by John Seabury Thomson


"A meeting for the purpose of organizing a pleasure club was held on April 3, 1885 at 7:30 p.m. with the following gentlemen present: J.T. Barry, D.T. Joyce, J.W. Bridget, C.C. Jones, J.K. Miller, Henry Eibel, A. Neumann, M. Ruppert, L. Meader, Noah Zeller, S.R. Brooks, and W.D.Chadwick."

Our records tell us nothing more about these gentlemen, how they came to know each other or what they did off-island. Boyd's District of Columbia Directory for 1885, however, lists their full names and callings; Joseph T. Barry (shoemaker), James W. Bridget (painter), Samuel R. Brooks (Government Printing Office), William D. Chadwick (clerk, Pensions Office), Henry Eibel (tinner), C. Clifford Jones (photographer), David T. Joyce (stair builder), Leake A. Meader (clerk, Geological Survey), Joseph K. Miller (clerk, Treasury), August Neumann (harness maker), Matthew Ruppert (restaurant, though the designation is changed in 1889 to saloon) and Noah Zeller (cigar maker). A diverse group with addresses scattered through the city. And I'd guess that the distribution between private business and government personnel -- 8 to 4 -- is just about the same as today's. How in the world, I've wondered, did they ever get together to form an on-going association?

The first order of business at the April meeting, it seems, was to elect officers; Chadwick, president; Brooks, secretary; and Ruppert, treasurer. The second order of business was to name the club. "On motion...the Club was called the Sycamore Island Pleasure Club." Third came the drafting of rules and regulations. Five members were designated as the Committee on Rules. There must have been preliminary deliberation, for "A recess of fifteen minutes was taken to allow the committee to prepare the rules," whereupon the rules were adopted -- all 14 of them -- without debate.

Fourth, the expense of a boat. On motion it was ordered that the expense incurred in building the boat be assessed pro-rata against each member of the Club, and that the Treasurer be directed to retain from such assessment the money expended by him in building the boat.

Though this was their first formal meeting, these gentlemen had clearly arranged previously to create the club, to build a boat and, though there's no word of it, to buy the islands. What we read about is simply the formalizing of earlier decisions.

At the second meeting, on April 8, it is reported, again on motion, that "the Club's boat was named the Mamie, and the following committee appointed to carry it to the feeder; Messrs Joyce, Pralle, Bridget, Barry, Zeller and Brooks." Furthermore, "The Treasurer was authorized to procure a horse to tow [the boat] up the Canal." Also, for which we today are grateful, "to purchase books for the use of the Secretary and the Treasurer."


Sycamore Island, officially J.T.Barry Island on the tax records, has existed for eons as a rise in the Potomac Valley. As a year-around island, though, it goes back only to the 1780s and the construction by the Potowmack Canal Company of the first rubble dam at Brookmont. This dam, which diverted water for the by-pass canal at Little Falls, raised the water level in what we now call Broadwater. Before that time the slough or lagoon -- the area between the Island and the Maryland shore -- was only a highwater channel fed by Walhonding Creek. During low-water periods it was dry.

Surprising to those of us who regard our Island as a National Treasure -- it seemed to attract no attention. As late as 1881 it had no name on the map. In that year a naturalist-explorer from Washington decided to call it "Larkspur Island" in recognition of its flora. He also named the present-day Ruppert Island "Sugar Maple Island" and the little one just below Sycamore "Box Elder Island." (See Lester F. Ward, "A Guide to the Flora of Washington and Vicinity," 1881, also known as Bulletin W22, U.S. National Museum, pp 21-24.)

So far as local records show, there was no private ownership of the islands before Matthew Ruppert bought them from the State of Maryland on the "thirtieth day of August eighteen hundred and eighty eight." Later, pro forma, he and his wife transferred ownership to the club for "$100 and other considerations." As with the purchase of the Mamie, the transaction was clearly pre-arranged, a step in the planned development of our club. And though the island names remain "Barry" and "Ruppert" on the records, common usage shifted Barry to Sycamore and quickly put Sycamore on local maps.

