Fox River races drew thousands in the 1930s and 1940s
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The Thunder on the Fox races that are expected to draw thousands to the Fox River may have some wondering about the popularity of water sports on the Fox River in earlier years.
Not only has the Fox River been the site of various activities since the city's earliest days, but the events were so popular that this year's event might have difficulty eclipsing them.
One of the earliest races recorded in Elgin on the Fox River was in 1869, just four years after the end of the Civil War. Held over the Fourth of July period, the activities included boat and tub races which many watched from a predecessor to the current Chicago Street bridge.
The river fun unfortunately took a sour turn when the Chicago Street span collapsed as spectators ran from one side of the bridge to the other to watch the passing vessels. One horse was drowned during the mishap and one person sustained spinal injuries. Most of the 150 onlookers simply got a dip in the four feet of water.
By the turn of the century, one of the first motorboats was reported on the Fox River north of the Kimball Street dam. The era was also one in which more and more campers lined the banks of the Fox River from Kimball Street north to Trout Park.
The number of boats in the river had become so great by the early 1900s that the city passed an ordinance requiring boaters to have lights on their craft at night. To enforce these regulations, they even considered assigning a police officer to river duty.
The formation of the Elgin Marine Club in 1936 took boating on the Fox River to a new level. When the group was organized in April of that year, newspapers reported members hoped to revive the interest in boating shown several years earlier. They also hoped to stage a "regatta" on the Fox River.
The club's charter, in the possession of Melissa Dauffenbach of Elgin, states that the Elgin Marine Club formed "for the betterment and promotion of good boating, water sports and the Fox River conditions, to own and maintain a club, watercraft and piers, to stage amateur and professional water shows, regattas and races."
The upstart group decided to join forces with an established Labor Day festival in Elgin. The three-day event included a parade with "scores of floats" which began in the downtown and culminated at Wing Park. There were also noted labor leaders, a parachute leap, trapeze act, and a huge tug-of-war contest.
The Elgin Marine Club scheduled its event on the final day of the three day event. Festivities were to be held in the river near the water pumping station — a city park area located along the river north of Slade Avenue and south of the current I-90.
Competition was divided into classes for outboard motors less than 12 horsepower and for those greater than that amount. There was also a contest for inboard motors and a boy's canoe race and a girl's canoe race.
Between race events spectators watched canoe tilting, surfboard riding, and water polo. The undertaking came off without a hitch with the exception of one competitor who lost his motor in the river and another who saw his boat catch fire.
Club members continued the popular program the following year and attracted an estimated 6,000 people. Professional boat racer Bob Guttman of Wisconsin thrilled the crowd when he topped 60 mph in his craft to set a world record at the officially sanctioned event.
The last races were recorded in the newspapers in 1942 — just after the U.S. entered World War II — when 10,000 people attended. Half of the proceeds that year were directed to the Elgin office of Civil Defense.
The Elgin Marine Club resumed racing after the war, staging events in the same area. None of those contests would ever reach the popularity of the prewar competitions.
The club ceased to exist in 2001 when its lease on the building on Slade Avenue expired. The private club still continues to meet informally, said onetime member Melissa Dauffenbach. Activities include water competition with boats launched from the same ramp at Slade Avenue where they have for decades.
But, it's the memory of the heyday of Fox River racing in the 1930s and '40s that has made the most impact.
"More than any other one thing, this annual carnival has made the people of Elgin and the vicinity river conscious," said Ed "Gun" Clifford, an Elgin columnist, about the early races.
One can only imagine what effect the Thunder on the Fox races will have and how history will reflect on their impact some years into the future.
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