2017 Free Public Rowing in Prospect Park!



The Village Community Boathouse is offering free public rowing on Prospect Park Lake this summer.

Sessions run from noon until 4:00 PM on Saturdays from June 10 to August 26.

WHO CAN PARTICIPATE: Community rowing is open to all, although some physical dexterity is required to get in and out of the boats. The focus of the program is recreation in a safe and respectful environment. Each participant must sign a waiver; under 18s need to be escorted by a parent. Life jackets are provided—and must be worn!

WHAT WE ROW: We use a diverse fleet of traditional wooden rowing boats, built by volunteers and similar in shape and appearance to those used in the early days of park rowing. 

WHERE WE ARE BASED: Boats are launched from the ramp on Well House Drive in the southwest corner of the lake. Our temporary boathouse–two shipping containers–is located just across from the ramp.

WHY WE DO IT: Rowing is a beautifully simple, healthy, and empowering sport, and the ample waters of the lake are an ideal place to pursue its pleasures. The park is surrounded by a large and diverse population that needs more access to on-water recreation.

HOW WE FUND IT: We are a nonprofit organization entirely run by volunteers. While no commitment is required from those who row with us, our facilities, boats and equipment require regular upkeep and repair. Your donations make our program possible.


Contact: sally@vcb.nyc




Google Map of VCB Launch Site in Prospect Park:

Photos from Rowing in Prospect Park Lake August 26, 2017

Photos from Rowing in Prospect Park Lake July 15th 2017

 Photos from Rowing in Prospect Park June 10th 2017

Photos from Rowing in Prospect Park July 8th 2017

Photos from Rowing Prospect Park June 4, 2016


Photos from Rowing in Prospect Park Lake June 11, 2016:


Photos from Rowing in Prospect Park Lake June 18, 2016:




by Rob Buchanan

The initial designs for Prospect Park, drawn up before the Civil War, did not include plans for a large body of water. But in1866, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux persuaded the city fathers to adopt a new design whose features included a 63-acre lake that would offer “good opportunities for skating and rowing.” According to Kate Papacosma, a Brooklyn writer and historian of park design, “They sold the idea to Brooklyn leaders by arguing that, among other things, a large lake would make Prospect Park better than Central Park. Seeing the park from the water was integral to the experience. Ice-skating, of course, was an enormous draw, but so was boating.”

Though the park opened in 1867, the lake was not completed until 1873. The first boathouse, a rustic canopied structure set on piers straddling the north end of the Lullwater, was built in 1876; in the winter, it doubled as the skating center. Rowing immediately became a popular park activity. A July, 1876 Brooklyn Eagle article described an evening outing on the lake: “The air was delightfully cool and pleasant on the water, and the contrast to the atmosphere of the city was striking. The lake was thronged with the Park boats engaged by parties who delight in moonlight rowing, and the various colored lights which were pendent from the bows of each boat presented a very picturesque appearance.”

The park’s first boating concessionaire, identified by the Eagle as “Commodore O’Brien,” assembled a fleet of “ordinary working boats and rowing shells either for single or double sculls.” Later, the operation was taken over by Capt. Isaac Harris, a Civil war veteran who also ran the park’s carryalls (horse-drawn carriages), the donkey and pony tracks, and the skating concession. A 1893 Eagle article mentioned a summer day when “the whole of [Capt. Harris’] 125 race boats were out on the lake and occupied by amateur rowers early in the afternoon, while all of his dozen omnibus boats and his three steam launches were crowded each time they made the circuit of the lake.”

In 1932, the Eagle published a retrospective on Capt. Harris’ career. “The oarsmen who expended tremendous energy in rowing the heavy boats with family parties around the lake had a tough job,” the article noted, “but they had bulging muscles and the silent admiration of the shy little damsels on board kept them contented.” It described Harris’ regular fleet as consisting of “cedar boats built for him by Jerry Morse,” adding that “[t]hese were for folks who wanted to do their own rowing, and many a budding romance bloomed on the lake.” As for fleet upkeep, the article continued, “Alex MacDonald had charge of the Harris boat loft, and he and five men were kept busy all winter getting the boats ready for the following spring.”