One wonders why the islands had been so long overlooked -- natural islands within shouting distance of Washington? And then what changed the situation so that a dozen business and professional men would organize a Pleasure Club with the firm intent to buy them? The answer to the first question must be inaccessibility. Although Sycamore and Ruppert are only 6 1/2 miles from the Georgetown waterfront, they were then actually remote. To be sure, the canal and towpath ran nearby, but there was no regularity to the barge runs and no assurance of public transport or accommodations.

Conduit Road -- MacArthur Boulevard today -- ran on the hillside above from the late 1850s but, again, there was no public transportation. The walk from Georgetown was a long one -- even with a promise of pleasure at the end.

In the years just before our club was organized, something must have changed to make the islands more accessible. I thought, knowing that communities tend to grow up along major transportation routes, perhaps the Glen Echo trolley line was the breakthrough. But the trolley line didn't get to the Sycamore Store, the junction of Conduit and Walhonding roads, until 1891 and didn't reach Glen Echo until 1896. It had to be something else.

A 1936 newspaper clipping in the Martin Luther King Library's Washingtoniana collection led me in the right direction. In it Dr. Horace Custis, Sr., is quoted as saying that the original members came to the Island by steamer. By steamer? Impossible! Barges on the canal were drawn by mules. Propeller-driven boats would ruin the canal. Dr. Custis, however, was right. Further reading brought up the following information:

"[I]n 1876, six steamers navigated the waterway, realizing for the first time the great dream of the canal's founder. Regular steamboat operation continued until 1889 [the year of the Johnstown Flood]. The directors watched the first craft carefully for signs of damage to the canal from the speed of the boats or the action of the propelling mechanism. The Board finally decided that serious damage occurred if the steamer exceeded the speed limit (five miles per hour), but if they adhered to the rules no appreciable harm was done." (Walter S. Sanderline, "The Great National Project," Johns Hopkins University Press, 1946, pp 232-233).

This explains how our club's forefathers could have got to the islands rather easily and how they had a spell of a time, from 1876 to 1885, to explore the area and to make their preliminary plans.

to be known as
1885--1895 -- The Formative Years

Two myths persist about our club. The first is that it began as a German-American club. There were, of course, German-Americans in it, who may have outnumbered the Anglo-Americans and the Irish-Americans, especially if one allows for honorary, or passive, members. But a look at the roster of the first meeting makes me think we had then what we have today -- an appropriately cosmopolitan club from our cosmopolitan capital of the country.

The second myth is that our club was noisy, boisterous and given over to gambling and liquor -- which I also doubt. It is clear from the club minutes that the governing members were certainly concerned at all times for the club's reputation. What we know is that from 1885 to 1914 liquor was permitted on the islands and that until 1891 gambling was permitted under certain restrictions. In July 1887 it was ordered that "no card playing be allowed on the Island on the day of a picnic under a penalty of $1 fine...." Four years later, card playing for money was outlawed entirely.

Liquor was controlled. The license for the club's bar was taken out in the name of the president. And club policy was to keep the bar, and its profits, in club hands when renting out the Island for parties. Renters included the Hessian Club, the Saengerbund, the Mysterious Club, the Black Knights and the Martha Washington Club. Later it was decided not to rent the islands for any purpose. When outside groups visited, they were to be the guests either of the club or of one of its members.

Note, among the rules, two which were passed in 1887 concerning safety and sobriety:

"No lady shall occupy or use a boat--the property of the Club--unless accompanied by a member of the Club."

"No member when intoxicated shall make use of a rowboat: if doing so he shall be fined no less than Ten dollars ($1O) for each offense, the fine to be paid within thirty days unless he shall be excused from paying said fine by a vote of 2/3 of the members present at the meeting."

So much for mythology.

It is not surprising in the 19th Century that liquor should be available on the islands or that memberships should be in the hands of men. Neither the Suffrage Movement nor Prohibition had made much headway. Nonetheless, our club was a family organization with family picnics, river outings and oyster roasts. Fees for the picnics followed a general pattern of $1 for gentlemen, 75 cents for ladies and 50 cents for children over twelve. Beer per glass, from three to five cents; cigars the same.

The surprising element is the ease and confidence with which the founding members appeared to move forward -- even before having title to the land. After the 1885 purchase of the Mamie, they purchased the Edna in March 1886, two more boats in 1888, followed by a scow named the Growler. Oars for club boats were painted yellow to distinguish them from the oars for members' boats.

