Row Ontario Retrospective: Before the Ontario Rowing Association
In honour of our 50th anniversary we are putting together a seven-part retrospective series on the history of Row Ontario and the Ontario rowing community. This series is a celebration of all the volunteers, coaches, umpires, athletes, parents, regatta organizers and many more who have worked so hard over the years to build the sport of rowing in our province.
This is Part I of the retrospective series, ‘Before the Ontario Rowing Association.’
Check out the Row Ontario 50th Anniversary page on our website for more information on our 50th anniversary.
While the exact timeline isn’t known, the history of rowing is believed to date back to the 18th or 19th century B.C. Long before it was a sport, rowing began as a means of transportation in both commerce and war. Many rowing vessels were used to transport goods or to move troops along waterways in civilizations in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome and Northern Europe. In naval warfare, large rowing vessels called ‘galleys’ were used as an alternative to sailing ships, as they were easier to maneuver, capable of short bursts of speed and could move independently of the wind. The biggest ships were propelled by anywhere between 300-600 oars, but more practical ships typically had between 30-50 oars in the water.
Over centuries, the popularity of using galleys gradually declined, but they were still in use by some societies as late as the mid-1800’s. Around the same time, the ‘sport’ of rowing was being introduced to communities across Ontario. The history of rowing as a sport dates back to the early 1600’s when regattas started to be contested between experienced rowers on the River Thames in London, U.K. As more British nationals began migrating to Canada, then called British North America, they brought with them their passion and knowledge of the sport of rowing. Participants began rowing competitively and recreationally in Canada, including Ontario, sometime around 1840.
As one of the oldest sports in the world, rowing was around long before anyone laced up a pair of skates, swung a baseball bat, or shot a basketball into a peach basket. Its popularity in Ontario gradually caught on, and by the late 1800’s rowing clubs had been formed in Ottawa, Toronto, Brockville and other centres, largely for the members of the business class to engage in healthy amateur sport and to further develop social bonds. Just like present day, many of the early participants rowed purely for recreation, while others had a more competitive focus.
One of the early stars of the sport, and one of Canada’s earliest sporting heroes, was Toronto’s Ned Hanlan. As legend has it, Hanlan was rowing in a boat before he could walk. While growing up on Toronto Island, Hanlan would row to and from the mainland every day for school, and in the process mastered the modern rowing technique on the waters of Lake Ontario. His big breakthrough came in 1873 when at the age of 18 he won the amateur sculling championship on Toronto Bay, defeating many of the prominent scullers of the time. He steadily progressed to the highest levels of the sport at the time, winning the Philadelphia Centennial Regatta in 1876, the U.S. Championships in 1878 and the England Rowing Championships in 1879. In 1880, Hanlan became Canada’s first ever World Champion in any sport when he won the Rowing World Championships, which were also held in England. He would go on to win over 300 matched races in his career, losing only six, and was a household name in major international cities with a strong rowing presence such as Paris, London, Rome, New York and Boston.
Due to the growing popularity of the sport, perhaps due in large part to the exploits of Hanlan, the Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsmen (CAAO) was formed in 1880 by rowing clubs already in existence. The goal of the organization was to coordinate and regulate the sport of amateur rowing in Canada. The forming of the CAAO was one of the first examples of the sport of rowing making an effort to legitimize itself by becoming more formally organized. This development led to the implementation of a more standard set of rules and the opportunity to host a formal national championship regatta to determine the top rowers in the country.
At that time, the CAAO’s national championship was called the ‘Annual Regatta.’ From 1880 to the early 1900’s, the event was hosted in various Ontario cities including Toronto, Hamilton, Barrie, and Brockville as well as Lachine, Quebec. However, issues with currents, winds and waves plagued the event in multiple cities, leading to postponements, cancellations and general headaches for regatta organizers. The persistent issues led the CAAO to seek out a more permanent location that could offer stability and reliability to their flagship event. A member of the CAAO Board of Directors suggested looking at the Old Welland Canal as an option, and once they did their research, they became enthralled with the enclosed waterway and glass-like water conditions. The desire to host the event in this region led to the formation of the St. Catharines Rowing and Canoe Club in April of 1903, as a host club was a requirement of running the regatta. The name ‘Annual Regatta’ was dropped and on August 7, 1903, the first edition of the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta was hosted in St. Catharines.
