History of Rowing at Dominion Day Regatta

by Richard MacFarlane, Hanlan Boat Club
The history of the Dominion Day Regatta Association (DDRA) is a story about a unique and special multi-sport regatta, established on July 1, 1884, now celebrating its 130th anniversary. Every July 1st, on what was called Toronto Bay, this regatta took place, initially, from 1884 to 1893, on the city side along the waterfront. Then in 1894, the event moved to the Toronto Islands.


Why did the regatta move? The DDRA wanted to distinguish itself from the numerous single sport summer regattas being held during the 1880s and 1890s. Toronto was known for sailing, rowing, and canoeing regattas. The lakefront was an exciting place for spectators who enjoyed all of these water sports. But the one sport which held centre stage in the Victorian era was rowing. And the sportsman who provided the focus and drama for a decade was the great sculler, Edward ‘Ned’ Hanlan.


From the 1880s, Hanlan was the inspiration for rowing clubs and regattas to flourish. On November 15, 1880, Ned Hanlan became world champion by defeating Edward Trickett of Australia, on the Thames River in England. Toronto worshiped his success with a huge boat procession along the lakefront and a torchlight parade, with presentations and speeches. Hanlan was the superstar, Canada’s first international sports hero, and Toronto’s hero, just 13 years after Confederation. Sports cards, oil paintings, watercolours, glass tankards, even three piano concerts, including one entitled “The Magic Boatman”, were created and composed especially for ‘The Mighty Ned”. Stock markets stopped, Parliament stopped, even the United States Congress adjourned, just to see Ned Hanlan compete. As the great Canadian novelist, playwright, and television personality, Morley Callaghan wrote, in Toronto’s 125th anniversary publication, 1959, “From then on, for years, the greatest American oarsmen came to the [Toronto] Island regattas. Big league rowing! Big league champions! They kept coming on.”


Canadian painters drew Hanlan and the Toronto celebrations in all their glory. Following the thousands of spectators who took the train from Toronto to Barrie, Ontario, Canadian artist Florence M. Rogers did a watercolour of Hanlan’s victory race against nine world-class scullers on Kempenfelt Bay, August 12, 1878. The well known Canadian landscape painter, Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, produced a watercolour of the Hanlan-Plaisted sculling race on Toronto Bay in 1878. He illustrated the colourful flotilla of boats cheering Hanlan on the Bay, after his defeat of William Elliott for the Championship of England in 1879. So did another Canadian artist, William Armstrong, in his watercolour entitled, “The Champion Sculler’s Return from England, Toronto, July 15, 1879”. A bulletin read: “The steamers Filgate, Maxwell, Empress of India and St. Jean Baptiste were chartered to leave their respective wharves at 3:30 p.m., on the 15th to meet the Chicora with Edward Hanlan and his party on board. The ‘Champion’ arrived in due course and the reception accorded him was in accordance with the programme and as hearty and enthusiastic as the most exacting soul or ambitious spirit might desire.”


Ned Hanlan, Canadian Illustrated News, July 26, 1879


The internationally recognized New York print making firm, Currier & Ives, depicted Hanlan and his famous American arch rival, Charles Courtney, at the great sculler’s race on the St. Lawrence River in 1878. W. J. and C. M. Baxter of Syracuse, New York produced a hand coloured lithograph of Hanlan and Courtney, sculling in 1879 in Toronto. One of the greatest monuments of all for Toronto is the Emanuel Hahn bronze sculpture of Hanlan, unveiled at the CNE grounds in September 1926, and as of June 2004, at Hanlan’s Point, Toronto Islands.


The DDRA, realizing the star power of Hanlan, moved the regatta to the Toronto Islands in 1894. On what is now Billy Bishop Airport, and the course was called, “Hanlan Memorial Course”. The Toronto Islands had the Victorian glamour, the spectacular hotels, the boathouses, the architecture, the bath houses, the gardens, and all of the trappings of high society – clean air, and island restfulness.