As early as May of 1886 these members began inquiries into the cost of building a clubhouse. In June they came up with the figures: $20 to $26 for a tent, and $60 to $70 for a house. At this point they were still scouting out possibilities, but on July 1, 1887 the building committee reported plans for a "proposed building" at an estimated cost of $232.10 and the decision was to go ahead with construction. A pencilled insert reports that construction was completed on July 31.

The club had a strong following even in its early days. At the opening meeting the rules committee established 15 as the maximum for membership. By June of 1887 it became necessary to increase the number to 35. And in September the club hit upon the scheme that was to regulate numbers for the next 25 years: an unlimited number of "honorary members" were to be admitted and when a vacancy occurred in the regular membership, the senior-most honorary member would be elected to fill it. Though we no longer call our applicants honorary members, we still follow this procedure.

What surprised me in my archival reading is that, with all the boat purchases, the house building, the growing membership, there seemed to be no attention to the purchase of the islands. Or rather there is no mention of it in the minutes. There is passing reference to Alex Kilgour's coming to visit the islands. He was the club's lawyer. And there was a bit of a stir over his report that someone might be buying Box Elder Island. But nothing came of this and, when one looks at tiny Box Elder Island today, the would-be purchaser was wise to have withdrawn his interest.

Minutes for September 6, 1888 carry word of an accomplished deed in the form of a "letter from Mr. Kilgour, Atty informing the Club that the patents were paid for and would be delivered in a few days. "The originals of these patents are in our safe deposit box today. They were signed by Elihu E. Jackson, Governor of the State of Maryland and J. Thomas, Scharf, Commissioner of the Land Office. The islands were ours.

With patents in hand, the club quickly moved to the next step. In October a Committee on the Constitution was appointed, and in January 1889 the constitution was forwarded to Kilgour for presentation to the State authorities. In the following month the authorities responded, with two objections. The name of the club -- the Sycamore Island Pleasure Club -- was unacceptable. It was too racy. And a majority of the board of trustees would have to be residents of Maryland. Accordingly, the name was changed to The "Montgomery Sycamore Island Club." And appointments were shuffled to come up with a board made up of Messrs Landers and Ruppert of Washington and Messrs Buyer, Flack and Kilgour, our attorney, from Maryland.

There followed the report that the owner of the land between the canal and Conduit Road had given the club a right-of-way, the one which we still use. This development was most fortunate. We got the right-of-way just before the flood of 1889, the Johnstown Flood, which closed down the steamers on the canal for all time and made access by road essential.

The 1889 flood had its impact on the islands as it did on the whole of the Northeast, but it received only passing comment in the club's minutes. There was seemingly more concern with the morals of the janitor. "The Secretary was ordered to notify the janitor of the Island in relation to the women staying with him on said Island." As for flood damage, club member and carpenter Otto Volland was authorized "to place the house on the Island in the same condition as it was before the Flood for the sum of $95." Volland did so but died that September. At the October meeting a resolution of sympathy was adopted and "a committee of T. Barry, M. Ruppert, F. Coppes and D. Pralle were appointed to attend the funeral of said deceased and to engage a hack to be paid out of the Treasury."

Windows and wainscoating were added to the clubhouse, which continued to grow by bits and pieces. At this time planning began for a bridge. The first step involved permission from the Canal company, and at the July 1891 meeting it was reported that "the Manager of the Canal has given permission to build said bridge." The next step was a proposal to build a bridge for $350. At the same time, E. Baltzley, the promoter of Chautauqua at Glen Echo (and not an Islander), urged the club to surrender its right-of way on request and to use a scow instead of a bridge for crossing the canal. Baltzley's suggestion was not accepted. Instead the Islanders decided to build a better bridge than previously proposed and instructed a Mr. Devine to build it for $565. For this design they had the advice and approval of the Canal's, engineer, Mr. Nicholson, and of Mr. Baltzley. Once again they turned to Matthew Ruppert for the funds, borrowing $300 at six percent interest. This first bridge was completed by January 1, 1892. The loan from Mr. Ruppert was repaid in full by the end of the year.


