A Resume of Some Items Relative to My Membership at Sycamore
by John Loehler
As a matter of record, my membership in Sycamore Island dates back to the time when I was a young man just out of college. I became a member of record of the Sycamore Island Club in 1925 and I am now, at the time of the centennial, an Honorary Member. I was involved in many events over the years, some of which I hope to share with those of you who are interested enough to read my account of the flood damage, the repair work, building and rebuilding of the buildings, and other related matters of interest occurring from 1929 onward. Since many of the events in general have been reported by others whose memberships date way back like mine, I shall attempt to discuss in detail some items which directly concerned my work and contributions to Sycamore Island.
We had high waters at Sycamore in the years of 1924 and 1928 which caused considerable damage to the Club House and other buildings. A committee was appointed to assess damages and to make recommendations for restoring the property and putting it in good condition. On October 30, 1929 the following estimates were requested by the "Club" of John Loehler:
"...Go over Club House framing and replace or repair all defective structural members, rendering them safe."
"... Level up floor and install concrete piers to replace defective wood posts now in place."
"...Lay hard wood floor over entire Club Room."
"... Repair roof making same tight and durable."
"...Treat interior walls and ceilings of Club House with heavy texture paint equal to Craftex."
"... Apply stucco to exterior walls of the Club House portion."
"... Build porch ten feet wide for the length of the Club House along the Virginia shore side, same to have roof and to be screened-in with galvanized fly screening."
"...Remove center window on Virginia side of Club House and install a pair of French doors in enlarged opening, approximately five feet wide, leading to porch."
"... Extend Ladies Room ten feet toward the Virginia shore maintaining present width; inside and outside materials and finish to be the same as now are in place in this portion."
"... Paint all new woodwork two coats of lead and oil paint."
My estimate for the above work was three thousand Dollars...$3,000.00.
In my letter of October 30, 1929 to Mr. Gessford who was Secretary of Sycamore Island Canoe Club at the time, a very dedicated member for many years and also one of the editors of the Sycamore Islander since 1921, I submitted for their consideration the following: "... If modern locks and knobs are installed on present doors entering Club Room portion to replace those now in place, and present window adjusters are removed and sash balances are installed on lower sash so as same may operate as sash of modern double hung window, add One Hundred Dollars .... $100.00."
Further..."If present Club Room electric wiring is removed and Fire-Underwriters armored cable is used throughout Club Room portion with the installation of eight ceiling outlets, with four ceiling outlets on porch, and three ceiling outlets in Ladies Room, and including an allowance for Fifty Dollars ($50.00) for fixtures to be selected by the Club, add the sum of Two Hundred Dollars .... $200.00."
The actual work on remodeling the Club House got under way on a Tuesday. November 19,1929, two days after the Building Committee and I had a final conference as to the details of the work. Thereafter, I was on the Island every working day making certain that the workmen were following the plan laid out for them. Heavy rains raised the river to such a height that lumber could not be carried across the river for the first two days. The men and I worked until ten o'clock at night in order to have all the lumber down to the towpath so it could be taken over as soon as the river level dropped.
The first operation was to get the Club House jacked up and leveled and to do this, jacks were placed beneath the building and other jacks were placed to exert pressure against the side walls so as to bring them up to plumb. New cedar posts were placed under the Club House floor and the front porch.
The Sycamore Islander in its December, 1929 issue noted the proceedings "Just now the Club Room is filled with lumber, the wall of the ladies' room is wide open and the framework of the ladies' room addition and the new porch is taking shape along the side of the house. When the work is finished, there'll be one continuous porch running around the front of the house on the Virginia or river side."
"This porch and the floor of the Club Room will all be on the same level and double French doors will be in position at the old double doorway to the front porch and also at the middle of the Virginia wall of the Club Room, making a mighty nice place for dancing. The single door on the canal side of the Club Room will be replaced by a window, giving more available space on that side of the room. Side wall light fixtures will be placed along both sides of the Club Room so that they may be used over tables. These side wall fixtures and new fixtures for the ceiling lights will be as attractive as we can afford and we believe that they will tremendously improve the appearance of the Club Room. You'll be glad to know that the mantel will be leveled and outlet plugs for electric candles or some similar types of lights will be placed there. All of the electric wiring will be concealed armored cable work and was worked on by members.... The walls of the Club Room will be covered with dark green stained burlap, paneled with side drops, and ceiling of tan burlap. The floor will be of maple and we believe that the entire interior finish will be such a marked improvement that you'll not recognize the old place."