It made sense to move to where the action was. Centre Island and Hanlan’s Point were proclaimed in superlatives by the local press and advertisers who promoted continuously the health benefits of vacationing in one of several hotel resorts and enjoying the baths and fresh air. A notice in 1885 boasted that Hanlan’s Point was “the finest health resort of the city, brilliantly lighted by the electric light every night, supplied by a special ‘doty’ steam engine, and the ‘ball’ arc system of lighting.” The Hotel Hanlan, first class in every respect, it was claimed, had 50 bath houses and it was built at a cost of $25,000. It contained all of Edward Hanlan’s trophies, colours, etc., and there were ice cream parlors, restaurant and coffee rooms. John Hanlan’s music and dancing hall had billiard and pool tables, a shooting gallery, boats for hire, and fishing tackle. Among other amenities, Mrs. Durnan’s restaurant had hot water supplied for picnic parties.


Toronto rowing events were frequently reported in local newspapers such as this lively description of a regatta in August 1839:


“The inhabitants of Toronto were entertained with an exhibition at all times gratifying to the lovers of the Sports & Pastimes of Old England – we allude to the Regatta, and we believe we may safely say that it has never before been the luck of our citizens to witness in Toronto so enlivening a sight as that which our Bay on that day afforded. The number of boats with their gay and varied colours, the life, spirit and nautical dress of the rowers, the white sails of the few light barks skipping about among the boats propelled by the strength and sinew of the arm – the music, the bright sunshine of the first of August, the Steamboat Queen decked in holiday attire, loaded with the fair forms and bright eyes of those who add a beauty and shed a lustre upon everything, rendered, as we said, our Bay a scene of gaiety and splendour such as it certainly has never exhibited since its shores were rescued from the gloom and shadow of a Canadian Forest.”


Toronto hosted numerous rowing regattas before the DDRA was established. In 1873, for instance, the New Dominion Rowing Club held a “Grand International Regatta” on Saturday June 28th. Scullers, 1st Class, could earn $175 for a first prize in a two-mile race. Competitors came from Pittsburgh and Buffalo and there were leading Toronto oarsman, John Louden and Richard Tinning, Jr., among others. Rowing shells were christened as Skylark, Lady Jane, Storm, Deerhound, and Water Witch. A Buffalo RC boat was called “Nameless”. Victory in a wash tub race of 100 yards earned you $10.


Regattas were very popular. From a city population of only 86,000 during the 1880s, a rowing event would have up to 10,000 people crowding along the waterfront and on the Toronto Islands, filling tug boats, steamers, sailboats and water craft of every description, straining to watch the exciting sailing, canoeing, and sculling races. The water was jammed with so many boats, you could almost walk from one to another without getting your feet wet. Steam whistles, horns blowing, bands playing, and delirious people yelling made for a loud mix of sounds floating across the lake. Boating parties were frequent, with champagne toasts to the victors. Heavy wagering on the outcome of rowing matches meant line-ups at banks of up to two blocks. Thousands of dollars were gambled by citizens of both high and low income on a single sculling race.


One of the first signature rowing regattas was the inaugural Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsman (CAAO) regatta, held on August 4-5, 1880 on Toronto Bay. In addition to the local Argonaut, Bayside, Toronto, and Nautilus rowing clubs, competitors came from Hamilton, Peterborough, London and Chatham, Ontario, Union Springs and Buffalo, New York, Detroit, Ottawa, Montreal, and Lachine, Quebec.


One of its sponsors was the Queen’s Hotel, on Front Street, which would have been right on the waterfront. The Queen’s Hotel, forerunner to the Fairmont-Royal York Hotel today, was symbolic of the wealthy and connected. It sponsored “The Queen’s Hotel Cup for Pair Oar and Shell” for the men’s pair event. And who sponsored two silver trophies at this regatta? None other than the professional sculler, Edward Hanlan. And who rowed up and down the rowing course, in between every rowing race?


Edward Hanlan. He was the drawing card for thousands of spectators who crowded along the wharves and also on the islands to watch, not to mention the dozens of water craft of every description crowding each side of the rowing course, laden with the rowing faithful. It is even said that Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was among the spectators.