The formal minutes of the club tell us very little about day-today activities. We can surmise that all was going well; that the membership -- stockholders that is -- remained at the maximum and that honorary members, or passive members, continued to support the club with their dues. Activities continued to be bowling, tennis, pool, camping and picnics along with a series of oyster roasts. Almost everywhere on the Island, when we dig a hole today, we find archeological proof of the popularity of oysters. On-the-water activities were fishing, swimming, rowing and canoeing. The club at this time did not purchase canoes, but members did. And in this era the inter-canoe club regattas got their start.

In this decade other steps were taken such as: insuring our clubhouse in 1898 for $900 at a premium of $27 for three years; and instructing Caretaker Percy "to remove the rabbits from the Island on account of their burrowing habits." Also, in 1899 George Pepetti, who was a major financial resource for the next 15 years, presented the club with a pool table (not our present table, for his washed away in 1936). The gift was received with warm thanks. In 1900 the club authorized the construction of an ice house on the Island -- to make use of our natural ice supply which piles up in winter months. In June of 1898, Mr. Devine's work having perhaps failed to live up to expectations, the club spent $95 for "bridge and step repairs" to its first wooden bridge.


The basic reason for a period of silence from Sycamore is that the minutes run out in February, 1903. In the 1908--09 period, the club faced its only major scandal. It appears, from the report of a special committee, that the secretary-treasurer had been siphoning off club funds, cashing dues checks for himself, charging the Island for ice -- delivered up at Stop 30 of the trolley line -- when our ice house was filled to capacity, and pretending to purchase "sundries." The member was removed from office and expelled from the club. Unfortunately he took the minutes book with him and refused to return it. This happening of 75 years ago is the undoubted reason for our care today in dividing the club's monetary responsibilities among a treasurer, a financial secretary and a separate finance committee from which both the treasurer and the financial secretary are excluded.

The minutes are a real loss. On the other hand we're fortunate to have a treasure trove of 1908-10 photos from a former Islander, Mary Smith Patterson. Mrs. Patterson had lent them to the Montgomery County Bi-Centennial program and when she moved away from Garrett Park the pictures came to us. Her collection of Sycamoriana documents the canoes, the tent platforms, the clubroom with the 1908 award from the Inter-Canoe Club Association and the many Island activities of the day. Here we see our predecessors in the picnic fashion of the day -- knee-length bathing costumes, middies and long skirts, celluloid collars and white shoes. Some members pose in cheerful groupings high in the leaning trees. Some pose with their paddles or by the gramophone.

Such daily activities were taken for granted. The item of real significance was the construction of The Bridge, The Bridge of 1904 fame which is with us still. "The original wooden bridge across the canal having broken down, it became necessary to replace it, and at a meeting of the club held July 10, 1904, a resolution was adopted authorizing the president and the treasurer to procure a loan of $700, to be devoted to constructing a steel bridge across the canal on the approach to the club property and for defraying other present indebtedness of the club." The money was borrowed from John J. Repetti -- three three-year notes at six percent interest which were ultimately paid off in 1921. As with all our construction projects on the Island, one wonders how materials were brought down to the site -- probably by canal barge.


Our records of this next decade are full from the beginning and get fuller and more lively with the founding of the Sycamore Islander in December1921. Early in this time we are faced with the reorganization of the club -- the expansion of the number of regular members from 35 to 100 -- the prohibition of liquor on the islands, and the admission of women to membership. In addition we're faced with our first experience with American war efforts abroad (the Spanish-American war seems not to have had an impact).

The roots of the reform movement are lost with the pre-1914 club minutes, some carried off by the secretary-treasurer, some simply lost, but it appears there was an internal uprising in which the advocates of reform won the elections in April, 1914. Clearly, the majority of the members approved of the changes, but about one third found them unacceptable and resigned. As a result a great deal of attention had to be given at club meetings to sorting out stock certificates, paying outstanding loans and the like. Warring Barnes tells the charming story of the departure of Adrian Sizer, one of the old guard, who carried his grand piano, along with other personal effects, carefully balanced on two canoes across Broadwater to Sizers Island just off the Virginia shore. Sizer, a patent lawyer and a dedicated outdoorsman, remained a good friend of Sycamore and in the 1920s alerted members to the time when there would be water in the canal for bringing a new ferry to the Island. He also attended our fiftieth anniversary of formal incorporation in 1939.

