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History of TRRA

The History of Three Rivers Rowing Association

The history of Three Rivers Rowing Association seeks to record the events surrounding the creation and evolution of one of the country’s largest community-based, people-powered boating organizations. This is a work in progress. We welcome any additions, which could take the form of words, photos and video images. Please feel free to contact TRRA leadership, who will advise you how to make submissions.



Three Rivers Rowing Association is a membership organization offering rowing and dragon boating programs to anyone living in the Pittsburgh region.

Founded in October 1984, TRRA grew into one of the largest community-based rowing and paddling clubs in the United States. From the beginning, its programs served people of all skill levels from a broad range of social and economic backgrounds, and participants range in age from teenagers to senior citizens. TRRA offers lessons for beginners in rowing and dragon boating, and provides coached programs for more advanced rowers and paddlers.

As of the Fall of 2013, Three Rivers Rowing Association reported over 400 members, although the number of people using the Lambert (Washington’s Landing) and Millvale facilities totals more than 2,000 annually.

TRRA serves as home to crews from 8 high schools and 3 local colleges.

Other offerings include a Corporate/Summer Rowing program, a Diversity Program to make rowing and paddling more accessible to the region’s minority communities, a Masters Rowing Program for post-college adults, and Adaptive Programs for persons with disabilities and the blind.Community Service Programs

Race Day View

TRRA facilities include two boathouses on the Allegheny River just north of downtown Pittsburgh. The Lambert Boathouse is located on Washington’s Landing (formerly known as Herr’s Island), and the Millvale Training Center is located on the adjacent river bank.

The boathouses contain weight rooms, locker rooms, training rooms with ergometers (rowing machines), storage bays holding rowing shells capable of carrying one to eight rowers and dragon boats. The Millvale complex also houses indoor rowing tanks for training purposes. Facilities

TRRA hosts several competitive events each year, including the nationally recognized Head of the Ohio Regatta every October. Events

TRRA gained a national reputation not only for developing top-notch rowers – crews from each of the club’s major categories have won gold medals in National Championships in recent years – but also as a leader in the community rowing movement.

In 2002, Three Rivers Rowing was the first rowing organization in the country to win the newly created Club of the Year Award from USRowing, the sport’s national governing body. The award recognized community outreach, effective use of technology, member involvement, communications, service to the sport of rowing, and competitive excellence by its members.

USRowing Article – 2002 Club of the Year Award (Opens as a separate PDF file)

TRRA has also won the USRowing Club of the Year Award  in 2010 and 2013.

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Pittsburgh’s Rowing Legacy

Monongahela River Regatta 1867

The founding of TRRA represented a rebirth of rowing in the Pittsburgh area. The city had been a major rowing center in the 1800s, when more than 20 boathouses lined the banks of the three rivers. In the days before Professional football, baseball and hockey, and before the mills and factories turned the waterways into industrial waste sites, rowing was the sport that commanded the headlines. Oarsmen – and a few oarswomen – were the sports heroes of the day, and races in Pittsburgh and other cities drew thousands of spectators by the trainload.

History of Rowing in Pittsburgh Article (Opens as a separate PDF file)

History Rowing Almanac 1874 with pages showing Pittsburgh-area crews and events (Opens as a separate PDF file) (Full Interactive Version)

Rowing Clubs in Pittsburgh – 1874 (List & Interactive Map)

Post-Gazette Article Announcing the Opening of Three Rivers Rowing Center

The Founding of TRRA

Three Rivers Rowing Association was not created overnight. It evolved over the period of several years, growing out of the ideas and energy of many people in Pittsburgh who loved the sport of rowing and who recognized that the city’s rivers were once again safe enough to navigate in small, people-powered boats.

Talking to many of the founders and early members of TRRA, one hears a recurring theme – lots of people back in the early 1980s were walking or driving along the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio rivers, thinking to themselves, or even voicing out loud a similar common thought, “We ought to be out there rowing.”

Early Boat Storage in Trailers on Washington’s Landing.

Mike O’Connell, who had rowed while a student at Columbia University in New York, remembers walking across the 10th Street bridge every morning to his job as an engineer at Dravo Corp., and thinking the river might be a nice place to row.

Dave Figgins, retired Chairman and CEO of Mellon Stuart Co., one of the world’s largest engineering and construction firms, had rowed competitively in his younger days in Ireland and England. He often wondered, walking by the river at lunchtime, why rowing wasn’t more popular in Pittsburgh.

Chris Ryan, an MIT graduate and rower, went a little nuts trying to find a place to row after he moved to Pittsburgh. He’d park along the riverbank and hack his way through the bushes looking for someplace – anyplace – where a shell could be launched.