Fueled by the international victories of Ned Hanlan, our city’s renowned sculler, Toronto was, for a decade or more, the rowing capital of Canada. During this fever pitch era of rowing as a mass spectator sport, Toronto’s mayors were James Beaty, Jr., Q.C. (1879-80), William B. McMurrich (1881-82), and Arthur R. Boswell (1883-84). An English correspondent referred to “Hanlan fever” and wrote that Hanlan has been the best advertising agent Canada ever had.


Through the years, the Dominion Day Regatta Association has distributed regatta programmes that record the officials, volunteers and athletes who have combined to make this event most enjoyable and a great success. On July 1, 1889, the bulletin is entitled “Grand Rowing Regatta” under the auspices of the National Celebration Committee of the City Council of the City of Toronto. Events were called a single scull skiff race, a single scull shell race, and a junior four-oared working boat race. The clubs listed were the Toronto RC, Don Amateur RC, Parkdale Boating Club, Bayside RC, Argonaut RC, and Trenton RC. Each lane on the course had a designated colour: Lane 1 (yellow), 2 (green), 3 (red), 4 (blue), and 5 (white). There was a Reception Committee and a Regatta Committee. Officials had surnames that reflected the strong Irish, Scottish, and English roots of citizens of Toronto at that time: MacDonell, Grant, Lennox, MacDonald, Gilbert, and Dodds.


The Dominion Day holiday itself was considered a special occasion fit for spectacular events and wild celebrations. On July 1, 1884, the year of the first Dominion Day regatta, there were repetitive references in local papers to Toronto’s “Semi-Centennial”. Colourful harbour scenes were described with boats decked gaily with flags, streamers, and fireworks dotting the sky. A night’s cruise was witness to row boats, sail boats, and canoes darting “hither and thither” with various designs in Chinese lanterns, forming “a very pretty spectacle.” The partying continued until 1:00 a.m. Not three weeks later, July 29th, 1884, the C.A.A.O. held its own annual regatta.


The Union Jack flag was the official flag of the Dominion of Canada because of the nation’s colonial ties with Great Britain. Everywhere it seemed, the Union Jack was flying from poles or unfurled as bunting and decoration – always with decorum and respect – on boats, along the waterfront, at grandstands, on postcards, in advertising, and in the press.


A variety of amateur and professional rowing clubs were established along the waterfront. The constitution and by-laws of the CAAO in August 1890 defined an amateur oarsman: “who rows for pleasure or recreation only, and during his leisure hours, and who does not abandon or neglect his usual business or occupation for the purpose of training for more than two weeks during a rowing season.”


Some athletes left one club to join another. The Toronto Rowing Club amateurs left their club and moved to the Sunnyside RC. They merged with Bayside RC, principally inspired by the wonderful sculling of J. J. (John Joseph) Ryan who also rowed in a double with Ned Hanlan.


Not only did Ned Hanlan attract spectators and participants to the sport of rowing. The Toronto Islands and the City of Toronto were known to produce their share of national and internationally acclaimed oarsmen. The Hanlan, Durnan, and English families all operated turn-of-the-century boathouses on the Toronto Islands, beautifully designed, sadly now no longer, but the memories of these three great families continue on. Hanlan’s nephew, Edward Durnan, a renowned Canadian sculler, became American champion sculler when he defeated New Zealand champion Tom Sullivan in a three-mile race held in August 1905, in Toronto. He was American champion until 1928. Eddie’s son, John Hanlan Durnan, was also a Canadian champion sculler. A cousin, Wesley ‘Doc’ Durnan, was another Canadian champion sculler who would entertain regatta crowds by standing on his head in his rowing shell, in front of the grandstand.


From the Toronto area, Lou Scholes, Don Rowing Club, was the Diamond Sculls champion at Henley Royal in England, 1904. Over 70,000 Toronto citizens celebrated wildly when Scholes arrived home. Joe Wright Sr. of Argonaut RC won over 130 national titles during the 1880s and 1890s, including a silver and bronze medal in the coxed eights at the 1904 and 1908 Olympic Games. In 1950, Joe Wright Sr. was named Canada’s outstanding oarsman of the half century. Sculler Everard Butler from Argonaut RC won a bronze medal at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.