On the issue of membership for women there seems to have been a delayed reaction. Almost immediately after the change -- at the July meeting -- ten women were elected to membership: Nila A. Alien, Mary C. Breen, Maude C. Gunther, H. May Johnson, Florence McColm, Anne Lewis Pierce, Lewanna Wilkins, Kate D. Buckman, Eunice R. Oberly and Florence L. Towers. At succeeding meetings, up to 1921 women moved into and out of the club with about the same frequency as men, and many of them served as club officers. Mary Breen seems to have been the best known of the group.

In 1921 there was a backlash. It doesn't show clearly in the minutes. Only, suddenly, there was a persistent rejection of women applicants. Francis Cole, a member at that time, told the story. The influx of women worried a number of the younger male members who feared a takeover by the Amazons, and they decided to stop it with the blackball system. It took the impassioned pleading of Dr. Howard H. Custis to break the pattern and once again to allow women to join. Nothing in the minutes discusses the issue. Information given is that at the January 1922 meeting the members unanimously agreed that membership be limited to 28 women and 76 men -- to conform to the number of lockers available in the two locker rooms.

The issue of prohibition raised no problems that I have been able to discover. I asked Howard Schladt, who had been a passive member in the pre-1914 days and a regular member after the reorganization, what differences it had made to the members. His response was, "None at all." What about liquor on the Island? "I never saw any before or after the change." What about women as members? "I never knew we had any!" So much for traumatic change.

During the war period the decision was made that members called into service away from Washington were allowed to maintain their membership without paying dues. This applied both to the Mexican involvement and to the European war. Suddenly, in 1917, quite a number of our active members were drafted. Notes of a puzzling nature: In December 1915 a Russian officer, Dr Arthur Zinkhan, gave a "humorous account" of conditions on the war front. And in late 1917 it was moved and seconded at a meeting to "banish the Austrian from the Upper Island."

All the while, even as member Schladt suggests, life at the club went on in a remarkably unaffected way. We hosted Inter-Canoe Club Association regattas. We played tennis, competed in bowling, held dances and camped out on the upper island. Use was so heavy that rules were passed limiting to four the number of guests any member could bring on a Saturday or Sunday. We worried about the condition of our bridge and our clubhouse, especially the clubhouse -- to add on and to improve, to undertake repairs -- though little seems to have been done to the clubhouse except to worry about it.

The launching of The Sycamore Islander added a lively element. Members Aubrey E. Hummer, Rodger Gessford, Francis G. Cole and Kenneth W. Boyd brought it out as a private venture in mimeographed form. It quickly became a club publication, reporting on meetings and on activities of the members on the water, in the kitchen, on the tennis court or even far away in Canada or upper New York State. It also from time to time made a point of how few of us Islanders really knew each other and how few of us ever got together. The situation in the 198Os is no different from that of the 1920s.

The reputation we had in the early 192Os we have now passed on to the Canoe Cruisers Association. We were the center for the whitewater enthusiasts of the Washington area. Our potential competitors, the Potomac Boat Club and the Washington Canoe Club, tended to concentrate on flat water activities natural to their areas in the Potomac. For whitewater canoeing our best known paddler was Paul Cathcart who set the standard for others to follow. He not only ran all the interesting rapids in the Potomac -- we have photos of him at Stubblefield Falls, Calico Rapids, Difficult Run and just below Great Falls -- he also spent summers exploring the wilderness rivers of Canada. Present day Islander John Lentz is following his example fifty years later.

In the era from 1914 to 1925 one natural event stands out, the flood, or rather the floods (there were two of them) of 1924. Their striking effect was to close down the C & O Canal for good. It had in fact been operating in receivership since 1889 and the funds weren't available for continuing repairs. The only impact the floods had on the club was to push the canoe shed/dormitory off its foundations. With little difficulty it was jacked back into place -- running south toward the Virginia shore from the clubhouse. And it continued to house Islanders overnight, ladies and gentlemen separated by the canvas-curtain "Wall of Jericho."


In this era we planned, as we had for years, to rebuild the clubhouse and we even hired an architect to ensure doing it right. (There was a strong conviction that repairs would be a waste of time and money.) And then the Depression hit, and plans were dropped. For the first of many times on our Island, member John Loehler, architect and engineer, came to the rescue. We sank $3000 into the job, and John did an outstanding service to the club in reinforcing and repairing our existing structures. Because of the Depression, dollars became tight and the membership declined. But the club moved on.


