The Buffalo Launch Club enjoys a unique position in the history of the Niagara frontier, as well as, the national scene.
When the Buffalo Launch Club was formed in 1903 it was the first Power Boat Club in North America, if not the world, and contributed much to the recognition of our area.
In 1908 we were responsible for the first boat show ever held between New York City and Chicago and had received national acclaim as a number one power boat club in United States. In the ‘40s and ‘50s the Buffalo Launch Club also receive national and international recognition for the speed boat regattas they sponsored and which attracted the top boat drivers in the world.
Throughout the years of existence, The Buffalo Launch Club has been an active participant in area boating activities and established a reputation as the finest boating club on the Niagara Frontier.
In The Beginning
It was Dr. Albert E. Hubbard who sent out invitations about his idea for a group of friends, all motorboat owners, to organize for the purpose of sharing their experiences and observations. The small group of boating enthusiasts met back in October 1903, October 9th to be exact, in Captain August C. Hager's boathouse on Squaw Island. Hager was elected the first commodore. In May 1904 the club purchased the "old Deacon clubhouse" on Squaw Island for $300. Initiation fee to join the club was $3 and dues were $2.
The Buffalo Launch Club, which has the distinction of being the first power boat club in America and the first in the world, was incorporated on December 11, 1904 with 30 charter members.
Club members quickly outgrew their first meeting place and decided that Grand Island's eastern shoreline in the area of Ferry Village was a most suitable place to build a clubhouse. Property, with 90-foot frontage on the Niagara River, was purchased from John V. Bedell on March 12, 1906 and construction of the first clubhouse on East River Road was completed in July of the same year. Total cost of the building and docks was $15,000.
The original Buffalo Launch Club shown on postcards dated 1907.
July 14, 1906 marked the formal opening of the spacious, new, three-story Buffalo Launch Club clubhouse on the East Niagara River on Grand Island, N. Y. and completion of an L shaped, sheeted pier that formed a harbor dredged to eight feet. The club's grounds featured tennis courts, a croquet field and quoit (similar to horseshoes) pits, accented by terraces, shrubbery and flowers. The building, 106 X 42 feet, featured wide verandas on three sides. Wide doors from the lower veranda opened into a reception hall with a massive fireplace and winding staircase.
BLC And Power Boat Racing
The BLC's fame as a power boat racing club began in 1905 when the team of George and Harry Elliott won the club's first regatta cup with a spectacular record speed of 18 mph.
Races were held over the course of the Buffalo Launch Club on September 8, 1906. Participants included the combined fleet of both the Launch Club and the Motor Boat Club of Buffalo. For the complete race story which includes details of races held September 15, 1906, click BLC Race Story.
The members of the BLC in 1908 were responsible for the first boat show ever held between New York City and Chicago. The show was held at the Buffalo Auditorium and the Club received national acclaim as a top ranking power boat club in the nation. A mortgage burning took place in 1909, the same year that the Elliot brothers' new craft, "Redhead," set a record 29 mph in the boat racing world. Membership was close to 300 in 1910 with the club fleet numbering over 200 power boats.
Over the next 10 years annual Club regattas were the main event on the Niagara Frontier, drawing a list of nationally known sportsmen that included Edsel Ford, Gar Wood, Dick Locke, Horace Dodge, William J. Connors, Robert Ringling and Harry Greening.
The International Regatta under the BLC auspices, was an annual Niagara River sporting event from 1910-1920. Club histories give conflicting reports for the year 1926. A history by an unknown author in an August 1953 issue of the Island Dispatch reported that the City of Buffalo appropriated $5,000 to the Buffalo Launch Club on a yearly basis as an inducement to run the race course past Riverside Park for the benefit of the general public. The regatta suffered a crushing blow in 1926 when the boat, "Dixie," driven by Bob Burnham, careened into the Riverside Park shoreline, injuring several people. The accident caused the City of Buffalo to withdraw its financial assistance to the Club. Another history in the May 1967 edition of the Island Dispatch, author unknown, said that the regatta was discontinued in 1926 due to the fact that "pleasure cruisers" became the popular boat of choice for many BLC members in the 1920s and were dominating the Club's boating activities. In 1929, as a result of a $100,000 fire in boathouses at the foot of Amherst Street in Buffalo, 25 BLC boats were destroyed.
Buffalo Launch Club Lighthouse
The landmark Buffalo Launch Club Lighthouse was taken by barge to the Island shoreline in 1931 by the Fix brothers, and eventually re-erected and later sold to Mike Steffen who used it as a trophy room next to his home on what is now part of the Launch Club property. The lighthouse was originally known as the Niagara Upper Range Light and stood at Niagara Street and Busti Avenue in Buffalo. Club members in the late 1990s completely refurbished its exterior.
