In 1892, Chicago was rebuilding from its disastrous fire, the world was wildly anticipating the Columbian Exposition, Daniel Burnham was advising city leaders to make no little plans, and a group of yachting enthusiasts organized what became formally known as Columbia Yacht Club.
Within months, those founding members built their first clubhouse, a one-room shed built atop an 18 by 35-foot barge. More importantly, they set a tone of camaraderie and the foundation for a lively calendar of social activities, racing, and cruising for members. Over the next few years, Columbia Yacht Club became so popular that membership outgrew this first facility. By 1898, the Club moved into a second barge measuring 2,700 square feet. With a larger structure, complete with veranda, full galley, and bar, the membership feted notable guests such as Sir Thomas Lipton.
It wasn't long before Columbia needed to increase its square footage a second time. In 1902, funds were raised to construct an elaborate, floating two-story structure, complete with a ballroom to accommodate lavish feasts and parties where members danced to the accompaniment of full orchestras. Season after season, members enjoyed racing, cruising, and celebrations until 1914 and the onset of World War I. The Club, like the rest of the country, fell on hard times; loyal members left Chicago to join the fight. Sadly, through lack of use and loss of membership, the physical club house was lost.
Despite this misfortune, Columbia Yacht Club members continued to gather together. They chose the Aviator's Club on North Clark Street, where they hosted social events and made plans for a new Club Ship. Ultimately, the membership purchased the Pere Marquette, a 193-foot wood and iron-plated steamboat.
The first on-board gathering was held May 13, 1925 and, in short order, Columbia regained its reputation as the club for serious sailors who were also serious about having fun. By the time Chicago hosted the World's Fair, "A Century of Progress," in 1933, Columbia was billed as "the most unique meeting place for tired and hungry yachtsmen."
The Pere Marquette proved a worthy and accommodating home for Columbia until January 1937, when she was towed six miles into Lake Michigan and sunk under a barrage of Coast Guard shell fire. To replace the old girl, members purchased a 213-foot, former side-wheel excursion steamer, the S.S Florida, and upgraded her to house the Club and its many popular parties and events.
As the nation recovered from the Great Depression through the 1930s, a full calendar of on and off the water events entertained members and their guests. In fact, many of the parties that first began during this period continue as annual events today: Columbia's first Christmas party was held in 1939 and the Beachcomber Ball of the late 1940s has evolved into a series of summer dock parties today.
In May of 1955, a galley fire ignited and rapidly spread through the Florida, causing her to sink at the dock. A date that should have held special honor as the anniversary of the Pere Marquette opening to members, Friday, May 13 suddenly became a fateful date of disaster. But with the same spirit that members had shown after the Great War, members rallied and raised the Florida, restoring her for another nearly 30 years of service.
By 1982, the 100-year old S.S. Florida could no longer house the ever-growing membership and its popular parties. The Flag officers, Board and membership purchased an even larger Club Ship, a 372-foot former ice-cutting Canadian ferry, the Q.S.M.V. Abegweit. After several months of renovation by member volunteers, the Abby began welcoming members and their guests in the summer of 1983.
Since then the Abby has provided a fine home for those who, not unlike those first members in 1892, share a passion for sailing and camaraderie. After more than 120 years, Columbia Yacht Club retains the vital and energetic spirit that began with that small group of sailors envisioning a yacht club on a tiny scow.