Atlantic Advocate, 1967
THE PARIS CREW OF SAINT JOHN
By: PAUL JANSSENS
In the year of Canada's Confederation, a group of lumberman from Saint John, New Brunswick, startled the rowing world by winning the open championships in Paris, France. Thereafter the five men (for one was in reserve) were known as the Paris Crew. They were the heroes not only of Saint John, but also of the new country. But they had to prove their title for four years - a battle that ended in high drama.
|"The Paris Crew." From an oil painting by Fred H. C. Myles which hangs in the New Brunswick Museum.|
|The victorious Paris Crew. From left to right: George Price; Elijah Ross; Robert Fulton, the captain; and Samuel Hutton. James Price, who was reserve, is not in the picture. The original studio photograph is now in the New Brunswick Museum.|
|The defeated Tyne crew of England. From left to right: Percy; Chambers (lying down); Renforth, the captain, (standing centre); and Kelly. The original print was touched up to show them in their training costumes. From the Webster Canadiana Collection, New Brunswick Museum.|
|"The great cheer echoed across the countryside and then died away, only to rise with a billowing sound as the crowd welcomed the English crew." Engraving from "Boat race between Saint John and Tyne Crews on Kennebecasis River." Webster Canadiana Collection, New Brunswick Museum.|
|". . . with only one hundred yards to go, the Tyne shell was seen to swerve with a miststroke and the crowd groaned." From the Webster Canadiana Collection, New Brunswick Museum.|
ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago a team of tough lumbermen from Saint John, New Brunswick, won a world rowing championship on the Seine in Paris.
Twice they drew well ahead of eight competitors, first in an outrigger shell called James A. Harding, and later in a boat rowed from the gunwales.
The muscular gentlemen of the rowing world were incredulous. Who had ever heard of winners from Saint John? And the Paris Crew - as the Saint John team was nicknamed - was challenged first by the States and then by the elite of British rowers.
The struggle to prove, then prove again, that the Paris Crew were the champions lasted for four years and culminated in the most exciting, dramatic, and tragic race on the Kennebecasis River on August 23, 1871, when the Tyne team of Britain were defeated.
But the success of the Paris Crew gradually withered. Saint John began to suffer economic difficulties, then the population changed, people moved away, and rowing, as a sport, went out of fashion. Even the story of the Paris Crew's success faded from people's memories and would no doubt have been relegated to the archives had not the Paris Crew been named to Canada's Sports Hall of Fame on June 16, 1956. Since then, there has been a renewed interest in the champions of Saint John.
'The English were vowing to regain the rowing crown'
Rowing and sculling were popular sports in Saint John in the mid-1800s. The best oarsmen came from West Saint John or Carleton (whichever one preferred to call it), for there the lads lived by the waterfront and spent most of their time in boats. It was not unusual for a group to get together and buy a "shell". One of these groups was later the famous Paris Crew, and consisted of Robert Fulton, Elijah Ross, Samuel Hutton and James Price.
They began in a small way, by challenging the Indiantown Raftsmen's Association crew in 1863. The poor raftsmen were so outdistanced that they couldn't walk along the street for a while afterwards without having small boys poke fun at them.
The Paris Crew (then known as the Carleton crew) cleaned up again in the summer of 1864. They started the summer of 1865 by showing a stern to seven other New Brunswick crews at Father Duffy's picnic at Sand Cove, and went on to polish off other contenders. In 1866, they rowed four races - and won four. People now began to take notice.
Then in 1867 - the year of Confederation - a tremendous regatta was being held at Paris, with oarsmen participating from most of the principal countries of the world.
The people of Saint John figured the city should be on the sports map - and that Robert Fulton, Elijah Ross, George Price, Samuel Hutton and James Price were just the ones to bring fame to the old seaport city. So they passed around the hat and raised $7,000 to send them to France. The rest went into the record books.
The four-man Carleton crew (James Price didn't row but was the reserve oarsman) proved it was not only the fastest crew in New Brunswick, but the fastest anywhere.
There was a bang-up celebration when the quintet came home loaded down with ribbons and silver mugs. The only sour note was injected by United States newspapers which said grudgingly that while the Saint John crew had done fairly well at Paris, they hadn't met the Republican crew of Springfield, Mass. The newspapers claimed that the Republicans, who hadn't been at Paris, could beat the Carleton crew, which by now was designated the Paris Crew.
Saint John sent a challenge to the Republicans, inviting them to come to New Brunswick and race. The Republicans declined. So, in an effort to prove they were world champions the Paris Crew went to Springfield. The Republicans didn't fare very well and the result was a magnificent victory for the Canadians.
An indication that rowing was big business came when a big-time gambler offered Elijah Ross $10,000 if he'd let the Republicans cross the finish line in first place. The valiant oarsman planted a hamlike fist in the gambler's eye, followed with an uppercut to the jaw, and left him flat on the floor.
Meanwhile, the English, who considered that they had more or less a monopoly on rowing, were vowing to regain the world rowing crown. It didn't make them happy to read such statements as this one from the Boston Daily Advertiser:
The four lumbermen from Saint John beat the very flower of English amateurs, the well-known London rowing club, composed from old Varsity oars, the picked four of the Oxford eight which had but lately beaten Cambridge in the great annual university struggle on the Thames.
In 1870 they accepted the challenge of the Tyne crew, of which James Renforth was stroke, for a race at Lachine, Quebec. During this race a heavy squall developed and the boat of the Saint John crew became water-logged and almost unmanageable.
The English crew had prepared for rough weather by carrying washboards and won the race. They had handed the Paris Crew its first defeat. Saint John's oarsmen granted that the Tyne Crew had gained a fair victory, and offered no excuses but they did request a return race. The result was the challenge for the race on Kennebecasis, arranged for August 23, 1871.