Clubhouse Destroyed By Fire
The 25-year-old Buffalo Launch Club clubhouse, remodeled just two years earlier, burned to the ground in 1931 along with other BLC owned buildings on the property including an ice house, storage building and garage. A barn on the Bedell House property also caught fire and burned. Hastily formed bucket brigades of Island residents were put into action and the Kenmore and Town of Tonawanda fire departments, whose only access was by ferry boat, fought a valiant but losing battle against the flames. The building with its furnishings was valued at between $75,000 and $100,000.
Membership had fallen to a low of approximately 160 members at the time of the fire, which occurred in the middle of the 1931 boating season. The clubhouse had been decorated for the building's 25th anniversary which was to be celebrated the following day and anticipation was high for this major event.
"The event was to be one of the brilliant affairs of the season and reservations had been made for a capacity attendance," a Buffalo newspaper reported. The day was to be known as "Louis Fischer Day," in honor of Louis A. Fischer, one of the charter members and founders of the club.
A ground breaking ceremony was held for the new Buffalo Launch Club clubhouse on East River Road, Grand Island in 1931. Shown from left are Leo Meyer, George Neilson, Harry Elliott, Phillip Schaeffer, Frank Schumacher, Louis Fischer, William Jones, BLC Commodore Robert Huntley, Fred G. Hendler, George C. Hall, Alexander C. Meyer, and Town Supervisor John L. Mesmer. The new building was to replace the original clubhouse that burned to the ground in the middle of the 1931 boating season.
(Photo by Courier-Express Chief Photographer Frank Schifferle)
BLC members of the well-established club not only replaced the building on the same site the following year, but also purchased three additional acres of land from Frank and Charles Fix. The land expanded the original property westward to East River Road and a roadway was built to provide another entrance, in addition to the original entrance off Ferry Road, now the Anchor Marine driveway. A cornerstone was laid in March 1932, and a formal opening of the new clubhouse was held on Decoration Day, May 30, 1932.
The BLC clubhouse, shown after it was replaced following a fire that completely destroyed the original building.
The foyer in the new clubhouse is shown left and the spacious, tastefully appointed lounge is on the right.
Times were tough, unemployment was high, businesses were failing and hardships were felt by many during the depression years. The 1930s were described in the club's 75th anniversary booklet by BLC member Joe Glaser as "lean" for the Buffalo Launch Club, a time when Commodore Dave Wende (1933) and Commodore Alexander C. Meyer (1935-45) "dug deeply into their own pockets to keep the club solvent." When membership dropped to 50 in 1935, members were assessed $50 to help pay the club's bills. Though the club brought back the regatta in 1935, the gloom of the depression still prevailed. The club was forced to suspend operations in the fall of that year and the grounds were said to have grown up in weeds. Commodore Meyer and Vice Commodore Martin F. McSweeney's perseverance effected the club's reopening in July of 1938 with 22 members on its roster.
Interesting to note is the fact that up until July 1935, the only means to get to the club was by public ferry or private boat. The opening of the Grand Island bridges in 1935, gave the membership access to their clubhouse all year round.
In 1939, with the status of the club no better, Harry Simpson was hired as club steward to help take some of the pressure off the vice commodore and general manager, Martin McSweeney who was credited with working hard to bring the operation out of the doldrums. Harry served his country in World War II, returning to the Club in the fall of 1945, and was named general manager in 1955. He did an outstanding job of running the Buffalo Launch Club and helped to bring the club to its high ranking status in the nation. He retired in November 1980 and was subsequently honored as Citizen of the Year by the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce.
Financial Struggle Continues
From the late '30s through the World War II era, there was little change in the club's welfare. However, according to one history of the club, the interior of the building was remodeled, the bar re-located and the open porch was enclosed and paneled in 1939. The Buffalo Launch Club fleet joined the Coast Guard Reserve during World War II with membership held to 75 due to limited dock facilities.
The Buffalo Launch Club as it looked in the 1940s and 50s when the BLC Regattas were in their heyday.
The dust had somewhat settled from the war years and in 1946 membership climbed back up to 75, money started coming into the club, 165 feet of riverfront was purchased, and construction was underway to enlarge the basin and dock facilities. With the basin completed in 1947, speedboat racing, "sparked by George J. Trimper, former boat racer and world record holder," was revived at the Buffalo Launch Club and drew 25,000 spectators to the Island, according to a feature in the May 24, 1967 edition of the Island Dispatch.
World War II Over - Regattas Resume
World War II was behind us and the 1950s got off to a good start under the leadership of Commodore Robert C. Schutt Sr. Membership rose to 100, and the financial situation was much improved. The annual international regattas over the Niagara River course off the BLC put the club back in the forefront of major boat racing across the nation. In August of 1949, with more than adequate facilities, the BLC international regatta was renewed and attracted 25,500 spectators to Grand Island, NY. In 1950 and again in 1952, the Buffalo Launch Club became the recipient of the most coveted award, "Outstanding Drivers' Regatta in the World." It was George Trimper and his committee who conducted the regattas for 14 years, drawing the most competitive of the limited and unlimited racing teams. Not once, but two years in a row, the American Power Boat Association pronounced the BLC's international regatta as the best regatta staged on the continent.
