The History of Three Rivers Rowing Association
The history of Three Rivers Rowing Association seeks to record the events surrounding the creation and evolution of one of the country’s largest community-based, people-powered boating organizations. This is a work in progress. We welcome any additions, which could take the form of words, photos and video images. Please feel free to contact TRRA leadership, who will advise you how to make submissions. (Click on highlighted links in this document to open other pages and documents of interest.)
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Founded in October 1984, TRRA grew into one of the largest community-based rowing and paddling clubs in the United States. From the beginning, its programs served people of all skill levels from a broad range of social and economic backgrounds, and participants range in age from teenagers to senior citizens. TRRA offers lessons for beginners in rowing, kayaking and dragon boating, and provides coached programs for more advanced rowers and paddlers.
As of its 25th Anniversary in 2009, Three Rivers Rowing Association reported 275 members, although the number of people using the Lambert (Washington's Landing) and Millvale facilities totals more than 1,300 annually.
Race Day View
Other offerings include a Corporate Rowing program for team-building purposes, a Diversity program to make rowing and paddling more accessible to the region's minority communities, a Masters rowing program for post-college adults, and Adaptive programs for persons with disabilities and the blind. Community Service Programs
TRRA facilities include two boathouses on the Allegheny River just north of downtown Pittsburgh. The Lambert Boathouse is located on Washington's Landing (formerly known as Herr’s Island), and the Millvale Training Center is located on the adjacent river bank.
The boathouses contain weight rooms, locker rooms, training rooms with ergometers (rowing machines), storage bays holding rowing shells capable of carrying one to eight rowers, as well as kayaks and dragon boats. The Millvale complex also houses indoor rowing tanks for training purposes. Facilities
TRRA hosts five competitive events each year, including the nationally recognized Head of the Ohio Regatta every October, as well as kayak and dragon boat races. Events
TRRA gained a national reputation not only for developing top-notch rowers – crews from each of the club's major categories have won gold medals in national championships in recent years – but also as a leader in the community rowing movement.
In 2002, Three Rivers Rowing was the first rowing organization in the country to win the newly created Club of the Year award from USRowing, the sport's national governing body. The award recognized community outreach, effective use of technology, member involvement, communications, service to the sport of rowing, and competitive excellence by its members.
USRowing Article - 2002 Club of the Year Award (Opens as a separate PDF file)
The founding of TRRA represented a rebirth of rowing in the Pittsburgh area. The city had been a major rowing center in the 1800s, when more than 20 boathouses lined the banks of the three rivers. In the days before
Monongahela River Regatta - 1867
History of Rowing in Pittsburgh Article (Opens as a separate PDF file)
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Founding of TRRA
Three Rivers Rowing Association was not created overnight. It evolved over the period of several years, growing out of the ideas and energy of many people in Pittsburgh who loved the sport of rowing and who recognized that the city's rivers were once again safe enough to navigate in small, people-powered boats.
Early Boat Storage in Trailers on Washington's Landing
Talking to many of the founders and early members of TRRA, one hears a recurring theme – lots of people back in the early 1980s were walking or driving along the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio rivers, thinking to themselves, or even voicing out loud a similar common thought, "We ought to be out there rowing."
Mike O'Connell, who had rowed while a student at Columbia University in New York, remembers walking across the 10th Street bridge every morning to his job as an engineer at Dravo Corp., and thinking the river might be a nice place to row.
Dave Figgins, retired Chairman and CEO of Mellon Stuart Co., one of the world's largest engineering and construction firms, had rowed competitively in his younger days in Ireland and England. He often wondered, walking by the river at lunchtime, why rowing wasn't more popular in Pittsburgh.
Chris Ryan, an MIT graduate and rower, went a little nuts trying to find a place to row after he moved to Pittsburgh. He'd park along the riverbank and hack his way through the bushes looking for someplace – anyplace – where a shell could be launched.
Rowing at Dawn
Mike Lambert, a transplanted New Englander, was always astonished at the amount of water flowing under the bridges of Pittsburgh. But when he first moved to the city in the early 1970s, he was discouraged at how polluted and congested the waterways were as a result of the booming steel and manufacturing industries.
One day in the summer of 1984, Lambert was taking a lunchtime run along the river with Tim Decker, assistant director at the Downtown YMCA. Lambert had just returned from a trip home, where he’d spent a little time in a single from the Dartmouth boathouse.