That day must have been one of the most thrilling Saint John ever had. Age-yellowed newspaper files tell us that the residents, old and young alike, were crawling out of bed at three o'clock in the morning.
The city was crowded with sport fans from England, the United States and various parts of Canada - a sight seldom seen since, except for major prize fights, and even that phase of sport has diminished in the port city.
All Saint John, it seemed was alive to the excitement of the contest. Special trains for East Riverside, the starting line, began leaving Saint John at 4 a.m. and at 5 a.m. as the dark of the early morning gave way to the rising sun, the banks of the Kennebecasis became packed with the gathering masses of people. Old men, young men, boys, girls, young women and old women, all were there to see the great event that was soon to begin.
A newspaper of the day gave this account of the scene:
All about the fields small parties had gathered with packed lunch baskets. Many took the opportunity to stretch out under the trees and catch up on the sleep that had been disturbed by the excitement.
Old women, keen to the commercial possibilities of the occasion, sold apples and ginger bread from stands they had erected along the railroad fence. The grandstands and other erections were alive with the bright colours of ladies' dresses.
Row boats plied on the river, sail boats passed up and down, fleets of woodboats at anchor kept their sails up and their flags flying, while yachts skimmed like birds over the glassy surface of the great river upon which the sculling championship race was to be held. The river was alive with the constant motion of craft of all kinds, and in between them with careless gaiety, dozens of venturesome boys paddled about on make-shift rafts.
From the capital city of Fredericton, the steamship Fawn came with hundreds of spectators and anchored in the stream, while white tug boats, steamers and woodboats constantly arrived and took up positions in the line. The decks of everything that would float were lined with the happy sightseers, and on the various steamers the music from a dozen different bands drifted across the water.
"Gentlemen, are you ready?"
With so much time remaining before the race was to begin at 7:30 a.m., the weather became the main topic of conversation and when a light breeze began to ripple the waters there were anxious looks upon the faces of the gathered thousands. They well knew that rough water would cancel the race, spoiling their sport and thrills. Thus betting on the weather became as brisk as betting on the race. All they talked about was the weather until suddenly in the midst of the doubting, there came a joyous shout: "Here they come!"
All was forgotten and everybody suddenly came to life.
Excitement rose and fell over the surging crowd as they watched the official tug with the race umpires and the referees take up position beside the starting buoys.
Then suddenly the excitement came to a peak as the pink-shirted Saint John crew arrived on the scene. The great cheer echoed across, the countryside and then died away, only to rise with a billowing sound as the crowd welcomed the English crew.
As the seconds ticked closer to 7:30 a.m. both crews began to get into their shells for the strenuous six-mile race for the four-man rowing championship of the world.
The eyes of all the spectators were on the two crews. They were well aware of the facts and figures surrounding the Paris Crew but many had to be told about the Tyne crew. They had to be told that the English boat was named Queen Victoria, while its crew consisted of Renforth, the captain, with his three mates, Kelly, Chambers and Percy.
The atmosphere was tense as the crowd eagerly and impatiently watched the sculls being backed up to their respective buoys.
Then over the water came the voice of Hon. Thomas R. Jones, the referee: "Gentlemen, are you ready?" And then the quick reply: "We're ready!" from the captains of the two crews. "Go!" was the cry of the referee and a shout was carried through the crowd: "They're away!"
The eight oarsmen dipped their oars in the water, sending their shells shooting ahead with the terrific power of the first stroke. Fulton opened up with forty-four strokes a minute while Renforth started a steady forty-two. They carried on almost at the same clip.
Suddenly, as the boats rounded a bend in the river the spectators could see the pink shirts of the Paris Crew and the air was wild with excitement. There was only a quarter of a mile to go but the Tyne crew increased the number of strokes.
Then, most dramatically in the midst of a driving surge, and, with only one hundred yards to go, the Tyne shell was seen to swerve with a mis-stroke and the crowd groaned. With a superhuman burst of energy and speed they made up the lost distance, but at that point the crowd saw the English captain, Renforth, crumpled in the stem of the boat, while the remaining three sought to fight it out.
The Paris Crew darted across the finish in the record time of 38 minutes, 50 seconds for the six-mile course, amid a wild ovation from the crowd. The large gathering turned on the Tyne Crew thinking they had thrown the race. Cries of: "Fraud!" could be heard as they ran toward the English boat.
But the insinuations were short-lived.
There was a sudden silence and an air of respect crept over the entire gathering, for James Renforth, captain of the Tyne Crew, had been stricken. He was placed in a coach and taken to the quarters of the crew nearer town. As the carriage passed through the crowds he appeared unconscious and paid no heed to the many mournful utterances of the spectators.
He was driven rapidly to his quarters at the Clairmount House. As he was being lifted from the vehicle he partially recovered consciousness and said: "Lay me down here on the grass, boys, anywhere, for I feel very bad, I am sick."
They carried him into the house. A few minutes later James Renforth died in the arms of one of his crewmen.
News of Renforth's death spread widely and the Saint John victory celebration was cancelled, and the flags in the city and harbour were lowered to half-mast. And news of his death produced a great sensation in England where all were waiting for news of the race. When the body returned home the whole country mourned the passing of this great sportsman - for James Renforth was the greatest oarsman in the British Isles.
It was in honour of the English captain that the community of Renforth, New Brunswick, received its name.
For many years after that memorable race, the Renforth Regatta was an annual event to honour the Paris Crew and James Renforth - as well as an attempt to re-stimulate interest in the sport of rowing.