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The next time you’re in James Madison Park on a warm summer evening, listen closely for the ghosts of the Tracy Boat Company. Perhaps you’ll hear the rattle of manila halyards on wooden masts, the rumble of a Dodge Watercar at the gas dock, or of boaters telling stories of the day’s adventures on Lake Mendota.

Boating in Madison: The Tracy Boat Company

Before 1940, the Lake Mendota shoreline bordering today’s James Madison Park was the spot where Madison residents connected with Lake Mendota. Beginning in 1858, vessels took everyone from factory workers to President Grover Cleveland on excursions, fishing trips, or to work at various locations on the lake.

In 1905 Bert Ainsworth and Andrew Olson opened the Olsen-Ainsworth Boat Company at 412 North Franklin Street. A Madison native, twenty-five year-old Ainsworth got his start as a boatman about 1891 skippering boats for Captain Frank Barnes on Lake Monona. A few years later he operated his own boat, the Satirio, from a pier at the foot of North Franklin Street. He expanded his business, opening a picnic ground called Waconia on the north shore near Baskerville Park about 1894. The Olsen-Ainsworth Boat Company built and repaired boats and provided transportation on Lake Mendota until 1911. Paul Niebuhr then purchased the business and operated it as the City Boat Company. (1)

The city took the first steps towards creation of a lakefront park when it purchased the Conklin ice house and City Boat Company properties in 1928. (2)

In 1929 the City Council rented the old city boathouse to Don Tracy. Tracy had briefly worked for the Madison Boat Company and was described as “one of Madison’s most experienced outboard pilots” by the Wisconsin State Journal in 1928. He opened his new business in the spring of 1929. Perhaps because the city owned the buildings and grounds, Tracy managed to survive the unfortunate turn of events in October 1929. The following summer, the Tracy Boat Company was a regular advertiser in both Madison papers and had become a dealer for Meraco, Mullins, Dumphy, Isle Le Plume, Century, Thompson and Dodge boats, Evinrude motors, and Pennco gas and oil. (3)

Until the 1940s boats were usually launched at marinas with cranes, derricks or marine railroads. The idea that you could back a trailer into the water and simply float the boat off was still a long way in the future. In 1933, the newly reorganized Mendota Yacht Club (MYC) was selected to host the Inland Lakes Yachting Association (ILYA) championship regatta on Lake Mendota. Out-of-town boats were to be launched with Tracy’s big derrick, then towed to moorings in University Bay. (4) Tracy’s became a favorite with sailors who kept boats on his marine railroad during the summer. MYC hosted the ILYA regatta in 1936, and once again the Tracy Boat Company was the official launching location. Tracy’s business continued to grow. With the Bernard Boat Company just a block to the east, the lakeshore along East Gorham Street was the epicenter of boating in Madison. In the summer months, sailboats were stored on Tracy’s rail system. The MYC started or finished many of its races at the buoy just offshore. While Bernard’s specialized in small boats, Tracy developed the facilities for handling large boats. He had the only derrick on the lake. By 1940, about thirty sail and powerboats, some as large as 30 feet, were stored at the Tracy Boat Company for the winter.

The MYC was selected as the site for the 1940 ILYA regatta. More than 60 boats were expected to participate and the Tracy Boat Company was again to be the launch site. Unfortunately, it was about that time that neighbors began to complain about the facility. Some described the property as an eyesore. Others said it was a mess and had to go. Late in the summer of 1939 it appeared that the city would not renew Tracy’s lease for 1940. Fortunately, in May 1940, the Parks Commission granted Tracy a reprieve. They told Tracy that he had to be out by that September. (5) The regatta could go on as planned.

During the winter of 1940-41, Tracy purchased land in Westport. He erected a 5,600 square foot building for boat storage and repair. His trademark derrick was moved from Franklin Street to the new location where it remained until after Russell Marine sold it to Skipper Bud’s in 1986. On April 9, 1941 the Capital Times announced “the old boat landing and livery passed into history today when workmen began to tear down the city boathouse which in recent years was operated by Don Tracy.” (6)

Though the Tracy Boat Company has faded into Madison history, many older residents remember it as a magical place, their gateway to sailing adventures on Lake Mendota. The big derrick at Skipper Bud’s was taken down years ago, but parts of Tracy’s marine railroad live on today at Burrows Park.

Don Sanford

(1) Bordering, Eric; This Place was once called Eden
(2) Wisconsin State Journal,  4/9/1941
(3) Capital Times, 4/27/1930
(4) Wisconsin State Journal, 8/19/1933
(5) Wisconsin State Journal, 5/14/1940
(6) Capital Times, 4/9/1941