Mike Lambert, a transplanted New Englander, was always astonished at the amount of water flowing under the bridges of Pittsburgh. But when he first moved to the city in the early 1970s, he was discouraged at how polluted and congested the waterways were as a result of the booming steel and manufacturing industries.

One day in the summer of 1984, Lambert was taking a lunchtime run along the river with Tim Decker, Assistant Director at the Downtown YMCA. Lambert had just returned from a trip home, where he’d spent a little time in a single from the Dartmouth Boathouse.

“Pittsburgh needs crew,” Lambert declared as the two jogged along the riverside path.

Decker was skeptical, but Lambert proceeded to describe the joys of the sport, including great exercise, teamwork and self improvement, mostly in an outdoor setting. Soon Decker’s reluctance gave way to curiosity, and the two went back to sell then-Director Bill Parese on the idea of offering a rowing program at the Downtown YMCA.

Rowing at Dawn.

It took some more convincing, along with lots of time on the phone, and many friend-of-a-friend connections, but eventually the YMCA contributed a few thousand dollars for some used four-oared rowing shells from the University of Charleston in West Virginia, (one of which now hangs from the rafters of the TRRA Washington’s Landing boathouse now named for Lambert).

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The Early Years

And so, on October 1, 1984, Three Rivers Rowing Association was created. The group collected its first membership fees that month. Dues were set at a modest $20, which included the last three months of 1984 and all of 1985; new members, which meant everyone, also paid a $20 initiation fee to provide a little operating budget. YMCA memberships for an additional $160, which allowed the use of building facilities, were optional.

First Dues Sheet – 1984

In the early years of rowing at the Pittsburgh YMCA in the mid-1980s, novices refined their strokes from the seats of a saw-off shell perched at the edge of the Y’s indoor swimming pool, and the battered boats were stored at various times in the rancid corners of an abandoned sheep slaughterhouse, on makeshift racks inside semi-trailers parked along the riverbank, or on stands in Lambert’s backyard, from which they were transported atop his VW Micro-bus to the river. There, launching consisted of wading through mud and trash into knee-deep water, or scrambling up a grassy embankment carrying a 40-foot shell.

The early-morning sight of rowing shells on the river attracted Ryan, who had finally managed to find a place to launch a single scull, and O’Connell, who hauled milk jugs full of hot water in the trunk of his car with which to douse himself before putting on his suit and tie to make the trek to his downtown office across the 10th Street Bridge.

The number of rowers grew slowly. Most of them were ex-college rowers from other parts of the world. They went to other cities for the occasional race, engaged in a little friendly local competition, and started sharing their ideas about the future of rowing in Pittsburgh.

Race Day Activities

A call to the U.S. Rowing Association brought the names of more rowers. Jeff Lowe had coached at the University of Florida and had moved back to his native Pittsburgh to work in the insurance industry. Templeton Smith, a Princeton oarsman, rowed his single out of the Duquesne Canoe Club where Chris Ryan and another fellow named Per Sorenson had found rowing mates. Smith was related to John Lubimir, who had rowed at Marietta College and had started his own rowing club in Pittsburgh in 1982. It was one of Lubimir’s eight-oared shells that was sawed into sections for use as rowing boxes, the training devices used on poolsides and later docks to teach technique to newcomers.

Elaine Schirmer and her husband opened a shop in Etna to sell Alden Ocean Shells, a boat designed for recreational rowing. She and her customers started to get involved in the process. Peter Evered got wind of the rowing movement, and he got involved. Don Schock was a sailor at heart but decided to give rowing a try. The list goes on.

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One Morning on the Banks of the Ohio

As with most success stories, this one relies on a fair amount of good luck. One morning in 1985, as some of the rowers were wading in or out of the river, they heard a voice, asking in a lilting Irish brogue, what they were doing.

“Rowing,” they replied.

“I’m well aware of that,” countered Dave Figgins, with only a hint of indignation. “But what are you DOING?”

Figgins, a standout oarsman at Queens University in Belfast, circa 1950, wanted to know who they were, what boathouse they rowed out of, and what they had planned for the future.

College Rowers Preparing for an Outing.

The rowers explained that they had some plans for the future – for starters, a real dock and a place to take a proper shower – but they knew those plans would cost money, and lots of it. The men parted ways with the understanding that they would talk again if the fellows crawling up the river bank got serious about building a real boathouse.

Many of the parties involved point to that serendipitous encounter as a turning point in the history of Three Rivers Rowing Association. It convinced these four that rowing could catch on in Pittsburgh, and they inspired a widening circle of others with a wide variety of backgrounds, interests and motivations. The idea began to take hold.

Some saw rowing as a way to provide opportunity and motivation to the city’s diverse communities. Some saw it as a great addition to school athletic programs, especially for girls and others not well served by existing programs. Others saw rowing as an economic development tool – an asset to enhance the city’s image and attract new residents and businesses. Others just wanted a way to promote and participate in a sport they loved.

