C. Israel, on Sept. 9. The next day's Eagle ran a lengthy obituary, including the following excerpt: "Report of death yesterday of Robert C. Israel, Wichita pioneer and real estate dealer, at his home, 743 North Waco, at age 69. In failing health for more than a year. Born at White Hall, Illinois in 1855. Moved to a farm in Sumner County near Norwich in 1876 and then to Wichita in 1876. Operated a grocery with C. D. Ward at 414 East Douglas until the boom, when he entered the general mercantile business with his brother, Fred. The business was sold at auction after the boom. Soon after the boom he opened his first real estate office at 414 East Douglas … He built two large apartment buildings at the southwest corner of Waco and Murdock in 1910, at which time he opened the large boat house. Prior to that time his son, Robert E., had operated the boat house in a small way."
Israel died at roughly the same time the Little River had to be drained in order to rebuild the bridge into the park, which forced the boathouse out of business for two solid years. Not to be discouraged, R.C.'s widow Julia took over the family business and used the downtime to her advantage. The April 11, 1926 Eagle noted: "Over $10,000 will be spent on remodeling the Riverside boat house at Murdock and Little River. A pillared veranda will be placed on the north side, to be 15 x 100 feet. Work will start Monday and be completed by the middle of May. A car load of 24 steel boats costing $2,000 has arrived in Wichita for the boat house rental."
And then a curious thing happens in the public record: Almost no mention of any Wichita boathouse, including the 1920s structure still standing at Lewis Street, appears in the Eagle or Beacon until the late 1960s. Then, in the June 3, 1963 Eagle, came this announcement: "The Riverside boathouse will be one of the first properties acquired for the Park Plaza Urban Renewal project. The option to sell the land and property was returned yesterday to the agency office by Ralph B. Foster, 5102 East Pine, present owner of the boathouse. The boathouse has a river frontage of 75 feet and the property line runs to the center of the river."
As has been the case with many beloved public treasures detailed in past editions of this column, the boathouse became a victim of the "Urban Renewal" craze of the 1960s-70s. Rather than renovating or repurposing older structures, Urban Renewal often called for a clean slate approach to remaking public spaces. The boathouse, though still open, was on deathwatch.
The July 16, 1967 Eagle reported: "Business is continuing at Wichita's venerable Riverside Boathouse, although it is scheduled to be torn down this fall to make way for development of the 44 acre Park Plaza urban renewal project. Manager of the boathouse is Harold Fogle."
In January of 1968, the Murdock Avenue Boathouse was knocked down.