The Hoosier Boy
by Dana Wolfe Hildebrand
Old Rising Sun did the thing up right,
Perhaps the most important thing to begin with is that the Hoosier Boy was not one boat -- instead, it was at least four different boats. It was Hoosier Boy #1 that won the race at Peoria. It was 40 feet long and had a 75 horsepower, Buffalo engine. It, unlike the last Hoosier Boys, was unable to lift its front out of the water. To contrast that, Hoosier Boy #3 was the boat used to run the 1924 (nearly) mile a minute record that still holds today. It was also used to win the much coveted Webb Trophy in 1924. Hoosier Boy #4, the final one, raced in 1926 and also brought home the Webb trophy — for the third and final time. Both #3 and #4 were 24 feet long and #4 carried a 400 horsepower Liberty motor engine. The last Hoosier Boy is the famous "U-7" boat most often pictured (to complicate things, the third Hoosier Boy was painted with a U-7 on it at the end of its career). Row disallowed anyone outside of the family to get too near the Hoosier Boy, especially those in the racing arena. Some people asked for measurements and Row refused; others asked for photos and he only granted the shots if they were an acceptable distance away so that none of his secrets would be revealed. So, I've included a couple of shots [currently unavailable. — LF] of Hoosier Boy #4's engine and steering wheel area.
The call of the Ohio River was powerful and Row began building his first boat in 1907. Hoosier Boy #1 was completed in 1909 after “intensive experiment with hull design and power” (Eleanor Whitlock in the Indianapolis Star, 5-11-80). It was 40 feet long and carried a 75 horsepower Buffalo engine. According to Eleanor Whitlock (Row’s daughter-in-law), “the boat won every speed contest that year in Cincinnati, Peoria, Toledo and Buffalo. For the races at Peoria in August, 1909, Hoosier Boy was driven from Rising Sun down the Ohio River to its mouth at Cairo, Illinois, up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, then up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers to Peoria. The boat covered around 1,000 miles on its journey and set an upstream record between St. Louis and Peoria while doing it” (ibid).
Row loved setting records. “It gives them something to shoot at” he wrote in one of his letters. Eleanor Whitlock recounted a great story about the Hoosier Boy and the loss of a rudder:
"From the meet in Toledo the boat was shipped to Buffalo, where it took part in a three-day motor boat carnival. This series of races took place on the Niagara River on the course of the Buffalo Launch Club off Grand Island. Hoosier Boy won both the 25-mile and 50-mile scratch races. In the latter event the boat broke all speed records on the Niagara River, making 32 miles an hour. The determination and guts of Whitlock and his mechanic Thomas (Sandy) Baxter thrilled spectators. In the 50-mile race Hoosier Boy got off to a fine start and held the lead over four boats from the Buffalo area...At the end of 20 miles something went wrong with the Boy and it swerved out of control. Whitlock sent Baxter to the back of the boat to investigate. Sandy crawled over the long hull and found that the rudder was useless. Whitlock told him to get out the paddle and steer, but Sandy yelled out that he could hold the rudder. Then Whitlock managed to tie Sandy's [foot] so that he couldn't be washed overboard. That's the way they won the race--Whitlock dividing his time between the [wheel] and the engine, and Sandy lying flat on the boat hanging on to the rudder with everything he had while the cold water splashed over him. The crowd cheered the courageous pair, and at the end of the race fans stormed the Hoosier Boy and carried the men on their shoulders into the clubhouse" (ibid.).
More races were won with Hoosier Boy #1 in 1910 -1917, but little literature survives about this racing era. However, in 1924 Row raced yet another Hoosier Boy, this time, Hoosier Boy #3. I am unsure of exactly what happened to Hoosier Boy #2, though one of the first two Hoosier Boys was turned into the Hoosier Girl, a champion boat in its own right. It is likely that #2, with a fresh coat of red and white paint, became the Hoosier Girl.