1936 opened peacefully and prosaically. Seven members attended the January meeting, discussed reinforcing the supports under the kitchen floor, criticized the Street family children for having broken the railing on the ferry landing, approved the purchase of two pairs of oars and oarlocks, regretted the loss of the swimming float to ice, and decided on the basis of an Islander poll not to hold a dance. The February and March meetings were equally routine. And then on March 19 the heavens opened and the waters rose. The Flood of 1936, carrying water levels of 29.6 feet, washed everything away, clubhouse, canoe shed and the rest. (The highest point of land on the island is 21 feet.) Corrine Norment Custis's poem, published in the April 1936 Islander, carries the lament of the members.

Oh Sycamore, can it be true
That storm and flood have leveled you,
When yesterday you stood secure
And gave us welcome warm and sure?

For fifty years and more, set round
By ancient trees and rolling ground,
Your rustic house a safe retreat
Where those who loved outdoors could meet.

The boat-house, too, where tightly packed
Canoes, like sardines in their rack,
Laid silently, while on the slide
In sunshine basked your sons, outside.

I watched the water as it creeped -
Like eyes, half shut, your windows peeped -
Above the yellow tumbling flood
Your gallant roof withstood the mud.

And then like dreams that melt away
Or like a single golden day
Spent on your shore, so quickly sped,
When next I looked -- the tale was said.

And yet the trees and Island stand
The mud and muck will leave the land.
Her sons who love her, shall not they
Arise and build again some day.

With word of the flood's approach all the canoes had been carried up into the second floor of the boathouse for safety. And then the boathouse had been the first of the buildings to go. It had been washed off its foundations in 1924 as well, but the trees then saved the structure. This time nothing survived except as wreckage in the trees at the lower end of the Island.

The club reeled -- and rallied. The Executive Committee quickly got estimates of the costs of a new building, relying again on the judgment of John Loehler, and it turned to the membership for support. By the end of April (in mid-Depression) the members had already come up with $2,925 of the necessary $4,500 building funds and John Loehler had started on the work. The new clubhouse was completed in time for the September meeting. In all, 47 members raised $4,205 with individual loans ranging from $250 down to $25 at either 3% interest or no interest at all. With drawings held annually to determine which of the notes should be paid off, final payments were made in November 1953. Of course, to do this the dues had to be raised, and in the process, membership dropped from nearly 100 down to 50. (When it dropped to a low of 41, endangering the club's survival, a membership drive in the early 1940s helped build it up again.)

The flood of 1936 was followed by the flood of 1937 -- the first test of Loehler's new structure -- and by a series of high waters and then by the three floods of 1942. The May 1942 flood brought water levels of 13.2 feet, the December flood 13.13 feet and the October flood 26.8 feet, just 1.5 feet below the record level of 1936. At each major flooding there was destruction of tenting platforms and losses of materials and boats, but the main clubhouse was only superficially damaged.

With a review of each passing Sycamore decade I am impressed with how unchanging our activities are. Indoors and out, they remain the same, though somewhere along the line bowling went out, perhaps with the '36 flood, and tennis after the flood of 1937 was replaced by badminton and croquet. With flood conditions it was impossible to keep up the court's surface. Tenting continued on platforms such as those shown in the photographs, and as time passed shacks appeared as well on the upper end of Sycamore, though all but one of these, the Andrews shack, were washed away by our latest flood, Agnes, in 1972.

For fine summaries of the club's activities year by year in the 194Os, I'd alert members to the reports by Benjamin F. Betts in the Sycamore Islander. He nicely documents the burden on the membership caused by the floods of 1942, especially at a time when 27 of the Island's 89 members were in World War II military service. It took almost two years to repair the 1942 flood damages.


In this decade, we made final payment in November 1953 on the loans for reconstructing the clubhouse 17 years earlier. And we welcomed and supported Justice Douglas's Cumberland-to-Washington C & O Canal Towpath hike to save the canal from being paved over with a parkway. Sycamore Islander John Cover was one of the major participants in the March 1954 hike. The club as such provided coffee and rootbeer for the hikers as they passed the Island and we flew a banner under our bridge to welcome them. (We've offered similar hospitality to reunion hikes in the years since.) Think what a disaster it would have been for Sycamore -- for all of us in the Washington area -- if the George Washington Memorial Parkway had been built at the water level!

