Portland Yacht Club 1908 – 2011, by Walter Witschard, Historian
Our evolution during the last century from a motor boat racing club to a family oriented sailing and cruising yacht club. The story begins at the turn of the last century with the introduction of the gasoline powered internal combustion engine. This engine greatly increased the speed of the boats equipped with them as opposed to those with steam engines. Naturally when two boats are going the same direction, they race either consciously or subconsciously.
During the Spring of 1908, fifteen motor boat racing enthusiasts formed the Willamette Motor Boat Club. They incorporated for $1000 and purchased a nine-by-twelve float house for $125 and placed it at the foot of S. E. Ellsworth Street on 600 feet of Willamette River shoreline. George J. Kelly was elected the first Commodore. As we will see, he is not only our founder, but thanks to his foresight, the club is what it is today.
The first club race was won by Otto Ranft who drove his boat “Happy Heine” from Ross Island to the lower harbor and back, at the amazing speed of sixteen miles a hour. A few weeks later Johnny Wolf won a nineteen mile race with the speed of twenty-six miles an hour. The boats kept getting longer, slimmer and faster. In 1910, Captain Milton Smith’s, sixteen year old son, Wilbur, drove the “Oregon Kid”, a twenty foot boat with a 125 horsepower engine at fifty-eight miles a hour. This was the first boat to go over fifty miles an hour. The club quickly gained nationwide fame as the home of daring and winning drivers.
Our members didn’t just race around buoys, they also pioneered the run down the Columbia to Astoria. George W. Kendall’s “Sylph” set a record from Portland to Astoria of three hours and fifty-one minutes. On August 29, 1912, the “Sylph” set another record this one from Astoria to Portland in three hours twenty minutes and twenty-two seconds. The “Sylph” was driven by Mrs. George Kendall with George as the engineer. This is a great time even today! In June 1925, thousands of people lined the banks of the Willamette during Rose Festival to watch the motorboat races.
Not all of the members were motorboat racers as some members wanted to motor cruise. The women’s auxiliary was formed in 1913 and this was a taste of what was to come.
Powerboat cruising started in earnest in 1931, when the club traveled to Ilwaco, Washington. This trip is preserved as they took a 8mm film of this trip. This film is available to view. It is noted that the men all wore hats, coats and ties and the ladies dresses and hats. Two of our members piloted their cruisers up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to promote river navigation. They kept going to the Granite Creek Rapids, 100 miles past Lewiston, ID. There they both ran into problems and limped home. These were the days prior to the dam controlled Columbia and Snake Rivers.
Today both our sailboats and powerboats routinely cruise north to Canadian waters. The Club travels as a group to Barkley Sound, BC or Puget Sound every other year. Each year the club sponsors cruises to various places on the river such as Beacon Rock, Astoria and our Willow Bar Outstation.
In May 1910 the club changed its name to the Portland Motor Boat Club. The name was changed again in 1925 to its present name Portland Yacht Club. As we will see later, the club moved to its present location on the Columbia River in 1926.
With the changing of names and moving to our present location on the Columbia, the mission of the club changed. When the Club moved to the Columbia many of the power boat racers chose to remain on the calmer Willamette. As time passed, motorboat racing declined on the rivers and today it is no more. Our cruisers, however kept the challenge of racing alive with the Predicted Log races. These were the nautical version of a road rally. Alas these too are no more. Our racing tradition is alive, thanks to our active sailboat racers.
To replace the departed motorboat racers, sailboats were introduced with the first sailing race taking part on September 1931. Sailboat racing was very popular during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s as PYC had a large fleet of racing sailboats, the 16’ Snips, 18’ Flatties and 28’ Crods. Today many of our sailors routinely race on the river and offshore in the TransPac, Oregon Offshore and Swiftshure races. The Club sponsors the Mauni Elliott race (named after our beloved port captain’s wife) each year. Our young sailors are trained through an agreement with the Willamette Sailing Club.
With our Columbia River clubhouse, social events such as dances and dinners became popular. It may come to a surprise to some but we even had slot machines and prize fighting at the club during the 1940s and 1950s. If you look in the main ballroom you can still see, four brass plates eighteen feet apart that the poles of the boxing ring were placed.
Today the club is very family orientated having an Easter Egg Hunt, Santa’s visit, Mothers Day Brunch, lady’s diner, Christmas Open House and the New Years Eve Gala. There are bimonthly Friday night cookouts. Our most popular event is the crab feed held in March.
The story of our clubhouse is quite amazing going from the humble 108 square foot float to today’s 11,000 square foot clubhouse.
In 1910, Commodore C. W. Boost floated a $10,000 bond issue for a new clubhouse to replace the nine by twelve float. It was built in 1911 on the Willamette where the Ross Island Bridge stands today. Its dimensions were twenty-six feet wide by fifty-five feet long with a porch. It stood upon timbers twenty-eight feet above low water. The cost of this building was $2000.
We are eternally grateful to George J. Kelly as he was responsible for our present location. Kelly arranged for the purchase of six acres on Hardtack Island. The club was then advised that a Ross Island bridge pier was to be put down where the clubhouse stood. Kelly then arranged for the sale of the Hardtack Island property for $9000 for a profit of more the 100%. He did this by having two sand and gravel companies bid for the island.
With this money, Kelly directed the purchase of 1500 feet of Columbia River in 1926. This is our present moorage. Please note that we own the bottom under our moorage, across the slough and the tip of Tomahawk Island. This fact saves has saved us many dollars, and keeps doing so, as those who do not own the bottom under their slip must pay “rent” to the State of Oregon. In 1990 we received $12,000 from a dredging company who took soil from the channel. Kelly’s foresight keeps on giving.