A frequently-mentioned issue that vexed park rowers was the excessive amount of pond weed that developed along the margins of the lake in the warmer months of the season. “Park Lakes Are Shunned, Because of the Heavy Growths of Grass and Floating Slime That Flourish Unchecked,” read one 1899 headline in the Eagle. A 1901 letter to the editor compared a particularly choked passage on the Lake to “Bunyan’s Slough of Despond.” Nevertheless, rowing remained popular enough that, in 1905, a neo-classical boathouse sheathed in white terra cotta tile was constructed on the east side of the Lullwater, its design based on the Renaissance library of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Its cost: an extravagant $$52,500.

Thus began the heyday of rowing on Prospect Park Lake. One hint of its popularity: in just 15 years, from 1906 to 1921, the price bid for the concession doubled, from $7800 to $15,500. Another: in 1910, when a bureaucratic hitch delayed the opening of the season, a New York Times headline bemoaned “A Boatless Sunday in Prospect Park.” “So absurd a thing as a mere indemnity bond caused all the unhappiness which weighed on the spirits of Brooklyn’s younger generation,” the article read, “depriving them for the time being of the the enjoyment of a hereditary and almost sacred institution in the life of the borough.”

By 1919, according to the Parks Department’s Annual Report for Brooklyn, “several hundred” boats were in use on the lake at “a charge of 25 cents per hour.” In 1926, according to an Eagle article, “the concessionaire ha[d]over 500 boats to rent.” And in 1929, a letter to the editor complained of terrible congestion in the Lullwater caused by incapable oarsmen, and suggested moving the boathouse from the Lullwater to the shore of “the Big Lake.”

A particularly entertaining account of rowing in Prospect Park appeared in the July 29, 1945 Brooklyn Eagle, under the headline “Gold Lost in Park Lake Due to Boat Frolics.” After detailing all the jewelry that had recently disappeared into the muck on the bottom, a consequence of “600 more or less inept oarsmen… dipping 1200 oars into the lake,” the article quoted Carry Robinson, the acerbic concessionaire whose family had “been identified with with the boat rental business in Brooklyn since 1905.” “Most people can’t row,” she told the paper. “They stick the oars in too deep and don’t feather them. Sailors are the worst offenders.” It also described a “good-natured cop” who patrolled the lake in a motorized boat and issued $2 tickets for undressing in the boats, standing up, or splashing water on other people. Robinson’s take on Brooklyn rowers:

By the 1950s, to judge from photos in the Parks Department archives (see below), the preponderance of craft in use on the lake had changed from traditional roundbottomed ‘pulling boats’ to simpler, but slower, flat-bottomed skiffs. A 1951 photograph from the Eagle shows the aforementioned police officer zipping out of the Lullwater in a long, shapely traditional boat (albeit one powered by an outboard) while various couples look on from their stubbier, slab-sided rental skiffs.

A 1957 Eagle interview with Carry Robinson noted a decline in size of the rental fleet from its peak of 600 boats (Robinson blamed it on TV). But the biggest changes were still to come.

“For more than half a century, the Robinson family of Brooklyn operated the boat concession at the Park,” an article in the New York World-Telegram declared in March, 1962. “Early this year, however, the Parks Department declared the fleet of rowboats unsafe and burned them.” To replace them, the department purchased 75 aluminum boats–the first of their kind to be used on city lakes. The new boats were 13 1/2 feet long, seated six persons, and weighed about 175 pounds, the newspaper reported.

Two years later, in 1964, the World-Telegram reported Parks Department plans to shift the park’s boating center from the old boathouse on the Lullwater to a new $45,000 dock on the main part of the lake. The boathouse was closed the next year, and after a period of decline the city decided to demolish it, triggering a citizen outcry and, eventually, the celebrated community protest that saved it. It was landmarked in 1968 and underwent a $1 million restoration beginning in 1971. In July, 1974 it was reopened as the home base for a fleet of 200 aluminum rowboats. According to the New York Times, the boats cost $1.50 an hour to rent, along with a $10 deposit, and, apparently for the first time, all participants were required to wear a life preserver.

Over the next two decades, rowing on the lake went into a decline, though exactly when rowboats gave way to the current fleet of pedal boats is unclear. A 1983 Daily News article
noted that excessive pond weed had ended the rowing season after just two weeks, and that there had been no rowing the previous two seasons. Eight years later, in 1991, a New York Times article about boating in the park mentioned only the pedal boats. A second Times article, in 1995, dutifully described the pedal boat operation and ended on this rueful note: “Just one wooden rowboat, though, would have added to the Old World charm.”


(Thanks to Amy Peck at the Prospect Park Alliance Archives, Julie May at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and Christina Benson at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Photo Archives)

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