In this period as well, in 1947, one member, John Newman, astonished the club -- and the Washington area -- by flying his seaplane to Sycamore, landing it on Broadwater and taking up residence in a tree house. A caretaker, Marshall Godding, one of the best according to reports of the times, suddenly quit or was fired -- the records are unclear -- and then brought suit against the club for improper firing. The suit failed. His successor, Cash Clay, stayed with us for a month and then took off for Alaska. And his successor, Aloysius Gay, who appeared ideally suited for the caretaker's job, was swept off the ferry on a day of highwater and drowned.

On the whole, however, this period was one of development and growth. The lawns were cared for, canoeing, fishing and swimming went on in the summers, skating in the winters. Ping-pong, pool, croquet and horseshoes were played regularly. The canoe shed was constructed -- and enlarged. And membership fluctuated between the low 8Os and 115. When it dropped, members were urged to bring in friends. At the same time, a cap of 120 was put on the membership to save the islands from overcrowding.


This period at Sycamore is unmarked by crises. Perhaps the most important development was our finding Frank Davis to serve as caretaker. There have been fine men, and misfits, in the job over the decades but no other caretaker has had the length of service and the tenacity of Mr. Davis. He joined us in 1957 and stayed with us until his death at age 80 in May, 1973. While he was here members could rest assured that everything on the islands was under his strict control.

A second development, more important to the canoeing world at large than to Sycamoreans, was the holding of the first Potomac River Whitewater Race, with Sycamore as a co-sponsor. At the time -- the first Sunday in May, 1956 -- this race from just below Great Falls to Sycamore Island was considered so ambitious and dangerous that only invited paddlers, selected on the basis of experience, were permitted to participate. (Today, running basically the same course down river is considered an ideal introduction to our Potomac for whitewater paddlers of limited experience.) From this event, in which 19 "canoeists and foldboaters" took part, emerged the Canoe Cruisers' Association of Greater Washington D.C., which since then has turned out some of the greatest competitive paddlers in the world and is the largest whitewater paddling association in the country. The Islander of June 1, 1956 carries this paragraph:

"The news of the success of this pioneering race reached Mr. Lawrence Zuk, Denver, Colorado, who is probably the best authority on this new and little-known sport, according to the American Canoe Association. Mr. Zuk has written to Andrew Thomas, chairman of the local White Water Race Committee, expressing interest in the particulars as they will help him in the preparation of an article on white-water racing." The Islander article also confirms that the map on our wall in the clubhouse is of that first race.

A third development, which took the Island by surprise, was the launching of the Canoe Pool, the daily ferry system taking CIA personnel to and from the Virginia shore. This had little impact on the Island per se, but newspaper accounts of the three paddlers' commute reached such unlikely points as Paris, New Delhi and Sydney, Australia.

In the area of construction: When Frank Davis joined us requirements was that he be given two rooms for his apartment, not one. We readily agreed, and John Loehler was again called upon -- to add a front room to the caretaker's apartment. At the same time we added a septic tank system for the proper chlorination of our sewage -- a less showy but more expensive and more important improvement. Brookmont Dam and pumping station were under construction, and we felt the moral obligation to reduce pollution in our Washington water supply.

Debt-free we moved slowly toward additional restorations and new additions -- particularly to the canoe shed and the men's locker room. In both cases the aim was to allow an increase in membership, as the 1922 concept of a locker per member continued to be the limiting factor.

It was in 1963 that, for the first time since the 1936 flood, we reached our maximum of 120 members, established a waiting list, and began to worry about appropriate means of adding members without overcrowding our facilities. It was in the latter part of the decade that we established Non-resident Membership, for those temporarily away from Washington, and its corollary, Temporary Membership, though even with this device we found the appeal of the club growing faster than the openings for membership.


Until the Flood of 1972 there was little to differentiate this second decade of Frank David's tenure on the Island from the first. Activities went forward as usual, with some unforeseen additions -- long overdue.

