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The New York Rowing Association (the "Association") was founded by returning civil war veterans in 1866. The Association's members were the local rowing clubs then practicing on the Harlem River. Initially known as the Harlem Navy, the Associations purpose was to foster communication among the clubs, establish basic rules governing rowing patterns on the river, and help coordinate and staff the local regattas. New York City generally, and the Harlem River in particular, was at the time the hub of rowing in the United States. On the Harlem River alone there were over 30 rowing clubs and it was during these years that John C. Babcock of the Nassau Boat Club invented the tracked sliding seat and the first rowing machine. By 1873 the Association officially adopted the name Harlem Regatta Association, a designation it kept until the early 20th century. On July 2, 1873 the Association held its official first regatta in which the local clubs participated such as Atlanta, Nassau, Nautilus, Harlem, New York Athletic Club, etc. On July 3 the New York Times reported that the event was "perfect success". In the coming decades the Association and its members organized numerous regattas which grew in popularity and fame. Several of these regattas continue to this day including the Middle States, the Metropolitan Championships and the Dad Vails. For many years the Association also published its own monthly and annual magazines.
On March 2, 1914 following several years of discussion, the Association and the other local rowing associations (Hudson River Regatta Association, New York Bay and Long Island Association) as well as the independent rowing clubs in northern New Jersey merged with the Association and it adopted its current name "New York Rowing Association". This movement towards consolidation was lead by James Pilkington (President of National Association of Amateur Oarsmen, today known as the U.S.R.A.), James Miller (New York Athletic Club), and Richard Sturcke (Woodcliff Boat Club). Over 25 rowing clubs constituted the original membership and each club was placed into one of three divisions (Harlem, Hudson and New Jersey). The merged local associations then "turned over any trophies, cups, and prizes held by them for competition" to the Association which continued to host regattas under the terms of the original donors. The New York Times reported that "It is the belief that a larger association can be of more benefit to the individual clubs, for the reason that working in one large body, better and more successful regattas can be held, and all clubs could be financially benefitted…". In the years that followed the Association continued to organize many local, regional and national regattas on neighboring waterways such as the Harlem, Passaic, Long Island Sound and at the Orchard Beach Lagoon. In addition, for many decades the Associations' annual holiday dinner was very popular and well attended.
After World War II, social and economic disruption along with rising levels of pollution saw rowing in the metropolitan New York area decline. Many rowing clubs ceased to exist or became inactive. The Association however continued to host regattas and advocate for the sport of rowing in this region. During the late 50s and early 60s the Association and its members worked with NYC Parks to design and build the first FISA standard race course in North America at the Orchard Beach Lagoon. The race course cost $750,000 and it was used for the United States Olympic trials in 1964. It was the first time since 1900 that the National Rowing Championships had been hosted in the metropolitan area. By the early 1980s the Associations membership was reduced to only handful of clubs and it ceased to actively host regattas until 2001.
On January 27, 2001 representatives of the remaining members of the Association (Nereid Boat Club, New Rochelle Rowing Club, Manhattan College Crew Club, and the Arial Boat Club) plus an additional ten rowing clubs from the tri-state area met at 140 Broadway to re-vitalize the Association. In 2002 the Association hosted an Indoor Rowing Championship at Roberto Clemente State Park as well as the Head of the Harlem River. In 2003 the Association began running rowing programs for juniors at Sherman Creek. Today the Association manages programs for juniors and adults out of three locations, hosts regattas and sponsors free adaptive and community rowing programs. In addition, New York Rowing is working to build a new regatta course at Overpeck Lake in northern New Jersey. In 2016, New York Rowing will celebrate its 150th anniversary.