"The ladies' room will be extended for twelve feet along the Virginia side of the Club Room and a door will be placed in the Virginia wall of the Club Room opening in to the ladies' room, the present door alongside the fireplace will be walled up. This arrangement will give the ladies' room more available space. New lighting fixtures will also be placed in the ladies' room."
"You'll also be interested to know that the telephone will be placed in the kitchen on the brick chimney wall. A new and tight door between the kitchen and Club Room should make the telephone more private. This door and all the other doors in the Club Room will of course have new trim."
"Getting back to the exterior, the entire porch will be screened and exterior hanging lights will be placed beside the doorways at the present time or as soon as we can afford them. The exterior of the house will be white siding such as is used on all modern frame buildings."
This was the first extensive remodeling work of the original Club House at Sycamore. By January 15, 1930 at a cost of $3,500, the amount of the estimates, all of the items mentioned above had been completed. The carpenters, laborers and I pitched in and were party to the tasks to be performed. The building materials and equipment used for this rehabilitation work weighed over 15,000 pounds and there were four of us who did most of the carrying of these materials down the hill from Conduit Road (MacArthur Boulevard) across the bridge and down the steps to the towpath; then we loaded the materials onto the ferry for the trip across the river to Sycamore Island, and finally carried them to the Club House site. Incidentally, the reason for so much work for so little cost was that there was Club-donated labor,* also the carpenters' wages were at $1.375 per hour and the laborers for $.50 per hour in those days.
[* This paragraph from the December 1929 Islander spells out that club-donated labor: "In order that we may have more money for lighting fixtures, Jack Stodder, Dick and Kalil Ackad, Charles DeMaine, Doc Custis and Gessford have been installing the wiring in the new clubroom. Mr. Stodder was also an important assistant on this job. We worked all day last Sunday and after sundown rigged lights outside in order that we might finish the wiring so John could go ahead putting the siding on the exterior walls. The temperature Sunday was just below freezing but we worked so hard that we hardly had time to get cold."
-- John Thomson]
The following letter was received from the Montgomery Sycamore Island Club, dated January 17,1930, addressed to John Loehler at the Franklin National Bank Building, Washington D.C.:
I have been instructed to notify you of the following resolution passed at the January Club meeting.
Moved and passed that a vote of sincere thanks be extended to our fellow-member John Loehler for his excellent work of reconstruction on the Sycamore clubhouse. The work which he has performed for the Club is the most outstanding service which has been rendered by any club-member in a great many years and the spirit of helpfulness and the desire to please which characterized his service will always be remembered with appreciation by the Club.
My personal appreciation of your good services accompanies the above.
Roger D. Gessford, Secretary
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The Flood of 1936
and Our New Clubhouse
The winter of 1936 was a bad one for Sycamore Island. In February the ice conditions were so precarious it was unsafe for a person to cross the river alone and anyone getting to the Island stood a good chance of becoming marooned.
Early in March, 1936 the ice went out of the river and jammed below the Island, causing a brief period of high water and ice was piled on the shores over four feet high. The unusual ice has wreaked havoc on the Island in the way of lost or damaged tent platforms, a hole was stove in the big rowboat, there was breakage of small trees and the uprooting and carrying away of bushes.
The middle of March was a far worse story. Melting ice and snow far up the Potomac Valley, added to rain, caused the river to rise to a flood stage on March 19, 1936 of 28.1 feet, a height unknown since June 1889. On March 20, 1936, Club members were advised by the Secretary that, "the flood waters at Sycamore are receding but it seems quite certain that whatever is left of the Club buildings will be scattered about the Island as wreckage."
Rupperts Island, which was just above Sycamore Island, had numerous large trees with trunks two feet in diameter and large branches. When the water hit Rupperts Island, it gouged the surface of the land and tore up numerous large trees, completely uprooting them, and washed them down the river to Sycamore where they acted as battering rams. These trees, moving with the current at considerable speed, tore our buildings apart and carried pieces down the river further. It changed the contour of the upper Island and reduced it in size. It left Sycamore a devastating mess, one that we "old timers" will never forget.
Practically all the members' canoes had been moved into the Club Room but with the Club Room torn loose and wrecked, most of the canoes and other personal property had been lost. The Club House that we so painstakingly restored in 1929 and 1930 was gone! The Island was left a desolate mass of mud and wreckage as the river returned to its usual placid level.
