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A Brief History of the Holyoke Canoe Club

During the last quarter of the 19th century, enthusiasm for canoeing, boating, and croquet grew among people in Holyoke. The Holyoke Canoe Club was formed through the efforts of local sportsmen who used the backwaters of their new dam to promote canoe racing. The first canoe club meeting house was organized and built in 1885 near the Jones Point area just above the dam and was used to launch and store canoes. As the wealth of these men grew, they built the present building. In 1894, the club added a second story and plans were begun to extend the house to enable storage of 12 additional canoes, increasing the fleet to 27.

The name of the club at this time was chosen because of the nearby red sandstone cliffs: Redcliff Canoe House. In 1900 land was purchased on the river’s west bank near Smith’s Ferry where a grandiose Victorian clubhouse was erected to parallel other notable landmarks in the bustling industrial city. Members journeying to the club could choose between a steamboat up the river or the train to a local stop. Dances in the grand ballroom were major social events. Two plots of land were leveled to introduce a new foreign game, tennis. Then the Great War happened.

The twenties started with five new championship clay courts where the Pioneer Valley tournament became a regular feature. Tennis stars of the day made frequent visits. Dancing went wild. Motorboats raced the river – canoes dwindled. Baseball was king of the northwest corner. The latest swim fashions occasionally were wetted in the river. Then came the Depression and another war.

This was the club’s bleakest period. The generosity of those who preserved the institution without regard for immediate benefits became an endowment for future generations. Fortunately, their sacrifices were not in vain. The years following the war were expansive. A new lighted pool with bathhouse replaced the polluted river, and the membership boomed. The Sunday barbecue following the late Saturday bash was a weekly feature. Docks were jammed with boats. 1953 set a membership record of 350 families. Then came creeping sterility and competitive mobility.

Until the early seventies the club did not innovate. Superhighways made remote recreation easy for all. Private swimming pools were in vogue. Larger boats went to the ocean. Two offers to purchase the club were received and refused. Membership tumbled to 105 families. Then "tennis anyone?" became tennis everyone.

Lights were installed on the old clay courts. Two all-weather courts were added. Three new clay courts and a full-time pro were added. The club started using power equipment and built a picnic pavilion and a paved basketball court. Membership rebounded while interest in the beauty and water quality of the river led to improved conditions for boating and canoeing. Swimming blossomed with a new pool director. For those members and past members who are fortunate enough to remember, let us give recognition and thanks to our predecessors for our heritage, and trust that we can be as provident for the future.

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