John W. "Jack" Baxter, 86, a fixture on the Georgetown waterfront for more than 50 years who rented rowboats and canoes from Jack's Boathouse, died of heart disease Aug. 5 at Suburban Hospital.
Mr. Baxter had been a D.C. policeman for 11 years in 1945 when he decided to go into the boating business. His primary beat was Georgetown below M Street, and he kept a canoe hidden along the riverfront. As a boy he had worked at Capt. Julius Wanner's boathouse, and he knew his way around the neighborhood.
"I liked being on the waterfront. I'd started building boats down here, and the boat business began making so much money that I couldn't see staying on the police force," he told The Washington Post in 1995, 50 years after he established Jack's Boathouse.
With six rowboats that he built himself, Mr. Baxter opened for business, just as World War II in Europe was drawing to a close. The charge was $2 a day. A half century later the rowboat fleet would be augmented by more than two dozen canoes and several motor craft, and the fees would rise to $10 an hour or $25 a day.
Every spring, summer and fall day since 1945, Mr. Baxter rented out his boats to the rich and famous, the ordinary and unknown. During the Kennedy administration, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her children, John Jr. and Caroline, took a Potomac River ride in one of Mr. Baxter's rowboats, his eldest son, Bill, manning the oars. A contingent of Secret Service agents followed in another boat.
In the early years of his operation, young women from the Navy WAVES quarters at Nebraska and Massachusetts avenues NW came by regularly, and Mr. Baxter always allowed them free use of his canoes. "If you rent one canoe to two girls, you rent four canoes to men who want to chase them down the river," he said.
Until the early 1970s, he rented out every boat he had on the summer nights when concerts were held on the Watergate steps, west of the Lincoln Memorial. But the increase in jet aircraft traffic in and out of National Airport made it increasingly difficult to hear the music, and the concerts were eventually discontinued. "Since then I only have Saturday and Sunday when I have sellouts," Mr. Baxter said in 1995.
As distinguished from its waterfront neighbors, the Potomac Boat Club, Thompson's and Fletcher's boathouses, Jack's Boathouse was described by Don Oldenburger in The Post as "Runyonesque. A floating opera where K Street dead-ends below Georgetown . . . an oasis of characters and vernacular of a bygone era, an offhand way of life out of step with the surroundings." People were always stopping by just to sit and watch the river flow. "We can do nothing here if we feel like it," Mr. Baxter once said.
He never took too seriously the warnings about dangerous levels of pollution in the Potomac. "If I had a bottle of whiskey and I wanted a drink, I would use river water with it. I've been doing it for years and years," he said.
Sometime during the 1950s, he built himself a one-room shanty that would become the boathouse office. A friend painted a sign that featured the old aqueduct bridge that until 1923 stood where the Key Bridge now stands. Periodically, spring floods would force him to evacuate.
"We see it comin'. It doesn't happen all of a sudden," Mr. Baxter said. "We move what we can up on the hill. . . . We hose down what we can't take out . . . nature's way of forcing us to clean up. To me it's routine."
Every year since he opened for business, there came a day in November when Mr. Baxter sat down at the throttle of his outboard motor craft and pushed his wooden-planked, barrel-floated dock down the river from Georgetown to a lagoon near the Pentagon. There, safe from winter storms and ice, it would remain until spring when he would bring it back to the Georgetown waterfront, ready for another season.
Canoes and rowboats would be hauled ashore for the winter and equipment secured. But even though no boats would be rented out, Mr. Baxter showed up regularly at the boathouse. "I come down here every day. Sittin' and doing nothing," he said.
A resident of Rockville, Mr. Baxter was born in Washington and had lived in this area all his life. As a young man, he was a boxer before he joined the police department.
Survivors include his wife, Norma Lee Baxter, and three sons, William, Frank and James Baxter, all of Rockville; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.