The day dawned fair and unusually warm, and a good thing it was, too, for the few rooms available in little Mayville, N.Y., on the shores of Chautauqua Lake, were crammed to overflowing at rates running as high as $10 a day without meals. As a result many of the 30,000 rowing fans, gamblers, pickpockets, and just plain sports who had been pouring into town for a week slept alfresco so as to be on hand for the big match race between Oarsmen Edward Hanlan and Charles E. Courtney. Hanlan was Canadian born, 24 years old, fair-skinned, mustached, curly-haired and with eyes the color of a summer sky. His adversary and archrival, Courtney, was an American, swarthy-skinned, tall, lean and six years older than his opponent.
These two oarsmen, as famous in their day as Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey were later, had been involved in a highly controversial race the year before, a race Courtney had been openly accused of "hippodroming," i.e., dumping. It had taken almost a year of delicate negotiation on the part of their backers to put them in action against each other again, a year of charge and countercharge, of intense press speculation and of heavy private betting.
Today, such heated interest in, of all things, professional rowing may seem farfetched. But in 1879 rowing was, outside of horse racing, the major American sport. Rowers, writes Robert F. Kelley, in his history of American rowing, "became as famous and well-publicized—and spoiled—as any well-known athlete of today."
So the atmosphere of the first encounter between Hanlan and Courtney at Lachine, Que., Canada, on October 3, 1878, was one of carnival. "Train after train crowded with passengers was running into Lachine over the single track of the Montreal Lachine Railroad," The New York Times reported. "The nine miles of wagon road were packed with carriages, all hurrying in one direction, and the canal was alive with steamers, gay with British and American flags. By 5 o'clock 10,000 persons were in the grandstand, and as many more were clustered on steamers, small boats and along the river bank."
But there was disquiet, too. The large amount of betting was leading to hasty rumors, and a postponement of the race because of rain led to more. "One misfortune of the delay," an observer wrote "is that it gives time for circulation of a renewed report that Courtney has sold out the race to Hanlan." Libel laws, it seems, were quite different then from what they are now.
On most books, Hanlan opened as the odds-on favorite and, by race time, the odds had increased. This despite the fact that Courtney was undefeated both as an amateur and as a professional. "Nonbetting men who are acquainted with the oarsmen," wrote the Evening Post correspondent, "express surprise that so great and long-continued odds should be offered on the Canadian."
The race finally got started late in the afternoon, just as the wind began to freshen. Hanlan, in his familiar red cap and blue shirt, started with a stroke of 31, while Courtney pulled 38 to the minute. Both used long, smooth strokes with a quick recovery at the end. For the first four miles the lead changed hands several times.
The first mile was clocked in seven minutes, the fourth in only six. "As they entered the last mile," according to a vivid but seemingly somewhat imaginative account in the Times, "Hanlan went slowly but surely to the front and at the half was leading by three lengths.... Here Courtney made a last terrible struggle and putting all his tremendous reserve power into his terrible telling strokes, crept up inch by inch and foot by foot in a way that would have given him the race had he kept it up to the end. But the strain was too great. He ran his bow to within a length and a half of Hanlan's stern part, but could get no nearer and Hanlan swept over the line the winner of the greatest scull race ever seen in this country."
Hanlan's time was 36:22, his margin of victory a length and a quarter. And if the Times account had been altogether accurate that would have been the end of it. But something had happened that the gentleman from the Times must have missed. Somehow he failed to mention the fact that near the finish both Hanlan and Courtney were headed for a group of boats that had wandered inside the racing lane. Hanlan slacked off for a moment, then shot around them and over the finish line. Courtney stopped rowing altogether, or at least long enough to lose his last hope of catching Hanlan.
Wrote Edward B. Rankin of the Boston Herald, who acted as a judge for Courtney and watched the race closely: "I venture the judgment now that Courtney is the better and more enduring sculler of the two, that despite the roughness of the water he succeeded, whenever he made the effort, in closing with Hanlan, and that at the finish he outraced the Toronto man, and only lost the race by ceasing to pull at a critical moment when nearing the goal."