The year 1924 was a busy one for Row and Hoosier Boy #3. The boat had been totally redesigned with only the name remaining the same. It was now 24 feet long and powered by a 400 horsepower Liberty aircraft engine which Row had bought as surplus from the Navy. There are several newspaper articles about the 1924 Ohio Valley River Regatta and Row’s race against the Fore, but luckily, a letter from Row himself remains. In it, he tells his daughter, Mildred, (who was away at Ward-Belmont) about the race. It is dated September 30, 1924:
"Was a great victory for “H. Boy” and wish you could have seen it. If I had only known I was to win, you would have seen it. Prettiest race you ever saw and there never was one pulled off to equal it, and best of all, seemed every one wanted me to win. I did, and let them all see it. I passed him just in front of the Judges stand, and not over 10 feet away from him so all could see it, and you never heard such a roar of applause and whistle blowing in all your days, so they all tell me, as of course I could only hear the roar of our good motor, the Liberty. I could not have planned a better way to have turned the trick, if I had worked on it for months. The boat just run beautifully and made the turns five at full speed. Most everybody went wild, threw their hats in the river, beat each other on their backs. Even Old _____ got drunk and tried to kiss me. When I came home yesterday morn they were shooting cannons, dismissed school and everybody was at the river in a drizzling rain. We won $200 on Sat. and $500.00 on Sun...The Big Cup [the Webb trophy]. It is a beauty. The Hoosier Girl won 1st and gets a nice cup...Tell _____ we now have the Worlds Champion sleeping soundly in our Boat House.”
I have two more eyewitness accounts of the race that ultimately ended up being between the Hoosier Boy and the Fore. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s headlines touted, “Record Holder is Vanquished in River Rage.” One of the letters, from Row’s cousin Harry (son of J.T., grandson to the original Indiana J.T.), says:
Well Sis [Mildred] it was too bad that you could not see the races for there perhaps will never be again between two such boats as the Hoosier and Fore races...the first day was wonderful as Row made him do all he could all the time just to keep him from going ahead, right on his coat tail all the time. Row could not get the motor up on Sat. to where it should be. 50 or more turns on the wheel would have beat him easy but it was a fine race at that...we never have seen anything like it between such fast boats. But Sunday H. Boy [had] a very bad day, but a large crowd came just the same and 99 and 4/3 for the Hoosier. The motor went up over the top and the Hoosier ran him ragged the first trip down--neck and neck to the lower bridge. And, just in front of the Judges stand Row showed off, took the lead and done him ruff in. The turn [in the] second lap he was possibly three hundred yards ahead and double that in the end. Whistles, bells, tin pans and everything that could make a noise was busy...everyone yelled until their pipes closed...people of all kinds just rushed forward all wanted to shake hands with Row. Buster [Row's son, Stewart] told one fellow,'it was not so much the boat as it was the way Pop drove it'....The Hoosier Girl ran away from the boats in her class so easy that she was not even breathing hard when she got back. If we had taken The Greyhound [Whitlock pleasure boat] and the See Me, we would have won everything but the canoe race."
It was during this two-day event that the Hoosier Boy somehow became the recipient of one of the greatest tales in racing history. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true. It was said that the boat flipped and sank, was raised and raced two more times the same day--winning both the events! Though I have heard this story repeated often and have read it in various newspapers, Row’s letter clears it all up, “that turning over stuff was all grapevine...boat was in house since last Sunday week.” In other words, the Hoosier Boy wasn’t even in the water when it was supposed to have flipped. It’s a shame, though, because it certainly makes for a great story. Perhaps the fact that the tale was told at all, much less repeated for decades, attests to the esteem in which people held Row’s abilities. Despite the look of the picture to the upper left, the Hoosier Boy did not sink, at least not that day -- however could one of them have been burned out of anger??
On October 9, 1924, Row raced against another formidable enemy — time. Though he had managed speeds above 62 miles an hour in the race against the Fore eleven days prior, Row wanted an official speed record. He thundered down the river from Cincinnati to Louisville and back, a distance of 267 miles, in just 267 minutes and 49 seconds. That day, the river was up and cluttered with debris but Row was determined to have the "mile-a-minute" officially timed record. In his letter to his daughter about the run, Row was less enthusiastic than he had been about his duel with the Fore, "I hung up a new record yesterday." Though his time was good enough to capture the record for that span of the river, it wasn't good enough for Row. To miss the mile-a-minute goal by only 49 seconds! While the sinking and raising of the Hoosier Boy may have been a product of imaginative minds, there is one story that is definitely true and it is in conjunction with his race against time. During the race, one side of the boat was ripped open, presumably by one of the many branches floating in the river. Row crossed the finish line at Cincinnati and never stopped to receive his congratulations. Instead, he turned and headed straight back for his home port of Rising Sun. If he had stopped, the boat would have sunk. Such was the determination of J.W. Whitlock. Since this race was run, Markland Dam was erected between Cincinnati and Louisville, so the record that Row was so disappointed in still stands today — and always will.