With the addition of the St. Catharines Rowing and Canoe Club, Ontario now had rowing clubs in several different regions of the province. The Ottawa Rowing Club and the Brockville Rowing Club were operating in Eastern Ontario, Toronto had several clubs including the Argonaut Rowing Club and the Don Rowing Club, and at least four clubs were operating out of London at the time, including the London Rowing Club. The Rat Portage Rowing Club, later changed to the Kenora Rowing Club, was formed in 1894 and was joined in Northwestern Ontario by the Fort William Rowing Club, later changed to the Thunder Bay Rowing Club, in 1904. A number of clubs in Hamilton had been in and out of operation since the mid-1870’s, until the Hamilton rowing scene was stabilized by the formation of the Leander Boat Club in 1927. The Walkerville Boat Club also operated out of Windsor throughout the 1910’s and 1920’s before ceasing operations at some point under unknown circumstances.
Throughout the first half of the 1900’s, the Argonaut Rowing Club was the most dominant club in Ontario rowing circles. Argonaut crews represented Canada at five of six Olympic Games from 1904-28, winning six Olympic medals (1 silver, 5 bronze) and were regularly the top performing Canadian club at the Henley Regatta. While other clubs may have been slotted behind the Argos in terms of overall success, there were still many outstanding rowers being developed at different clubs during this era. Lou Scholes of the Don Rowing Club was a 1908 Olympian who also became the first Canadian to claim the Diamond Sculls Championship at the Royal Henley Regatta in London, UK, setting a course record in the process. Members from the Ottawa Rowing Club were North American champions every year from 1906-11 and their fellow Eastern Ontario compatriots at the Brockville Rowing Club were starting to develop a reputation as a small club who could hold their own against the biggest clubs in the province. In the 1930’s, the Leander Boat Club also began to emerge as one of the top clubs in Ontario, sending crews to represent Canada at four consecutive Olympic Games from 1932-52. After spending many years as a predominantly recreational club, the St. Catharines Rowing Club also began to become a rowing powerhouse in the 1940’s, routinely bringing home several victories each year at Henley by the end of the decade.
The Argonaut Rowing Club was no longer the unquestioned top club in Ontario, and in 1947 a fire that destroyed the clubhouse and dock severely impacted the club’s success for several years as membership numbers declined and their club infrastructure suffered. The Argos were not alone in their tough times during the first half of the century however, as many clubs suffered similar issues with fires and weather damage that hurt club infrastructure. Others had to deal with waning membership numbers as other activities became more popular and world events were brought into focus close to home. Both World War I and World II greatly impacted club membership as many current members were sent to fight overseas, causing some clubs to suspend their operations during the war years. The Great Depression also brought financial challenges to every club, as many members could no longer pay club dues and general maintenance and repairs to equipment, docks and the club house were not affordable. Some clubs ceased operations and never resumed, while others gutted through the tough times all the while being in serious jeopardy of going bankrupt.
