Getting to Know the Don Rowing Club
To honour the history, dedication and current initiatives of each rowing community, Row Ontario will be producing a series of profiles on member clubs across Ontario. Today we get to know more about the Don Rowing Club!
Don Rowing Club
Location: West Bank of the Credit River – Mississauga, Ont.
That’s how long the Don Rowing Club has been in operation. The club is almost as old as the country of Canada itself and throughout its history it’s gone through floods, fires, pollution, city politics, location changes, financial hardships, and everything else the rowing world has thrown at them. Through it all they’ve remained a steady presence in the Ontario rowing community and they’ve continued to run quality programs which produce quality athletes and quality people.
The Don Rowing Club was established by the Christie Brothers and three other rowing enthusiasts (Andrew MacFarlane, T. Hogarth and J. Swanson) in 1878. The brothers owned a vacant house on what was then known as Vine Street in Toronto, which bordered the Don River. At the time of its creation, the club was used exclusively as a way for friends to meet and row together for recreation and as a place to store equipment. But the popularity of rowing in Toronto was growing at this time and many smaller clubs began popping up all over the city. Don’s attracted more interested rowers and within a few years of opening the club had to expand their operations to accommodate more club members. A new boathouse was erected on Eastern Avenue but was short-lived due to a flood in the Don River that destroyed it in 1880. Another new boathouse was built, this time near the Queen St. bridge, marking the third location for the club in its first several years of existence.
The ability to persevere, no matter the circumstances, would become a hall mark of the Don Rowing Club through their early existence. Despite the changing venues and turbulent times, Don’s rowers were competitive with other clubs right from the start. Their first national championship was won by C. Enright and W. O’Connor, who placed first in the double at the Canadian Amateur Association of Oarsmen regatta in 1884. By the turn of the century, the Don Rowing Club had won many national titles and were particularly strong in the junior double, winning several years in a row in the late 1800’s. However, as the club was experiencing success on the water, they were again undergoing change off the water. A recurring theme of re-locating and starting over would become commonplace for the club throughout the first half of the 1900’s.
Because of work done by the city on the Don River, which cut off its flow and left them without access to the water from their current location, the club was forced to move into a temporary club house on an area of land that is now Cherry Street and known then as Fisherman’s Island. By 1912, the Don’s had moved to another new location, this time moving East and away from the Don River, setting up shop on Ashbridge’s Bay. A year later, the club was set to host the Dominion Day Regatta for the first time, but disaster struck the day before when a fire destroyed the boat house, cancelling the event. Despite the setback, the boat house was rebuilt, and the club flourished with both social and rowing events in their downtown waterfront location but unfortunately this boom period was short-lived.
Due to a rapidly growing city, many changes were taking place along the Toronto waterfront, which negatively impacted Don’s members ability to row. Pollution from newly created industry was rampant in the Don’s waters and the diverting of the river and various land fill projects made the water in the Bay no more than a few inches deep in some spots. Members were forced to row in an unused shipping channel while the club searched for a new location. The poor conditions led to an inability to attract new members and although loyal club members kept them afloat, the Don Rowing Club was in serious jeopardy of disappearing without drastic changes. Another fire in 1932 put an end to the Ashbridge’s Bay location and the club found themselves homeless. The construction of a magnificent new boat house just East of Ashbridge’s Bay which was known as Coatsworth Cut briefly started but was abandoned when a proposed sea wall was turned down by the city. Following yet another setback, the club decided to pick up and move West and found a new location at the bottom of Bathurst St.
Bob Dibble was the President of Don’s during this time and helped navigate the club through a seemingly endless amount of non-rowing related issues. Although they were finally set up in a new location, the club was essentially broke. They had lost a lot money on the Coatsworth Cut plan, owed money in unpaid taxes on several properties, and were in the midst of Great Depression, which limited the club’s ability to bring in some much-needed revenues. Through all this, Dibble was able to work out several deals with the city and the Harbour Commission which gave the club some financial stability and a new club house on the Bathurst site was built in 1938 for $7,000. Even in the middle of all the turmoil, the club experienced some success on the water, winning the 1937 men’s junior eight at Henley and the Intermediate US Nationals, which helped revive some interest in the club as the achievements of the eight was heavily reported in the Toronto newspapers.