"Pittsburgh needs crew," Lambert declared as the two jogged along the riverside path.
Decker was skeptical, but Lambert proceeded to describe the joys of the sport, including great exercise, teamwork and self improvement, mostly in an outdoor setting. Soon Decker’s reluctance gave way to curiosity, and the two went back to sell then-Director Bill Parese on the idea of offering a rowing program at the Downtown YMCA.
It took some more convincing, along with lots of time on the phone, and many friend-of-a-friend connections, but eventually the YMCA contributed a few thousand dollars for some used four-oared rowing shells from the University of Charleston in West Virginia, (one of which now hangs from the rafters of the TRRA Washington's Landing boathouse now named for Lambert).
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The Early Years
And so, on October 1, 1984, Three Rivers Rowing Association was created. The group collected its first membership fees that month. Dues were set at a modest $20, which included the last three months of 1984 and all of 1985; new members, which meant everyone, also paid a $20 initiation fee to provide a little operating budget. YMCA memberships for an additional
First Dues Sheet - 1984
Larger Version of First Year Dues (Opens in a separate window)
In the early years of rowing at the Pittsburgh YMCA in the mid-1980s, novices refined their strokes from the seats of a saw-off shell perched at the edge of the Y's indoor swimming pool, and the battered boats were stored at various times in the rancid corners of an abandoned sheep slaughterhouse, on makeshift racks inside semi trailers parked along the riverbank, or on stands in Lambert's back yard, from which they were transported atop his VW microbus to the river. There, launching consisted of wading through mud and trash into knee-deep water, or scrambling up a grassy embankment carrying a 40-foot shell.
The early-morning sight of rowing shells on the river attracted Ryan, who had finally managed to find a place to launch a single scull, and O’Connell, who hauled milk jugs full of hot water in the trunk of his car with which to douse himself before putting on his suit and tie to make the trek to his downtown office across the 10th Street Bridge.
The number of rowers grew slowly. Most of them were ex-college rowers from other parts of the world. They went to other cities for the occasional race, engaged in a little friendly local competition, and started sharing their ideas about the future of rowing in Pittsburgh.
Race Day Activities
A call to the U.S. Rowing Association brought the names of
more rowers. Jeff Lowe had coached at the University of Florida and had moved
back to his native Pittsburgh to work in the insurance industry. Templeton
Smith, a Princeton oarsman, rowed his single out of the Duquesne Canoe Club
where Chris Ryan and another fellow named Per Sorenson had found rowing mates.
Smith was related to John Lubimir, who had rowed at Marietta College and had
started his own rowing club in Pittsburgh in 1982. It was one of Lubimir’s
eight-oared shells that was sawed into sections for use as rowing boxes, the
training devices used on poolsides and later docks to teach technique to newcomers.
Elaine Schirmer and her husband opened a shop in Etna to sell Alden Ocean Shells, a boat designed for recreational rowing. She and her customers started to get involved in the process. Peter Evered got wind of the rowing movement, and he got involved. Don Schock was a sailor at heart but decided to give rowing a try. The list goes on.
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One Morning on the Banks of the Ohio
As with most success stories, this one relies on a fair amount of good luck. One morning in 1985, as some of the rowers were wading in or out of the river, they heard a voice, asking in a lilting Irish brogue, what they were doing.
College Rowers Preparing for an Outing
"Rowing," they replied.
"I'm well aware of that," countered Dave Figgins, with only a hint of indignation. "But what are you DOING?"
Figgins, a standout oarsman at Queens University in Belfast, circa 1950, wanted to know who they were, what boathouse they rowed out of, and what they had planned for the future.
The rowers explained that they had some plans for the future – for starters, a real dock and a place to take a proper shower – but they knew those plans would cost money, and lots of it. The men parted ways with the understanding that they would talk again if the fellows crawling up the river bank got serious about building a real boathouse.
Many of the parties involved point to that serendipitous encounter as a turning point in the history of Three Rivers Rowing Association. It convinced these four that rowing could catch on in Pittsburgh, and they
Mike Lambert and Dave Figgins
Some saw rowing as a way to provide opportunity and motivation
to the city's diverse communities. Some saw it as a great addition to school
athletic programs, especially for girls and others not well served by existing
programs. Others saw rowing as an economic development tool – an asset
to enhance the city’s image and attract new residents and businesses.
