Recreational boating on the Kennebunk River has been enjoyed since the Boston & Kennebunkport Seashore Company surveyed the lower riverfront for its potential as a tourist colony in 1873.
Paddling, rowing, and sailing became increasingly popular as the new tourist colony thrived. In 1887, a reporter for The Wave wrote that John Bach McMaster, scholarly author and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, appeared almost boyish paddling his beloved canoe. Artist Prosper Senat, an enthusiastic sailor, patented a design for a centerboard that could be raised and lowered depending on the depth of the water. He could often be seen testing design improvements on the river.
McMaster, Senat, and their good friend Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Records Henry E. Woods, hired local fisherman James Shuffleburg to alter his little Ocean Avenue wharf to accommodate their private boats. Other cottagers envied the convenience of having boats ready for use at a moment’s notice. They formed a 10-member organization called The Lobster Boat and Canoe Club. By August 4, 1888, club membership had grown to 28.
More commodious club facilities were clearly justified. The organization changed its name to The Kennebunk River Club and hired Lowell, Massachusetts Architect, Frederick W. Stickney to design a new boathouse at Shuffleburg’s wharf. Construction commenced in March of 1890 and opening ceremonies were held at the boathouse August 2nd that same year.
From then on, the River Club was the center of summer activities. Boating season festivities began in early July with “The Glorious Fourth.” Water Sports Day at the River Club and upriver in midsummer got everyone out to spectate or participate in tub, canoe, and yacht races.
The Grand Finale of the summer was meant to be Carnival Day but it didn’t happen every year. The Kennebunk River Club members had originally spent a lot of money to throw an elegant exclusive event but they didn’t want to spend the money for the benefit of the masses. In the early 1890s Carnival was canceled after some people allowed their maids to enter floats. Former participant’s protests that they couldn’t possibly paddle alongside someone’s maid, were reported in the Wave.
The carnival was brought back a couple of years later by popular demand. The next time it was canceled was when the trolley came to town and threatened to deliver “the wrong class of people” to Kennebunkport for the day. Trolley riders turned out not to be as despicable as predicted and the Carnival was reinstated. There was no carnival during the beginning of the depression. It started back up again in 1935. The last of the old carnivals took place in 1937.
The carnival was temporarily revived in 1953, 1960, 1980, and in 2003. For the last few years decorated boats have paraded up and down the river on the last night of “Launch!” our early summer festival. The entries this year were colorful and festive. My personal favorites were the swan boats and the little shark.
Happy Independence Day or as they used to call it, “The Glorious Fourth”