Today’s General Clinton Canoe Regatta is named after a Revolutionary War event over 200 years ago that impacted the Susquehanna Valley. In 1778, the Upstate New York frontier was a place of many small skirmishes between Colonists and Native Americans who sided with the British. One of the worst was the Cherry Valley Massacre in the Mohawk Valley, where frontier homesteaders were victims of a surprise attack, and 30 people, mostly women and children, were killed. General George Washington the following year launched the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign to respond to these raids and totally cleanse the area of Native Americans, specifically the Iroquois. The interesting part of the campaign was how the Susquehanna River was managed for travel.
In August of 1779, a wooden dam was constructed at the head of Otsego Lake. One thousand soldiers had made their way from Canajoharie in the Mohawk Valley to the foot of the lake overland, under the direction of General James Clinton. The group constructed 220 bateaus (flat bottom boats) to move their supplies 160 miles down river to meet up with General Sullivan in Broome County. The plan was to dam the lake, allow the lake level to rise, and then break the dam to allow a good flow of water down the Susquehanna so the boats would be able to float more easily. The dam system proved successful, and the two parts of the campaign met up in Union, NY near Binghamton, a few weeks later. Along the way, the soldiers burned many Native American settlements, including some villages on an island south of Afton. The campaign destroyed the morale of the Iroquois, and the action was considered successful.
The General Clinton Canoe Regatta commemorates this 1779 trip down the Susquehanna and has become one of the premiere canoeing events in the northeast. It draws some of the most competitive professional and amateur canoeists for the signature part of the weekend, the 70-miler, which takes place on Memorial Day. Hundreds of canoeists start the race at Otsego Lake in Cooperstown and paddle 70 miles down river to the General Clinton Park in Bainbridge. They navigate the winding river, past rocks and tree branches, strategizing to choose channels to allow for the best run that day. Supporters line the bridges along the way to cheer on the racers and pit crews jump into the water at key spots to supply food and drink to canoeing teams, all in a festive, fun atmosphere.
The first Regatta was much less exciting than it is now – it began humbly in 1963, when two canoes piloted the 70 mile trek from Cooperstown to a landing place along the river in Bainbridge. The paddlers labored more than 18 hours in their attempt, but the General Clinton Canoe Regatta was born. Until 1972, the Regatta ended on Dix’s Flats by the river bridge in Bainbridge and then moved to what is now the Canoe Regatta grounds the next year.
Competitors enjoy canoe races all weekend, with the generation gap race on Friday night, Scout races on Saturday, and 8 –person relay races on Sunday. Fireworks, carnival rides, flea markets and craft sales make the weekend a draw for non-canoeists as well. The grounds bulge at the seams to accommodate 10,000 visitors throughout the weekend. The event is organized by the Bainbridge Chamber of Commerce, with volunteers from throughout the nearby communities. For more information, go to http://www.canoeregatta.org/.