Every source on the Hoosier Boy says that it was only beaten twice in 19 years, once when it supposedly sank and another time when it was disqualified for going too fast in the category in which he was entered (the pleasure boat class). However, one newspaper article has an interview with another great racer, Cam Fischer who piloted the great Miss Cincinnati. He says of his boat,:
"she was 22 feet long and sleek. We put it in the water for the first time that afternoon and she ran against the Hoosier Boy the next day and won. Whitlock pulled the Hoosier Boy out of the water, poured gasoline on it and burned it up. Then he went about building another Hoosier Boy" (clipping with no date or source name).
There seems to be no evidence that a Hoosier Boy was burned, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it didn't happen. Hoosier Boy #3 disappeared in the literature after the 1925 season. Whether it was burned or just retired, I don't know. Similarly, I have yet to come across sources regarding the race in which Fischer won against the Hoosier Boy. Perhaps it was in one of the two-day races that counted cumulative points over both days. If this were the case, then a boat could theoretically beat the Hoosier Boy on one day, but still not come out on top for the entire race. But I am at a loss how it could have been burned one day and raced the next! This is just my conjecture and I can't prove or disprove Fischer's story. Regardless, Cam Fischer, was an honorable man and he heartily proved it in 1966. Row had been dead for 31 years by that time and his son Stewart was scheduled to appear with the Hoosier Boy at the Cincinnati Sports, Vacation and Boat Show at Cincinnati Gardens. Sadly, Stewart passed away shortly before the event took place. It was Cam Fischer who stepped up to hand out pamphlets about Row and to tell the visitors all about the great Hoosier Boy. The executive Vice-President of the show sent the Whitlock family a letter and press release which, in part, says that "Fischer is regarded as one of the top Ohio River Speed Boat pilots of the 20th century. He piloted the Miss Cincinnati to numerous championships but NEVER took the measure of the fabulous Hoosier Boy (private correspondence). This conflicts with every other source I've seen yet; however, as said in the passage above, I can neither prove nor disprove that Cam Fischer ever beat the Hoosier Boy. But, if Cam Fischer said that Row burned one of the Hoosier Boys in a fit of anger, I'm inclined to believe him. It follows that if the burning incident is true, so is the one day defeat of the Hoosier Boy. Anybody with information, please drop me a line!
Hoosier Boy #3 was still active the next year as the September 17th, 1925 edition of The Ohio County News had an article entitled "Hoosier Boy, Pride of State, captures the Big Free for All Water Race at Cincinnati." The boat shown with the article [not available —LF] is #3, but with a new paint job. This was the same regatta as the one in which Row beat the Fore, except that it was one year later. For the second time, Row brought the Webb trophy home to Rising Sun. But, he still wasn't done yet.
In order to compete for the Webb trophy again in 1926, Row had to build Hoosier Boy #4 in record time. It was built at Row's factory in only three weeks. In the free-for-all category (Row's favorite), he established a new speed record of 62.6 miles an hour, establishing him "as champion of the Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association for the third consecutive year" (Whitlock in Indianapolis Star, 5-11-80). This was the last time the Webb trophy was given and it remains in the house where Row spent most of his life (and belongs to my brother, Danny).
Though I do not know when they were built (sometime between 1926-1935), Row began capitalizing on the coast-to-coast fame of his Hoosier Boy boat. He created the "Hoosier Boy Line" of boats for sale to the public. You could buy a "Baby Hoosier Boy" which measures 14' by 4' and was a "stepped racing model." It was advertised as having both comfort and speed, all for only $225.00. Or, if you would rather, you could have had a slightly larger runabout (14' by 4'6") with a windshield. It was also painted and attractively lined for $350.00. The granddaddy of the Hoosier Boy Line was the 16' by 4'6" all mahogany runabout with windshield, steering wheel, cleats, lights and seats for $450.00.
Row's racing career spanned almost two decades, but his memory has far exceeded that length of time. In southeastern Indiana, he is a legend to many and to race boat enthusiasts, he was a founding father. The last Hoosier Boy is still owned by the Whitlock heirs. The boat, and lots of other memorabilia, is on loan to an area historical society. I live four blocks from the Ohio River where my great-grandfather raced. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about the roar of the Liberty, the cheering of the crowds and the legacy he has left the little town he loved so dearly, Rising Sun, Indiana. Just once, I wish I could have seen the big green boat Two Miles Ahead.
(Reprinted with the kind permission of Dana Wolfe Hildebrand and Gloria Wolfe)