However, the 1940’s brought on new challenges that the club would need to overcome. The start of World War II meant that many members were sent overseas to fight for their country and membership numbers dwindled. Then in May of 1940, a devastating storm destroyed the new club house and left Don members with only two shells to row. Repairs would be expensive, and at the time the club could not afford to purchase new boats. They were in trouble of going under when they received some unexpected help from their Toronto counterparts, the Argonaut Rowing Club. The Argos generously offered Don members the use of their boats and clubhouse and also initiated a campaign to raise $2500 for the Don Rowing Club restoration. The efforts helped the club survive for another year but in 1941 the club was forced to sublet their land and ceased operations until the end of the war. They simply didn’t have the membership numbers or the funds to continue and the future of the club was in serious doubt.
It took six years for the club to reappear, but in a showing its trademark resiliency, the Don Rowing Club opened back up for business in 1947. Fundraising efforts allowed them to purchase three eights, a quad and two doubles and within a few years of reopening the club was once again becoming a force to be reckoned with. By 1951, they had picked up victories in regattas in Hamilton, Toronto, Lachine, Detroit, and Washington and won six times at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. Club member Jack Guest Jr. was establishing himself as one of the top rowers in the world and it looked like the club had finally found some strong footing and their past adversities were in the rear-view mirror. That was until the Toronto Harbour Commission began making more changes to the waterfront that again significantly impacted the Don’s members ability to row. After strenuously objecting to the changes, the club eventually negotiated a $25,000 settlement with the Harbour Commission that would allow them to find a new home and construct a new building. So, in 1960, after 82 years of history in many different locations in the city of Toronto, the Don Rowing Club picked up and moved west to neighbourhood of Port Credit in Mississauga, where they still reside today.
“Our location is 21 Front Street North in Mississauga, right on the west bank of the Credit River, just north of the Lakeshore,” said current club President Lynda Dundas. “We have a 2km stretch of water from the Lakeshore bridge and up to the QEW in kind of a lazy S shape. We share the waterway with the Mississauga canoe club and the water is always good, we’re rarely pushed off the water because of weather. It’s really only thunderstorms and high fast water after a big storm that keep us from rowing.”
The club put down roots in the Mississauga community the 1960’s and 1970’s and grew their membership base, which was essential for the viability and long-term stability of the club. They also started to experience success at different levels of the sport, particularly in their junior program which delivered victories at Henley and the CSSRA championships throughout their first decade in their new location. Having a stable home also paid dividends that were evident in the next generation of rowers coming from the area, as they began to produce a number of elite level rowers who made their name on the world stage.
Like many clubs, Don’s introduced women’s programming in the 1970’s and saw a number of successful rowers come through their programs. Three-time Olympic medalist Silken Laumann, one of the top Canadian rowers of all time, got her start at the club, as did 1988 Olympian Heather Hattin and two-time World Championship medalist Michelle Darvill. On the men’s side, John Wallace and Robert Marland, who were both members of the 1992 Olympic gold medal winning eight, spent time training at Don’s. They’ve had a number of other National Team members over the years and have remained one of Ontario’s top performing clubs over the last 50 years.
Presently, Don’s is a full-service club with approximately 230 members in a typical year. They run programming for all segments of the rowing community while focusing on introducing the sport of rowing to youths in the area.
“We run a lot of programs and we try to be community oriented,” said Dundas. “We have competitive masters, senior, U23 and junior programs which we run every year. Our junior program in particular is quite big and has been a big success for the club. We also have a big recreational program and we run learn to row camps for youths starting at age 12 and up. Our youngest club member is 14 and our oldest is 82 so we try to make sure there is something for everyone.”
Over the years, the club has hosted a number of regattas from their current location, including the Tony Fooks Regatta, which was re-named for Dr. Tony Fooks, a Don’s club member who passed away after being one of the stalwarts in running the regatta for many years. They’ve also hosted many events off the water, including coaching workshops, the CORA AGM, the Ontario Adventure Rowing AGM, the Row Ontario Training Conference and a 140th anniversary party in 2018 which brought back many Don’s alumni and was a great celebration for all that the club has accomplished since their humble beginnings.
With plans to expand their programming into coastal rowing in the future, the Don Rowing Club has its sights set on continued growth as continued success as one of the leading clubs in the Ontario rowing community.
Thank you to Lynda Dundas for her generous contributions and help in completing this profile. Photos used are property of the Don Rowing Club.