Several members of this loose-knit group decided it was time to branch out from the YMCA. An off-site meeting was planned at Froggy’s, a legendary watering hole located around the corner from the Downtown YMCA.

If that morning on the riverbank was the Boston Tea Party in TRRA history, then the Froggy’s meeting was the convening of the Continental Congress – the point of no return, as it were. It was at this meeting, which soon entered the lore of TRRA, that the idea came up to build a boathouse. Over a few beers, Lambert, Ryan, Lubimir and Decker talked seriously about getting the high schools and colleges involved, and seeking financial support from the city’s philanthropic community.

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Mike Lambert and Dave Figgins.

Raising the Money

Co-founder Chris Ryan felt strongly that the key to success was to set their sights high and establish credibility with investors. “We could get money for a nice boathouse,” he told his compatriots. “We could never get money for a shed.”

Groundbreaking Ceremony at Washington’s Landing – 1988 (From left – M. Lambert, D. Figgins, R.D. Finlay, C. Ryan)

Ryan also agreed with Mike Lambert’s notion that the organization should benefit the youth of Pittsburgh – none of whom rowed in local schools – and not just people like themselves looking for a way to get back on the water. It was this ideal that set the course for TRRA’s mission to provide opportunities for Pittsburghers of all ages and backgrounds.

So they returned to Figgins. During a meeting at Mellon Stuart, Lambert and Ryan laid out their plan and spelled out their need to raise money. Figgins offered some ideas and made some phone calls to other people with money and power in the city. Several of them saw the value of developing a rowing program in Pittsburgh. Rowing could make the city a better place to live, and offer benefits to its residents. All good reasons for philanthropy.

Lambert and Ryan were impressed, but were concerned about following through on all these great contacts. They knew Figgins was an old hand at fundraising. He’d been doing it for the Pittsburgh Symphony and other organizations with much success. They also knew he was a busy guy. Reluctantly, they asked if he’d mind coordinating the fundraising effort for the rowing program.

“I thought you’d never ask,” came the reply. But there was a condition. Figgins said that he expected plenty of work from Lambert, Ryan and their fellow rowers to make the project happen.

“I think things really popped at this point,” Lambert said years later. Figgins inspired all of them to draw on their own strengths and their own networks to move the project along.

Lambert, a New Hampshire native who was then climbing the ladder at Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh, had deep roots in social services programs. Ryan was well versed in heavy construction. Everybody had something to offer. They just needed direction.

Chris Ryan Takes a Scoop at the Washington’s Landing Groundbreaking – 1988

With guidance from Figgins, they approached foundations, applied for grants and worked with city government officials and real estate developers to secure a spot on Washington’s Landing, which was being cleaned up and converted for office and residential use. Phone calls were made, meetings were arranged, proposals were written and re-written, and slowly but surely, the money started to come in.

The Heinz Endowments broke the ice with a major contribution. A surprise donation stemmed from an application to the Child Guidance Center Foundation, which gave $200,000 in support of TRRA’s plan to work with at-risk youth.

Making it Official

By December 1986, Three Rivers Rowing had incorporated as a non-profit organization. Lambert left a career track at Catholic Charities to become its first Executive Director, a position he held for 20 years. A Board of Governors was formed to provide direction to the fledgling organization, and a Board of Directors was created to oversee TRRA operations.

Digging the Foundation for the Washington’s Landing Boathouse – 1988

Efforts continued to get schools involved. Topping the list of target institutions were the University of Pittsburgh (View club promo), Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne. Each one was asked to contribute $75,000 to the boathouse construction fund, which they eventually did. However, it was Chatham College, which had a very small rowing program, that was the first school to commit to TRRA. A major gift from Duquesne University got the ball rolling for the Big Three, which eventually engaged in an annual series of races called “CarDuPitt.” Later, collegiate programs from Carlow and Robert Morris also joined the organization.

The quest for college support often relied on serendipity. Carnegie Mellon had been slow to come on board, and the game-changer came when Chris Ryan found himself on the same plane with CMU President Dick Cyert on a flight home from New York City. The story is vintage Ryan.

“I got on right behind [Cyert] and then bullied a guy who had the seat next to him to move,” Ryan recalled. “In the hour flight to Pittsburgh, I filled his ears with reasons why they needed to be rowing. What seemed to make the sale was when I told him that MIT had rowing.”

Post-Gazette Article – 1989

Public awareness of rowing in Pittsburgh jumped in 1987 with the running of the first Head of the Ohio Regatta, which was the brainchild of Dr. Dan Thompson, a surgeon at Mercy Hospital. He suggested that Mercy sponsor the race, and that proceeds from it go toward programs at the hospital’s burn unit. The Head of the Ohio (which actually runs on the Allegheny River) grew into one of the biggest single-day rowing events in the country, although Mercy ended its sponsorship of the race in 2003.

