Kayaks are the popular watercraft today, but during World War II Eaton Rapids, in Hamlin Township’s Smithville Dam area, was the site of much speedboat action. The dam is also the site of what was then known as the Miller Power Plant In 1940 a boat club was formed, logically named the Eaton Rapids Boat Club, and almost immediately they had forty members willing to pay the two-dollar annual dues (equal to about $41.76 today) to become part of the organization. Edward Foote was the temporary chairman in organizing the group, according to the Eaton Rapids Journal.
Despite this occurring during World War II, and the need to conserve gasoline, boat clubs were actually encouraged by the federal government to continue doing their exhibitions so as to maintain civilian morale during the war.
The first officers of the club were Jack Thomas, Commodore, Chris Davidson, Assistant Commodore, H.S. Fairbank, the Secretary/Treasurer, and Vic Stuart, the Captain.
The group decided to build a dock on concrete pillars just above the dam on the east side of the pond. They hoped to make the Grand River into a summer resort-type place, a popular boating and fishing spot. The land the dock was built on was Miller Dairy-owned property, and was donated to the club, along with $50 in cash to get them started. The Millers did all they could to help make the boat club a reality, including presenting ice cream desserts to the group at a meeting that were in the shape of sail boats. Miller was awarded the title of “Honorary Commodore” by the club. The Millers also built a road to the dock and supported the plan in every way possible.
A clever group, led by Commodore Thomas, a local barber, decided that they needed to be able to get their boats over the dam. They built an electric winch alongside the north shore that would be strong enough to pull a boat over the dam. The largest boat in the club was 22’ long.
They built a wooded cradle/car that was almost 7’ long and 4’ wide. It ran down a track to the water and slid under the waiting boat to draw it over the dam. The plans for this railway for the boats was devised by Thomas, Edward Foote, Vic Stuart, and Harry Hicks at a cost of $85, with the members doing most of the work, other than the concrete foundation.
Many predicted it wouldn’t work. The first boat over belonged to Harold Reese, who was the manager of a local gas station. His boat went over with no problem at the grand opening ceremonies in September of 1941. The device was dismantled over the winter.
“Completion of the marine railway,” the State Journal wrote, “stretched the club’s boat course to eleven miles.” They hoped to add even more miles to the course in the future by building locks at the city dam, at Dimondale, and by dredging various shallow points in the river for depth. Plans were to build a cement wall along the pond above the dam for a swimming and diving area.
Boat clubs from Lansing, Jackson, Grand Ledge, and Michigan Center participated in the events at Smithville.
In May 1942, 3000 people attended the boat races, parking 750 cars at what was referred to as a “natural amphitheater,” or a “racing bowl” at the Smithville pond and the adjoining property. 40 boats raced in the event sponsored by the Detroit Outboard Racing Association. The course was .8 mile, with speed trials speeds up to 60 mph and the professionals in attendance considered it to be one of the best. This event was a preliminary for a two-day Fourth of July water carnival they were having.
In August of 1942, the club was enlisted by the Eaton County Sheriff to help with a search and recovery along with the Civil Air Patrol. They searched for the body of a man who was test driving a new speed boat and was thrown into the deep water.
In 1947 the club sponsored Speed Boat Races with the West Michigan Racing Association at Smithville. It costs 50 cents to attend the races.
The club must have died out for a while but was resurrected in 1949 with 23 members. In May 1949, a race was held with some of the country’s best professional drivers.
The club did more than just race their boats, however. They met monthly at the Community Hall for potluck suppers and social time. They would often take sunrise boat trips upriver from Smithville to Baldwin Park for a pancake breakfast or picnic dinners. At the time the Admiral of the group was Earl Hosler, and the Vice Admiral was Paul Hall.