By Lenka Walldroff
Jefferson County Historical Society
Watertown was an affluent city during the late 1800s. Its citizens included wealthy business owners, industrial barons and bankers, granting it the distinction of having the highest number of millionaires per capita in the United States – fertile ground for a private social club. It is during this period that the Black River Valley Club was born.
However, the club was not always known as such. What was originally the Union Club was organized in Watertown in 1876 and incorporated in 1891. The name was changed to the Kamargo Club for a brief time and finally the Black River Valley Club in January 1905. Although few surviving records having to do with the original Union Club exist, given the socio-economic status of Watertown during the 1880s, one cannot help but speculate that Watertown’s Union Club might have in some way been associated with the prestigious Union Club in New York City – the second oldest private club in the United States dating back to 1836.
Among the members of Watertown’s Union Club were some of the city’s most well-known citizens including S.T. Woolworth, Orville Hungerford, Joseph Mullin, W.W. Taggart, George Clark and W.W. Conde. The original club rooms were located at 114 Sterling St. The Union Club moved a number of times before locating suitable downtown quarters on what was then known as 21 Washington St. – the Black River Valley Club’s present location. The limestone house that originally stood there was purchased for $12,000 in 1891 and is thought to have been built as early as 1824.
In 1900, an addition was built onto the rear of the house to accommodate basement-level bowling alleys and a ballroom. The addition was short lived however, as the stone house was demolished approximately five years later to make room for a new building.
In 1904, Kamargo Club members, as they were then called, met to discuss their dissatisfaction with club management and to start their own club – which they named the Black River Valley Club. The new BRVC members negotiated the purchase of the Kamargo Club property and held their first meeting there on Jan. 28, 1905.
While the club was originally closed to women membership, the board of governors in 1907 voted to allow women to become associate members at a cost of $10 per year. Such a decision was a truly progressive one during a time that preceded women’s suffrage by more than a decade. Mary S. Goodale was the first female member. Her membership fees were waived in gratitude for the Westminster clock that she donated to the club, which still stands in the lobby of the building today.
The club routinely engaged in many civic activities, including planting a victory garden during World War I, and suspension of membership dues for active military and for those who worked with the Red Cross during both world wars. The club was well-managed financially but, like many social clubs across the nation, it faced its darkest days when the stock market crashed in October 1929.
During the ensuing Great Depression the club experienced a dramatic loss of membership – a total of 237 people between December 1929 and January 1933. By 1934, the club was operating on a day-to-day basis, never certain if its doors would open the next day.
By 1935, however, the financial situation began to improve, thanks to the able leadership and hard work and generosity of its members. By 1941, only six years later, the club was completely debt free. The war years of 1942 through 1945 saw even greater financial improvement as the club became a favorite venue with the military populations of Madison Barracks and Pine Camp, now Fort Drum.
As was common with many private social clubs, members of the Black River Valley Club enjoyed reciprocal guest privileges with clubs throughout the state. If club members found themselves in Syracuse, Utica, Rochester, Buffalo or Binghamton there were local clubs in those cities that would welcome them and still do today.
The Black River Valley Club has faced numerous challenges and has enjoyed multiple successes through the years. The club remains one of the oldest continuously operating social organizations in the county and one of the few public buildings in Watertown’s downtown district to have survived the destruction of urban renewal.
It is an incredible gem – an active organization that can count among its membership people who we can now only read about in history books. The club was here through the glory of the city’s Gilded Age as well as the depression of its mid-20th century decline. What is most striking, however, is that the club is still available for the use of our citizenry as we look towards the city’s future.