Post-Gazette Article Announcing the Opening of Three Rivers Rowing Center  (Opens as a separate PDF file)

As the number of rowers increased and events like Head of the Ohio drew thousands of participants from the Eastern United States, the need for a permanent rowing facility became more acute.

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Bricks and Mortar

After a couple of false starts, a location for the first TRRA boathouse was found on Herr’s Island, which was being transformed from a row of stinking slaughterhouses into a $130 million commercial/residential development re-christened Washington’s Landing. Owners liked the idea of a boathouse on the island as an added amenity for future office workers and condo residents.

Ground was broke in 1988 for the 16,000-square-foot boathouse along the island’s back channel. The location was ideal because it provided access to the main river while still providing a sheltered launching and practice area for rowers of all skill levels. After overcoming several political obstacles, Three Rivers Rowing negotiated an agreement to lease the property from the city for one dollar a year.

The Three Rivers Rowing Center opened in 1989, but the organization quickly outgrew its quarters, due in large part to the increasing popularity of high school rowing programs for girls and boys. A new fundraising effort was launched to double the capacity of the boat bays, which were built underneath the parking lot of an office building next door.

During the decade that followed, rowing programs flourished in Pittsburgh. Crews from Three Rivers Rowing won National Championships in high school, college, masters and adaptive categories. Some former TRRA members started another rowing organization – Steel City Rowing – in Oakmont, and Robert Morris University and North Allegheny High School crews found their own boathouses downstream on the Ohio River. Rowing had officially returned to Pittsburgh.

In addition to the Head of the Ohio, TRRA also sponsors the Pittsburgh Indoor Rowing Championships (on rowing machines).


Branching Out

Three Rivers Rowing Association is more than just rowing. Membership has long included kayakers, including Olympic prospect Erica Lenzner, and later, the ancient Chinese sport of Dragon Boating was added to the TRRA list of options for people-powered water activities.

As membership and programs continued to grow at Three Rivers Rowing Association, the organization once again found itself pushing the limits of its facilities.

With more funding from the Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon and Scaife Foundations, and other philanthropic and corporate supporters, TRRA built a second boathouse just 300 yards upstream in the new Millvale Riverfront Park.

Opening in November 2002, the $2 million facility included a 15,000-square-foot indoor training center featuring two rowing tanks for year-round practice, exercise rooms, locker rooms, meeting spaces and offices. It was built to  strict environmental standards for construction, heating, cooling, and recycling.

The Heinz Endowments also provided start-up funding for a TRRA program called the Tireless Project, which combined an effort to collect discarded tires and other debris from the riverbanks with environmental education programs for students and leaders of riverside communities.

The new millennium also brought a review of TRRA’s progress in fulfilling one of its prime directives – to make rowing accessible to people of all backgrounds. A look at the membership showed that minority groups still were not well represented in the organization’s programs. In 2000, An Ad Hoc Committee was formed within TRRA to examine the success – or lack of it – in attracting people of color to participate in rowing and paddling activities.

Millvale Ribbon Cutting Ceremony – 2002

“We concluded that we had failed to achieve a key tenet of that goal: that our membership should reflect the population makeup of the city,” said Don Schock. “We chose to actively and financially re-commit ourselves to diversity.”

A diversity director was hired and a full-scale effort was launched to attract African-Americans and and other minority groups to join Three Rivers Rowing. High school rowing programs were launched at such predominantly black schools as Westinghouse High School and Amani Christian Academy. While progress was slow, TRRA leadership pledged to continue efforts to grow diversity at all levels of the organization.

Heinz Endowments article about TRRA Diversity Efforts 

TRRA’s commitment to community rowing, particularly in developing diversity programs, attracted national attention.

A month after the opening of the new Millvale facility, when USRowing went to choose its first Club of the Year based on a wide variety of measures, it picked Three Rivers Rowing over several older, well-established rowing organizations in Boston and San Diego. One of the factors that set TRRA apart from the other candidates was its commitment to community service and diversity.

Millvale Training Center from the Back Channel

Millvale Training Center from the Back Channel

Three Rivers Rowing Association is a proud participant in the ongoing revitalization of the city of Pittsburgh and its rivers and waterfront. TRRA is a model for community rowing organizations around the country, and it continues to grow with the addition of new members, new programs and new ideas.

– Thomas Buell, Jr. (Spring 2009). Continually updated by TRRA 

(This TRRA history project was inspired in 2008 by Chris Ryan, who was concerned that many of the key players and their recollections might be in the process of fading away.  Funding for the project was provided by a grant from the Chris Ryan Family fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation.)

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