In 1926, the clubhouse was lowered to a float of logs and towed to our present location by a flotilla of private boats. With the move to the Columbia, our membership changed to more of cruising and less racing. Sailboats were also introduced to the club.
The clubhouse remained on floats until the summer of 1931 when it was moved on to the bank. Commodore J. Walter McCrea placed a small lighthouse on the roof to serve as a beacon. This lighthouse sits today on our current clubhouse. It remained a comfortable home until the massive flood of 1948 that destroyed the community of Vanport. This flood swept through the rooms five feet deep, destroyed the maple floor and caused major structural damage. Clearly a new clubhouse was needed.
For three years, the club debated what to do and finally a committee consisting of Duane Vergeer, Robert A. Smith and Alton H. Alexander was appointed to spend no more the $50,000.
The committee recommended that the old clubhouse be removed and a new one built on higher ground. The old clubhouse was sold and moved to 3950 N. Interstate Avenue where it served as a furniture store until it was demolished in early 2007. Don Byers, a member and architect drew up the plans and construction started in 1952. Construction ended in 1953 and the new facility featured the present ballroom, restrooms, a small galley where the current bar is, an apartment upstairs, a porch facing the river and a workshop. The porch was enlarged and picture windows added making our present flag room.
The clubhouse became too small and in 1967 members approved the new addition that included the present dining room, kitchen, ladies lounge and entrance. This addition was again under the Duane Vergeer’s committee and Don Byers again drew up the plan.
Floods seemed to be part of our existence. The 1948 flood destroyed our clubhouse and in 1996 the parking lot was again under water. Again in 1997, a flood caused “A” row to be dislodged and under the leadership of Commodore Frank Warrens it was rebuilt as well as a new break water system.
In 1998, Commodore Howard Shaw and Don Eudaly supervised the installation of the gangways from the parking lot to the main head walk. Past Commodore Ron Timmerman’s committee remodeled the lawn facing the river building an impressive patio and Jack Mitchem’s House and Grounds committee rebuilt the downstairs of the clubhouse and is remodeling the dining room. Our facilities are constantly being upgraded thanks to the farsighted leadership of this club.
PYC looked to the future and saw that an outstation was needed. Under the leadership of Commodore Bernie Bills and Ray Hansen, the Willow Bar Outstation located on Sauvie Island was acquired and docks and float house built in 1993. The outstation is under continued development under the watchful eye of the Roger Jorgensen’s Outstation Committee and is today a welcome stopping of point for those traversing the river.
During the 1950’s, PYC donated the moorage west of the main moorage to the Sea Scouts. They in turn sold it to a private party and in 1999 under the leadership of Commodore Bill Stevens this property was reacquired for $541,500. The head walk was extended in 2002 linking this moorage to the main one. During 2005-2006, Eric Gazow spearheaded the removal of the old docks and the installation of new docks at the west moorage. Under Eric’s leadership, the Moorage Committee is replacing the docks of the moorage systematically.
Many cruisers took off from PYC for far shores, none the more than Dirk Winters. You can find out more about his twice-around-the-world trip here.
During 2005 and 2006 the House and Grounds Committee (HGC) led by Jack Mitchem remodeled the downstairs bathroom and built a storeroom. Thanks to an anonymous gift of $50,000 the dining room was remodeled.
During 2006, Vice Commodore Heather Adams lead the fund raising to remodel the flag room, ball room and resurface the outside of the club in preparation for the 2008 Centennial. A total of $70,000 was raised by auction. In 2008, another $152,000 was raised through donations.
HGC lead by Larry Cirotski with the able help of Dale Richards, Don Dell and architect Steve Pearson enacted the planned remodel. A new $12,000 flagpole was donated to the Club by Thomas Kerns.
2007 found our club lead by the first female Commodore Heather Adams. She is not the first woman of prominence as in 1909 we had our first female member Mrs. S. J. Larson.
As we celebrate our centennial, the club continues to plan for the future, respect the past and enjoy the present.
2008 The Centennial Year
After years of planning by the Centennial Committee, 2008 finally arrived. Commodore Berkely and 1st Lady Carole Smith presided over our celebrations. Throughout the year each month our bar served a drink that was popular in each decade of our existence. Mary and Mike Stainsby wrote, produced and directed three plays about PYC throughout the years. They recruited the “Not quite ready for prime time players” to perform their work. The cast lived up to their name.
Our first centennial event was the January 5th Centennial Brunch. This was followed by the Founding Father’s luncheon on March 1st. PYC outdid itself on Opening Day May 3rd. There were 116 boats in the parade and PYC finished 1st best overall, 1st best decorated boat, 1st best decorated to theme, 1st best participation, 2nd best appearance and 3rd in seamanship. PYC entered a float in the Cathlamet Bald Eagle Day parade and won the Grand prize.
On June 21st we celebrated our Centennial Birthday Party. The George J. Kelly Bar was dedicated in honor of our founder and First Commodore. A portrait of Kelly painted by Past Commodore Bill Stevens was unveiled. The Portland Rosarians presented the Club with the Centennial rose named “The Finest”. This rose was planted on the path outside the main security gate. The day ended with County fair games and a picnic.
The year ended with the publishing of the Centennial book depicting the one hundred years of our history. Past Commodore Bill Chevalier was the editor with research by historian Walter Witschard, photo historian Nancy Kirk-MacGregor, Larry Snyder, Berkeley and Carole Smith. Robin Kizzar designed the cover.