The buildings that were swept away by the flood consisted of a one-story frame Club House with a porch on two sides; a kitchen with a screened connecting porch, located over the well; a ladies dressing room; a canoe house with racks for possibly 96 canoes; a wide porch and runway to the river; a ladies locker room and store room on the second floor; a large sleeping porch, equipped with cots and mattresses. Most of the tenting colony was also swept away.
Undaunted, we wasted no time bemoaning our fate. Salvage operations started as soon as conditions on the Island permitted. We erected a small house, built mostly from doors recovered from the wrecked locker-rooms, for the caretaker; cleaned out the well and installed a pump; and, having the ferry back in operation, proceeded to sort out the wreckage left on the Island.
We had a Club meeting at a member's house and after considerable discussion I was requested to design a building to safely sustain a flood height of 29 feet -- which was a foot higher than any flood on record. In a few days, preliminary drawings were prepared with an estimate of probable cost completed. The cost was set at $4,000.00, and it was estimated that at least an additional $500.00 was needed for other replacements and repairs.
The building was designed with a steel frame. The steel columns were set in poured concrete and anchored four feet below the finished ground surface. The columns received steel floor beams, with knee braces at the floor and roof connections. All connections were bolted and the roof was supported by steel trusses which framed into steel columns, with knee braces.
The Club Room floor was at elevation 29 feet and supported by 3 x 12 Pacific Coast Douglas Fir in 20 foot lengths, each weighing 140 pounds, bolted to steel beams. The roof was supported by 2 x 8 tongue-and-groove, 10 feet long, weighing 30 pounds each, bolted to steel trusses. All steel members and timbers were of maximum possible usable length. The steel columns in the side walls were 22 feet long, weighing 240 pounds each; the center steel columns and end columns were 22 feet long, weighing 120 pounds each. Cement, sand and gravel were supplied in bags of 94 to 100 pounds (some gravel was dug out of the river bed, placed in canoes and conveyed to the building site). All concrete was mixed by hand.
With the canal towpath soaked and impassable for hauling materials, everything had to be carried down the hill from Conduit Road (MacArthur Boulevard) by manpower. The length and weight of these materials created a real problem to carry them down from the roadway, down the slope, across the bridge, down the steps and then to be put on the ferry of Sycamore; and then unloading and carrying them to the building site. As mentioned above, all concrete was mixed by hand on the premises and the steel was erected by hand with improvised block and tackle.
Before the end of May construction of the new Club House had been started. The men working on the building were not all "top men" in the trades so constant close supervision was required. By the end of June noticeable progress had been made and the Club House could be occupied during the summer season by the Club members. We worked constantly through the summer months and the flood damage and repair to the Island was still going on the following year when in April, 1937 the river again flooded the Island. The Clubhouse safely came through this flood which was officially recorded at 23.3 feet, and was four feet above the ground floor of the Clubhouse.
We built lockers and new benches and installed new waterfront steps. We also built a canoe house which would house approximately 80 canoes. We lost 96 canoes in the 1936 flood. Therefore in our new canoe house we installed racks on the inside of posts with concrete anchors so that the canoes would stay dry at an elevation of 20 or more feet. We decided to relocate the tennis court with an eye to the possibility of future floods. Cable was strung from tree to tree on the upper end of Sycamore as a protection against debris and trees carried down stream on high water. A group of men from the C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corps) gave us help in filling holes around and under the Clubhouse.
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Almost 50 years have passed since I designed and built the Clubhouse building and the main portion and frame has survived the major floods of 1937, 1942 and 1972. In June of 1972 Hurricane Agnes paid a visit to Sycamore and caused the river to flood at an elevation of 25 feet. The Clubhouse remained firm against the roaring floodwaters. There was, of course, minor damage to the stairs to the upper floor but nothing of significance. It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to know that the design and materials that were used have stood the test of time. We can all rejoice in the knowledge that our Clubhouse will serve its members for many years to come.
In 1957 we installed a sewerage treatment plant consisting of two 500 gallon tanks placed in series, i.e., the sewerage from the Clubhouse enters one tank where it is retained and then proceeds to flow through the second. At the end of the second tank a pipe conveys the effluent into a tank near the river bank. Here the effluent is treated with chlorine and then enters the river.
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In retrospect, I believe I would want to relive again the wonderful experiences that my membership at Sycamore accorded me. I shall always be indebted to the people with whom I worked, played and competed against in many activities over the years. We certainly were an enthusiastic group and the friendships that we established were of the finest quality and lasted most of our lives. It was indeed a privilege for me to write this paper and I give special thanks to the Almighty for making it possible.