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The day the river became everybody's

It took a generation to conquer the Schuylkill.

By Karen J. Hamilton

When our youngest son, Benjamin, signed up for a two-week rowing camp sponsored by Philadelphia City Rowing, we thought it would expose him to something different, allow him to meet new friends, and keep him occupied for two weeks. It did much more.

The camp was one of three sessions designed to introduce students from Philadelphia's public high schools to rowing and prepare them to compete on a citywide team in the fall. The participants met daily at the club's yard on historic Boathouse Row, on the east bank of the Schuylkill.

While college and high school teams from around the region and country had frequented these waters for years in one of Philadelphia's greatest sporting traditions, there had never been a rowing team for students from the city's public schools.

For two weeks, Ben and 30 other students were thrust into the sport. For many, if not most, this was their first time on the water in this capacity. They learned the physical discipline and teamwork rowing requires.

City Rowing is committed to the belief that all Philadelphians should have access to the natural waterways and rich rowing history of the city, which brings me to the heart of this story's significance for our family.

My husband grew up in Mantua, a West Philadelphia neighborhood with a history of poverty and crime, also known as the "Black Bottom." Like many inner-city neighborhoods, it borders vibrant areas such as Powelton Village, University City, and Fairmount. My husband remembers summers spent swimming with friends in the ponds at the bottom of the Art Museum steps. Boathouse Row could be seen from the window of the third-floor bedroom of his oldest brother, Chuck.

Perhaps that was the origin of Chuck's fascination with the river. On learning of Ben's participation in the rowing camp this summer, Chuck imparted a 40-year-old story of his own experience on the Schuylkill and issued a challenge to Ben: "You'll redeem the Hamiltons."

Chuck's exposure to the outdoors as a teenager - mostly through his parents' connections with Quaker families who planned excursions beyond the city limits - had bred an affinity for nature. It was an unlikely interest for a black boy who grew up avoiding warring gang members and hostile cops. But he spent countless hours building a neighborhood tree house and taking friends fishing on the river.

In 1968, motivated by his love of the water, Chuck bought a raft from the Army-Navy store and rallied the neighborhood kids to spend more than half a day inflating the massive rubber boat, working in shifts to breathe life into it. It was exhausting, but Chuck's passion was contagious. Then three of his closest friends helped Chuck carry the raft to the Schuylkill, perched themselves on it, and prepared for a day of fishing.

Chuck has a flair for the dramatic, and he doesn't hold it back when he approaches the story's climax: "We're sitting there, on the river, fishing - just having a great time - when we hear sirens coming from a motor boat." An official-looking person on the motor boat bellowed: "Who does this boat belong to?"

The boys all pointed to Chuck, who proudly acknowledged his ownership of the Mantua vessel. "You're going to have to get this boat off the water," the man said. "You don't have a license to operate this vehicle on the river. Let's go."

The disappointment of 40 years ago seems fresh - daunting even - as Chuck recalls being escorted to the riverbank and lifting his craft ashore. After all the hours spent inflating the raft, the encounter deflated a young boy's hopes in a matter of minutes. "I thought the river belonged to everybody," Chuck says, his voice trailing off.

So, last month, when 16 young men and women took to the river to make history, they intersected with the history of our family. In the annual Philadelphia Youth Regatta - historically showcasing the skills of crew teams from private and suburban schools - the city's public school students raced on the river. They were nervous, at times uncoordinated, and probably not fully aware of what their presence meant to the history of rowing in the city. And they certainly were not aware of what it meant to the Mantua boy - now man - who had dreamed of this moment.