Others just wanted a way to promote and participate in a sport they loved.
Several members of this loose-knit group decided it was time to branch out from the YMCA. An off-site meeting was planned at Froggy’s, a legendary watering hole located around the corner from the Downtown Y.
If that morning on the riverbank was the Boston Tea Party in TRRA history, then the Froggy's meeting was the convening of the Continental Congress – the point of no return, as it were. It was at this meeting, which soon entered the lore of TRRA, that the idea came up to build a boathouse. Over a few beers, Lambert, Ryan, Lubimir and Decker talked seriously about getting the high schools and colleges involved, and seeking financial support from the city’s philanthropic community.
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Raising the Money
Co-founder Chris Ryan felt strongly that the key to success was to set their sights high and establish credibility with investors. "We could get money for a nice boathouse," he told his compatriots. "We could never get money for a shed."
Ryan also agreed with Mike Lambert's notion that the organization should benefit the youth of Pittsburgh – none of whom rowed in local schools – and not just people like themselves looking for a way to get back on the water. It was this ideal that set the course for TRRA's mission to provide opportunities for Pittsburghers of all ages and backgrounds.
So they returned to Figgins. During a meeting at Mellon Stuart, Lambert and Ryan laid out their plan and spelled out their need to raise money. Figgins
Groundbreaking Ceremony at Washington's Landing - 1988
(From left - M. Lambert, D. Figgins, R.D. Finlay, C. Ryan)
Lambert and Ryan were impressed, but were concerned about following through on all these great contacts. They knew Figgins was an old hand at fundraising. He’d been doing it for the Pittsburgh Symphony and other organizations with much success. They also knew he was a busy guy. Reluctantly, they asked if he’d mind coordinating the fundraising effort for the rowing program.
"I thought you'd never ask," came the reply. But there was a condition. Figgins said that he expected plenty of work from Lambert, Ryan and their fellow rowers to make the project happen.
"I think things really popped at this point," Lambert said years later. Figgins inspired all of them to draw on their own strengths and their own networks to move the project along.
Chris Ryan Takes a Scoop at the Washington's Landing Groundbreaking - 1988
Lambert, a New Hampshire native who was then climbing the ladder at Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh, had deep roots in social services programs. Ryan was well versed in heavy construction. Everybody had something to offer. They just needed direction.
With guidance from Figgins, they approached foundations, applied for grants and worked with city government officials and real estate developers to secure a spot on Washington’s Landing, which was being cleaned up and converted for office and residential use. Phone calls were made, meetings were arranged, proposals were written and re-written, and slowly but surely, the money started to come in.
The Heinz Endowments broke the ice with a major contribution. A surprise donation stemmed from an application to the Child Guidance Center Foundation, which gave $200,000 in support of TRRA's plan to work with at-risk youth.
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By December 1986, Three Rivers Rowing had incorporated as a non-profit organization. Lambert left a career track at Catholic Charities to become its first executive director, a position he held for 20 years. A Board of Governors was formed to provide direction to the
Digging the Foundation for the Washington's Landing Boathouse - 1988
Efforts continued to get schools involved. Topping the list of target institutions were the University of Pittsburgh (View club promo), Carnegie Mellon (View club history) and Duquesne. Each one was asked to contribute $75,000 to the boathouse construction fund, which they eventually did. However, it was Chatham College, which had a very small rowing program, that was the first school to commit to TRRA. A major gift from Duquesne University got the ball rolling for the Big Three, which eventually engaged in an annual series of races called "CarDuPitt." Later, collegiate programs from Carlow and Robert Morris also joined the organization.
The quest for college support often relied on serendipity. Carnegie Mellon had been slow to come on board, and the game-changer came when Chris Ryan found himself on the same plane with CMU President Dick Cyert on a flight home from New York City. The story is vintage Ryan.