Records show that the Buffalo Launch Club's International Regatta took place on Saturday and Sunday, August 19-20, 1950 when the 48 cubic inch runabouts were the newest class of racing. Joseph Van Blerck Jr. in his reliable "Aljo" won the national championship in the seven liter class when a reported 50,000 people witnessed Sunday's races. Grand Island's Al Endres driving his "Sour Puss" took a fifth place but it was Guy Lombardo's "Tempo VI" that won the feature event for unlimiteds by nearly a mile. A late afternoon feature was a race for old-timers' speed boats.
With the Buffalo Launch Club in its 50th anniversary year, the annual two-day regatta was held August 15-16, 1953 on the extended 2 1/2 mile Niagara River course. The event attracted over 150 entrants, including many national and world champions in competitions for runabouts, hydroplanes and seven liter boats. Among them were Sherm Crechfield, national champion in the Class E; and former world record holder, Dick Rankin of Pontiac, Michigan in "Hi Ball"; Art Hatch, an outstanding Canadian driver in "Costa Lotta" and "Lotsa Costa"; orchestra leader Guy Lombardo in his Tempo VI; and of course our own champion in his own right, Al Endres.
The list of boatracers who participated in the BLC regattas is a long one. Among some of the more famous names not mentioned above are Ed Endres, Joe Less, Wild Bill Cantrell, Bob Schroeder and Bob Petz.
Like an unsinkable ship, the Buffalo Launch Club, from the 1950s through today has had smooth sailing. Property and building improvements have been non-stop. The club's boat basin was improved in 1956 with reinforced docks and a new steel breakwall. The parking facilities were enlarged and a refinishing and redecorating project began in the clubhouse. A new dining room was completed in 1958 and a new kitchen and equipment were added in 1960. New docks were installed in 1961 and the last of many annual summer regattas was held in 1962. Membership in May of 1967 reached 230. Chef Renee Gerber joined the staff at the Launch Club in 1968 and remained the head chef for 35 years.
Community minded Launch Club members established the Harry Simpson Scholarship awards in 1990 and hosted their first spring Boaters' Seminar and Luncheon at the clubhouse in 1991. Hosting the Niagara Frontier Antique & Classic Boat Show for many years, the Club held its first Friday night pit party and reunion for boat racers as a kick off for the 23rd annual show in September 2000.
As the club entered the year 2000, studies were made and plans were laid for the huge project of a new and enlarged boat basin. Dedication of the Club's $850,000 boat basin was made during the May 2002 Flag Raising ceremonies. The expanded facilities gives members the assurance of calm water dockage, and nearly doubles the number of available boat slips.
Summer recreation for many members centers around their boats, anywhere from a 15' Doral to a 57' Carver but outdoor activities are not limited to cruising down the river. The Club boasts a swimming pool, tennis courts and picnic grove and holds summertime dock parties on a monthly basis. And the dinner dances, clam bakes, steak roasts, and the wine tasting parties, boat cruises and holiday events make social life at the BLC a non-stop affair.
The Buffalo Launch Club, the oldest organization on Grand Island, NY, has endured and enjoyed its first 100 years. It is the fervent hope of its members that history will repeat itself when, perhaps, future generations of their own families will be planning a bi-centennial celebration of the 200th anniversary of the oldest power boat club in the world!
Editor's Note: The following interesting note taken from the February 26, 1905 edition of the Buffalo Express was added to this story on October 8, 2005. A "smoker" was an event of amusement or jesting.
Lots of Fun at Launch Club - Smoker was a Hummer
Squaw Island was a place of mirth and good fellowship last night, for the simple reason that the Buffalo Launch Club held a smoker. The fun began early in the evening and was kept up until a late hour, when the mariners betook themselves to their respective bunks. Ship ahoy! and a double hitch at the trousers was the countersign.
The entertainment committee did itself proud and the best talented in the club did stunts for the others. Chief Pilot Kelly was on hand to see that all were piloted safely over the locks. Club Chef Frank Miller had the boys wondering why he hadn't done it before. The hit of the evening was the sparring match. Captain Hess boxed the compass and Mat Upper wound it. Boatswain Minkle was on hand to weigh the anchor, and then Susie's band got busy.
In 1999, the Basin Expansion Committee had their first meeting to evaluate and plan enclosing the BLC marina. This plan would insure calm water dockage for the club's fleet and increase the number of available slips for our members.
After three years of hard work in securing approvals, permits and engineering drawings, the efforts of this committee has resulted in the approval by the Board of Directors and the membership of the BLC to begin construction of the new basin to be completed for the 2002 boating season.
This expansion will almost double the number of available slips for our members.
This vision became a reality as the new basin was dedicated on May 19, 2002. The ribbon cutting ceremony was attended by The Board of Directors, over three hundred members, guest and local and state officials.