Ice boats, an ice auto, and Riverton’s own One-Man Polar Bear Club sure must have made life on the Delaware interesting in February 1920.
Wouldn’t it be something to find that ice auto under a dusty canvas sitting in a garage on the old Hollingshead property on Thomas Avenue? I’d settle for some home movie footage or even a couple of Kodak snapshots.
With these events happening over ninety years ago, can anyone now possibly have first-hand knowledge of either of the unique ice crafts or the extraordinary athlete pictured here in the icy Delaware River?
I say extraordinary because, evidently, this world-class swimmer in our own backyard we may never have heard of still merits occasional citation when great pioneering amateur distance swim champions are discussed.
I have come across photos of Charles Durborow before, but clearly, I did not take him seriously enough. Newspapers often referred to him simply as a bank clerk and showed him posing in frigid water clothed in swim trunks and a top, holding a chunk of river ice.
One source attributed his conditioning to the development of his arms and shoulders from tossing around heavy sacks of coins in his career as a bank clerk. Further, it claimed that Durborow swam over 600 miles a year, every day of the year, even in winter.
To Riverton citizens and the community of water sports enthusiasts, however, he was much more – Riverton Yacht Club Secretary and Treasurer, Riverton Borough Clerk, Penn Athletic Club founding member, First National Bank of Philadelphia employee for 21 years, independent financial broker, amateur distance swimming champion of national and international renown, Beverly Yacht Club member, and Vice-President Middle Atlantic Association of the Amateur Athletic Union.
As Chairman of the RYC Swimming Committee he managed the annual A.A.U. ten-mile long-distance national swimming championship at the Riverton Yacht Club for the years 1918-1922.
He even accompanied Riverton youths as they marked their transition from childhood to young adult by swimming across the Delaware River from the Yacht Club to the Philadelphia side.
He was so frustrated with his failure to complete a crossing of the English Channel in 1912 that he called off a scheduled 34-mile swim from Sandy Hook to Coney Island and said that he “will quit the game for good.”
But he did not quit. The record books bear witness to his incredible swimming stamina and endurance.
Writing in Sporting Life Magazine in 1916, James H. Sterrett called Durborow, “the world’s greatest distance endurance swimmer.” (The private nonprofit LA84 Foundation operates the largest sports research library in North America. Sporting Life is one of many publications archived there.)
Writing again for Spaulding’s Athletic Library 1917 publication, How to Swim, Sterrett characterized the 34-year-old, 210 lb. six-foot Philadelphia bank clerk as, “the foremost, long-distance and greatest mileage swimmer in the world.” See a list of Durborow’s accomplishments on p. 40 of How to Swim.
Searching for information about the marathon swimmer is made more difficult by the various ways writers mangled his last name. Durborrow, Durboro, Durburrow, and even Durbonard are some of the erroneous handles given to him by journalists.
One goal that continued to elude him was to swim the English Channel. A 1919 Rockford, IL Register Gazette newspaper article referred to a 1914 forced postponement of an English Channel swim “on account of the European squabble.” A planned crossing in 1919 was to be Durborow’s second attempt, according to the story, but he did not prove successful as his name is not on the list of swimmers who mastered the Channel.
The Durborow family later moved to Edgewater Park after residing in Riverton from about 1907-1927. Mr. Durborow’s 1938 New York Times obituary explained that he passed away suddenly at age 56. Funeral services were held Riverton’s Christ Episcopal Church.
Long distance open water swimming still draws participants and fans. A Sept. 2013 National Geographic Daily News article, Greatest Swims: Five Epic Swims in the Wake of Nyad’s Feat, reminds us about Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old woman who became the first person ever to swim between Cuba and Florida unassisted by a shark cage. She accomplished the feat in just 52 hours, 54 minutes, and 18 seconds.
In that article, take note of Gertrude Ederle, the American swimming sensation who conquered the English Channel in 1926. Her experiences as a 15-year-old entrant in competitions at Riverton Yacht Club, among other places, helped hone her distance swimming skills.
As always, we welcome comments from anyone who can shed more light on this subject, and are open to suggestions for other overlooked Riverton characters. – John McCormick
2 thoughts on “Riverton’s one-man Polar Bear Club was a world class swimmer”
Excellent and most interesting article! Nicely done!
Fascinating reading! So much history in our little town!