“I got on right behind [Cyert] and then bullied a guy who had the seat next to him to move,” Ryan recalled. "In the hour flight to Pittsburgh, I filled his ears with reasons why they needed to be rowing. What seemed to
Post-Gazette Article - 1989
Public awareness of rowing in Pittsburgh jumped in 1987 with the running of the first Head of the Ohio regatta, which was the brainchild of Dr. Dan Thompson, a surgeon at Mercy Hospital. He suggested that Mercy sponsor the race, and that proceeds from it go toward programs at the hospital's burn unit. The Head of the Ohio (which actually runs on the Allegheny River) grew into one of the biggest single-day rowing events in the country, although Mercy ended its sponsorship of the race in 2003.
Post-Gazette Article Announcing the Opening of Three Rivers Rowing Center (Opens as a separate PDF file)
As the number of rowers increased and events like Head of
the Ohio drew thousands of participants from the Eastern United States, the
need for a permanent rowing facility became more acute.
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Bricks and Mortar
After a couple of false starts, a location for the first TRRA boathouse was found on Herr's Island, which was being transformed from a row of stinking slaughterhouses into a $130 million commercial/residential development re-christened Washington's Landing. Owners liked the idea of a boathouse on the island as an added amenity for future office workers and condo residents.
Ground was broken in 1988 for the 16,000-square-foot boathouse along the island's back channel. The location was ideal because it provided access to the main river
Shortly After the Opening of the Washington's Landing Boathouse - 1989
The Three Rivers Rowing Center opened in 1989, but the organization quickly outgrew its quarters, due in large part to the increasing popularity of high school rowing programs for girls and boys. A new fundraising effort was launched to double the capacity of the boat bays, which were built underneath the parking lot of an office building next door.
During the decade that followed, rowing programs flourished in Pittsburgh. Crews from Three Rivers Rowing won national championships in high school, college, masters and adaptive categories. Some former TRRA members started another rowing organization – Steel City Rowing – in Oakmont, and Robert Morris University and North Allegheny High School crews found their own boathouses downstream on the Ohio River. Rowing had officially returned to Pittsburgh.
In addition to the Head of the Ohio, TRRA sponsors several other events, including the Pittsburgh Indoor Rowing Championships (on rowing machines), the Pittsburgh Scholastic Sprints and the Lottie McAlice Regatta.
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Three Rivers Rowing Association is more than just rowing. Membership has long included kayakers, including Olympic prospect Erica
Dragon Boating on the Back Channel
As membership and programs continued to grow at Three Rivers Rowing Association, the organization once again found itself pushing the limits of its facilities.
With more funding from the Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon and Scaife foundations, and other philanthropic and corporate supporters, TRRA built a second boathouse just 300 yards upstream in the new Millvale Riverfront Park.
Opened in November 2002, the $2 million facility included a 15,000-square-foot training center featuring two rowing tanks for year-round practice, exercise rooms, locker rooms, meeting spaces and offices. It was built to strict environmental standards for construction, heating, cooling and recycling.
The Heinz Endowments also provided startup funding for a TRRA program called the Tireless Project, which combined an effort to collect discarded tires and other debris from the riverbanks with environmental education programs for students and leaders of riverside communities.
The new millenium
Millvale Ribbon Cutting Ceremony - 2002
"We concluded that we had failed to achieve a key tenet of that goal: that our membership should reflect the population makeup of the city," said Don Schock. "We chose to actively and financially re-commit ourselves to diversity."
A diversity director was hired and a full-scale effort was launched to attract African-Americans and and other minority groups to join Three Rivers Rowing. High school rowing programs were launched at such predominantly
Millvale Training Center from the Back Channel
Heinz Endowments article about TRRA Diversity Efforts (Opens in a separate window)
TRRA's commitment to community rowing, particularly in developing diversity programs, attracted national attention.
A month after the opening of the new Millvale facility, when USRowing went to choose its first Club of the Year based on a wide variety of measures, it picked Three Rivers Rowing over several older, well-established rowing organizations in Boston and San Diego. One of the factors that set TRRA apart from the other candidates was its commitment to community service and diversity.
Three Rivers Rowing Association is a proud participant in the ongoing revitalization of the city of Pittsburgh and its rivers and waterfront. TRRA is a model for community rowing organizations around the country, and it continues to grow with the addition of new members, new programs and new ideas.
- Thomas Buell, Jr. (Spring 2009)
(This TRRA history project was inspired in 2008 by Chris
Ryan, who was concerned that many of the key players and their recollections
might be in the process of fading away. Funding for the project was
provided by a grant from the Chris Ryan Family fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation.)
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