Joe Wright’s son, Joe Wright Jr. from Argonaut RC, won the Diamond Sculls in England in 1928. Then Wright Jr. rowed with Jack Guest and won a silver medal at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam while an Argonaut RC eight oar crew won a bronze.


Jack Guest, a Toronto Island resident, and a past president of the Dominion Day Regatta Association, won the Diamond Sculls in 1930. Again, Toronto celebrated another sculling victory by one of its own citizens. Guy Nickalls, the Englishman who won five consecutive Diamond Sculls, wrote in 1939 that Guest was “the most perfect sculler that I have ever seen.” In 1931, Bob Pearce of Australia, who had moved to Toronto, won the Diamond Sculls again for Canada and Toronto.


At the turn of the century, the Dominion Day regatta continued strongly. The July 1st, 1908 programme listed canoeing, rowing, and swimming club officials. The committee was chaired by T. P .Galt. Among the races was an event called “single blade canoes – fours.”


A Dominion Day Regatta Association programme from July 1st, 1920 printed “Hanlan Memorial Course, Hanlan’s Island”, as the regatta site. There were rowing, paddling, swimming, and diving events. Paddling included junior and senior tandem and a ladies war canoe race. Canoe clubs represented were, principally, Balmy Beach, Parkdale, Toronto Canoe Club, and the Island A.A. For swimmers, the clubs were Toronto, High Park, and C.Y.M.C.A. Oarsmen competing in singles, doubles, and fours were mostly from Don RC and Argonaut RC. There was even a Boys’ Naval Brigade Race at 4:10 p.m.


The Dominion Day regatta continued to be successful from the 1920s to the Second World War. During the post-war era, the size and scope of the regatta gradually increased.


In 1937, the regatta course was filled in. The DDRA moved to Long Pond in 1938. Ten years later, 1948, the City of Toronto through the leadership of Mayor Allan Lamport, widened and straightened the course to, essentially, what we see today. It was renamed the Allan A. Lamport Regatta course in October 1994.


From the 1960s, the combined number of participants was over 600 athletes. From the 1970s, there were over 700 competitors. The DDRA claimed its rightful status as the “World’s Largest Combined Rowing and Paddling Regatta”, welcoming its American neighbours, flying the flags of both countries, and playing both national anthems. In 1962, there were 20 rowing events. In 1966, there were 21 rowing events. From 1971 to 1978, there were 24 rowing races each year.


The 1970s witnessed a large variety of rowing clubs competing. Long standing clubs have included St. Catharines RC, Don RC, Argonaut RC, and Leander Boat Club from Hamilton. There were also clubs from Ottawa, Kingston, Brockville, and Peterborough. United States oarsmen and women came from Buffalo West Side RC and Wyandotte Boat Club of Detroit. Additional U.S. rowing club participants included Fairmount RC of Philadelphia, Lincoln Park Boat Club of Chicago, and Belmont RC from Massachusetts.


From the 1980s, a master’s single and coxed four event for men over 40 years old were among the first (there are now men and women in master’s events) to be included. More recently, through the dedicated efforts of Joe Lyttle of Argonaut Rowing Club, adaptive rowing has been proposed for the DDRA regatta.


Today, led by volunteers from Don RC, Argonaut RC, and Hanlan Boat Club, the Dominion Day regatta, now called the Canada Day regatta, continues to attract spirited rowing competition. May the DDRA participants continue to enjoy the traditions of sportsmanship and camaraderie which are the foundation of this ancient and glorious sport.


Author Richard MacFarlane has been rowing competitively for 40 years, having been associated with six different rowing clubs: Brock University, University of Western Ontario, Don Rowing Club, Kenora Rowing Club, Argonaut Rowing Club, and currently Hanlan Boat Club. A rowing historian who is especially interested in Edward Hanlan, Richard has been a member of the Hanlan BC, at Cherry Beach in Toronto, since 1987.