The first of these was the addition of a third room to the caretaker's apartment. This came about when Frank Davis, ill with the flu, had no choice but to go out of his warm apartment to the pump for water and around to the men's locker room for toilet facilities. He was living in primitive conditions acceptable in the 19th Century, but not in the 20th. We decided to add a bathroom with year-around hot and cold running water -- and a flush toilet. This meant we had to invade the men's locker room and then to shift lockers into the tool room and then to build ourselves a tool shed to house our equipment. Davis had never thought to ask for the improvements and we had never thought to offer them until his flu caught our attention.

The Flood of 1972, Agnes, like so many other experiences with high water, came largely unannounced. The National Weather Service had no forewarnings until late in the evening on the day before the river crested at about 25 feet. Indeed, I had checked the water levels that evening on the way home from work and had been surprised to see how little the river was rising from our local showers. The result was that we made almost no preparations. In fact every canoe was still on its rack in the canoe shed.

Our lack of preparation may have been a blessing. The canoes, as it turned out, provided flotation for the shed, which floated out the storm and subsided basically back into place where Bob Burchell could, with relatively little difficulty, restore it to its pre-flood conditions.

In all, we came out of the flood very well. The clubhouse was damaged but only superficially. John Loehler could indeed be proud of his 1936 construction. The ferry, though it was washed away -- to the end of the cable -- and battered, was recovered. And Mr. Davis was rescued unharmed. To me the most impressive thing about the flood was the speed with which Islanders rallied to the restoration work with donations of money and time. Except for a year's loss of the lawn, the Island was quickly back to its normal and natural state.

Frank Davis died the next year, on May 6, 1973, the day of the eighteenth Potomac River Whitewater Race. And this ended the era. We were fortunate to find an immediate temporary caretaker in Steve Jones. The Island in this period relied upon young Islanders as Saturday relief people, among them Kenny Burchell, Christopher Thomson, Alex Loeb and the Jones sons and daughter. For the next four and a half years Peter Day, together with his dog Hard Times, filled the caretaker's shoes and coped with a series of high water crises on the Island.

1975 -1985

This decade might well be known as the Fassler years for our caretaker, Ken Fassler, though he joined us only in November of 1979. Like Frank Davis and some of the earlier caretakers, he has made a lasting impression, and he has the unique status of Honorary Member and Caretaker without ever having been a Regular Member.

Peter Day left us in 1977 to be followed by Ron King, who stayed only a few months and was then succeeded by a trio of Brent Hollowell, Tom Cantwell and Zack Rotwein who shared the responsibilities for just about one year.

Everyday life on the Island hasn't changed much in this past decade. We've had high water but never higher than the canoe shed. We've hosted wildflower walks, Easter egg hunts, school and scout outings, a series of weddings and wedding parties. We've had our races and workfests, our meetings and construction projects. Two of these construction projects deserve special mention.

First, the caretaker's apartment. Toward the end of Ron King's stay we decided to beautify the apartment at least to the extent of enlarging the front room, providing space for refrigerator and stove and extending hot and cold water to the cooking area. Work was completed and the paneling put in by Brent Hollowell just in time for the arrival of the new caretaker, who being Ken Fassler, preferred at least then to live on his houseboat.

Second, the Fassler Temporary Bridge. This structure was needed if we were to maintain access from MacArthur Boulevard to the Island while "our" steel bridge (now ceded to the Park Service) was overhauled. It was almost entirely the creation of Ken. The major cross-canal beams were telephone poles -- towed up the canal from Lock 86. These were topped by a comfortably planked and railed foot-bridge from the hillside to the towpath. The handsomely rustic structure lasted about a year and a half and then was taken down by the Park Service in order to restore the area to appropriate historical accuracy. Once again we come to our Island by the right-of-way from MacArthur Boulevard, the steel bridge and finally the ferry.

Mention of the ferry brings us full circle. The first purchase of the Sycamore Island Pleasure Club, back in 1885, was the Mamie, undoubtedly used as a means of access to the Island from the Maryland shore. And the latest addition to our Island in March of 1985 is the Matthews Ferry, constructed by our Captain in his home in Mohican Hills and trailered safely to the river bank just above Sycamore. With dexterity, it was slid into the river -- not catching its bow in the mud, as happened with a ferry launching in 1924 -- and put into service,

Thus we start Sycamore's second century with the club in commendably good condition. The path, the bridge, the steps to the water are in good shape. The ferry is new and on the island, the canoe shed is getting a new roof and the clubhouse is intact We members can go forward with confidence.