As Canadian troops filtered back to Canada upon the close of World War II, relative economic stability returned to Ontario. More disposable income in the boom times of the 1950’s meant Ontario residents could spend more on recreational activities like rowing, which helped stabilize the existing clubs. Following the end of the war, Ontario clubs also started to organize themselves with the creation of regional associations throughout the province that each club would belong to. Over a period of years, the Central Ontario Rowing Association (CORA), the Eastern Rowing Association (ERA), and the North-Western Rowing Association (NWRA) were all formed and rowing clubs in those regions became official members of their new associations. Each association began hosting regional championships each year which created more racing opportunities and inter-club competitions in the province. With the creation of the regional associations, influence in the sport of rowing in Ontario changed. Rowing in Ontario now essentially fell under the jurisdictional control of the three main bodies. Of the three, CORA was the largest in terms of member clubs and was considered the most influential and powerful in the province.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s, rowing programs across the country became stronger, particularly in B.C., and Ontario rowers began to face more and more competition for spots in elite level events such as the World Championships and Olympic Games. At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, 13 of the 15 members of the rowing team were from Ontario, including members of the Leander Boat Club from the double and the four, and with the entirety of the men’s eight coming from the Argonaut Rowing Club. However, an Ontario rower wouldn’t appear at the Olympics again until 1960, as the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Team was comprised entirely of rowers from the University of British Columbia. In 1960 in Rome, four rowers from the St. Catharines Rowing Club competed in the men’s coxless four, while the other ten Olympic team spots were again filled by UBC rowers.
Toronto’s Roger Jackson made history though at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, by becoming the first Ontario athlete to win a gold medal in rowing. He did so with partner George Hungerford of UBC in the men’s double, despite the fact they had never been in a boat together until a few weeks before the Games. Jackson would go on to compete in the single sculls at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and would be joined on the team by the men’s eight from the St. Catharines Rowing Club, one of the final rowing crews to be fully comprised of athletes from a single club.
Around the same time, on the domestic front Canada as a nation was in the midst of an identity crisis as it approached its centennial year in 1967. The ever-expanding reach and influence of the U.S. was prevalent in every Canadian home and as a member of the British Commonwealth, the influence Great Britain continued to have on Canadians was still apparent. The question of ‘Who are we as Canadians?’ was a growing concern as government officials sought to leverage the 100th anniversary of the country into creating a true Canadian identity and a sense of pride in being Canadian. Between 1967-76, the Canadian government undertook a massive, nationwide initiative to differentiate Canada from Mother Europe and our neighbours to the south, by enacting far-reaching policies and funding initiatives thought to have the potential to create a sense of national pride.
With this goal in mind, governments at the federal and provincial levels began to invest more heavily into sports. The success of Canadian athletes at the highest levels of their respective sports was seen as a way to further a sense of national pride. One of these initiatives, which would have a long lasting and still present impact on the Canadian sporting landscape, was the creation of the Canada Games. The first Canada Summer Games took place in Halifax and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 1969, which followed the inaugural Canada Winter Games in Quebec City in 1967. Rowing was one of the inaugural sports contested at the first Canada Summer Games and has been featured in every programme since. Ontario won the Canada Games flag in that inaugural event, thanks in part to the performance of the Team Ontario rowing team.
Another big development in the Ontario rowing world during this time was the hosting of the first Ontario Rowing Championships in 1969. The regatta was hosted in St. Catharines under the chairmanship of Max McDonald, who was the Secretary-Treasurer and later President of CORA during this time. As CORA was the largest rowing body in Ontario, McDonald had been appointed the Provincial Rowing Representative to serve as the main contact between the provincial government and the sport of rowing. The first Ontario Rowing Championships received funding from the Ontario government, which aided in event operations as well as travel expenses for clubs to attend. Although the first edition of the annual regatta was seen as a success, issues persisted with a regional association being the most influential and powerful in a much larger province. The Ontario government strongly encouraged the regional associations to come together and form one governing body to administer the sport of rowing in all of Ontario; one that was capable of looking out for the best interests of the sport in all regions and for all clubs and participants across the province.
The Canadian sporting landscape was going through a period of change. And the sport of rowing in Ontario was going to change along with it.
Find out more about Row Ontario’s 50th anniversary at www.rowontario.ca/ro50.
Thank you to Max McDonald, Stan Lapinski and Dave Derry for their contributions to this story.
Ned Hanlan Photos – biographi.ca
1880 Annual Regatta – Stan Lapinski, goldmedalphotos.ca
1952 Argonaut 8 – Argonaut Rowing Club
George Hungerford and Roger Jackson – Canadian Olympic Committee
1969 Canada Summer Games – Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame