Thousands Thronged To Watch Epic Rowing Contest


Staff Writer

It was marred by tragedy. James Renforth, who was stroke of the English rowing team, collapsed from apparent heart failure approximately two miles from the finish line and died less than an hour later.

And that was how the community of Renforth got its name. It was previously called Chalet.

But The Great Race of 1871 should also be remembered as one of the greatest sporting events ever to come to the Saint John area.

It was a grudge match between the famous "Paris" rowing crew of Saint John and the team, from Tyneside, England, which had decidedly beaten them in Quebec the previous year.

The six-mile race that began along the Kennebecasis River at 7:34 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 23,1871, was to be the rowing championship of the world. Up to that time it was the biggest spectacle ever to come to Saint John, and many believe the likes of it have not been matched since.

The epic contest dazzled the eyes of slow-paced eastern Canada, which had been a chain of remote British colonies only four years ago. And there were no live television and radio sportscasts. If you wanted to see the event, you had to be there.

Trams Started Early

A steady flow of trains that began to pour out of Saint John at 4 a.m. had carried 9,000 spectators to the tiny riverside community.

For Thomas Prince, an engineer with the European-North American Railway Company, it was an early morning that followed a sleepless night. Many hours before he hooked his locomotive "Robert Jardine" to a string of flat cars packed 50 men to a car with spectators, he had been kept awake in the bedroom of his City Road home by the crowds passing his window. These people had already set out to witness the big race, on foot.

Before sunrise, the road to Chalet was dotted with "every kind of vehicle from a sloven to a barouche," with "drivers urging their steeds forward as if fearing to be late at the scene" as it was described later in the Saint John Daily Telegraph. Also converging on the tiny community were the trains, carriages and pedestrians coming from the east, as well as steamboats and yachts coming from all directions.

Estimates vary of the multitude that lined the shores and nearby hillsides, and eventually flooded along the mile-and-one-half length of railroad where it bordered along the river. Thousands had slept there. The Daily Telegraph put the figure at 15,000, but Harper's Weekly later reported a throng of 25,000.

Above the sunlit banners and brightly colored dresses, every branch of every tree was filled with boys. Men climbed to the tops of railway cars to get an unobstructed view of the race course that had been carefully measured off on the ice of the previous winter.

Ferry boats and wood barges arrived continuously and took up position in a line along the race track. Aboard the steamers, bands played constantly.

Crowd Jeered Renforth

Today, in the electronic age of instant communications, of public address systems and security guards equipped with walkie-talkies, it is difficult to imagine how more than 15,000 people could watch a man dying with very few of them knowing what was going on.

Yet, by shortly after 8 a.m. the first overfilled excursion train had started to pull out for Saint John, yachts and ferry boats were set in motion and most people left the race believing that James Renforth had either given up or sold out to the Canadian team.

Watching from the steamboat that marked the finish fine, the English team's umpire, named Oldham, went into a fury when he saw the "Queen Victoria" limping for short with Renforth slumped backward into the lap of crew member Harry Kelly. "Dancing around the (judge's) stand," as the Daily Telegraph account worded it, the man could be heard exclaiming that his crew had run ashore "to escape a foul." Cries of "Fraud!" "Shame!" "Sold out!" and "Where's his pluck?" could be-heard along the beach, according to the Telegraph. A row was nearly started by John Bright, the English spare team member who had paddled "Queen Victoria" out to a floating stand for the waiting crew. Upon seeing Renforth stop, he tried to withdraw money he had wagered on he team.

On the ferry with Oldham, referee Thomas R. Jones of Saint John watched the Tyneside boat falter, but he could also see the Saint John crew was still stroking.

Although victory was now certain, it had to be consummated for the sake of the countless thousands of pounds that had been bet on it.

Shouting himself hoarse, he and others grabbed pieces of coal from the steamer's fuel bin and threw them at boaters who had begun to encroach upon the race course under the impression the match had been decided.

The Saint John crew, increasing their stroke in the last half mile, finished the course in an impressive 39 minutes, 20 and 3/5 seconds "amid the wildest cheering from the shore, embankment, tree tops, woodboats, steamers and small boats," reported the Telegraph.

"Joy reigned supreme, except in the small circle gathered around a dying athelete. The others were ignorant of his fate," continued the newspaper, "or their mirth would have been hushed."

Never Knew Defeat

Broad-shouldered and deep-chested James Renforth, five feet seven and a half inches tall, was the strongest member of the Tyne-side team. Occupying the stern position of "stroke," he was the man who set the rowing pace for his team. Newspaper and magazine accounts of the time tended to describe the race in terms of a contest between Renforth and his Saint John counterpart, Robert Fulton.

Since his first rowing competition - some time around 1866 -Renforth had never known defeat. He was the singles sculls champion of England. Even before he began his celebrated rowing career, his prowess in swimming had won him the title of Aquatic Champion of England. He was renowned for his strength.

His death, wrote Harper's Weekly, "in the very prime of life ... brings up again the question of physical training and the extent to which it may be carried with safety ... In his case, muscular power had been developed at such an expense of vital energy that exhausted nature gave way when put to a test which far weaker men endured without injurous effects."

"Now, Jim, for a Dozen!"

The calamity struck when the two boats had travelled less than three quarters of a mile along the six-mile course. From shore, crowds could already see two lengths of clear water between the stern of the "Saint John" and the bow of "Queen Victoria."

In a desperate attempt to close the gap, Henry Kelly, from his position as third oarsman, directed.- "Now, Jim for a dozen!"

This was a call to surge over the next dozen, but there was no response from Renforth. Spectators on the boats could already see Renforth's oar rising higher in the air with each successive stroke, a tip-off that the man's technique was falling apart under the pressure.

Kelly later told the Daily Telegraph that he called again for "a dozen," only to hear Renforth call in a half-smothered voice, 'Harry, Harry.'

"Meantime, Renforth's body suddenly inclined forward, and immediately after he fell back into Kelly's arms, asking to be rowed to the shore, and sinking into a swoon."

The man's unconscious body was rushed through the crowd and taken by carriage to his crew's quarters at the Claremont House hotel in Torryburn. There he strengthened enough to speak occasionally about the mishap to his teammates and about his friends across the water. But within minutes he was dead, despite the efforts of two-physicians to revive him by bleeding him through the arms.

The Paris Crew, who brought the world championship to the Kennebecasis, were not the well schooled, highly trained, elite young men whom one associates nowadays with the sport.

Robert Fulton, George Price and Samuel Hutton were fishermen in the summer and ships’ carpenters in the winter. Elijah Ross was a lighthouse keeper.

And in their flesh-colored jerseys, leather braces and bright pink caps, these rough New Brunswick oarsmen became a laughing stock when the crew arrived at the Paris Exposition of 1867, from which they eventually got their name of the "Paris Crew."

They were there to compete with the leading oarsmen of Europe, and their unconventional style of rowing with the arms rather than the back did nothing to diminish the gaiety on the part of their competitors.

British reporters, who had watched the Saint Johners practice in Southampton, had warned their erratic steering would be a menace to all other crews, since they rowed without a coxswain.

Their boat, described by the British as a "Chinese puzzle painted green ... and curiously put together" outweighed the beautifully fashioned English shells by more than one hundred pounds.

By the time the Canadians took their boat out of the water, the laughter had stilled.

In winning world championships in two different classes at Paris just a month after Confederation - and in going on to other international victories - Saint John's celebrated Paris Crew stirred national feelings in their new country in a way no politician could hope to achieve.

Betting was strongly against the Canadians in the first race, one for heavy in-rigged boats, in which they were matched against crews from Boulogne, the Rowing Club des Regates Parisiennes and two English crews, the Western Rowing Club and the Dolphin Rowing Club of Brighton. It was the first Canadian athletic victory in international competition.

The second race, one for fouroared outrigger-shells, pitted the Saint Johners against the great names of rowing: Oxford University, the London Rowing Club and the Leanders of London. They won by three lengths.

The returning oarsmen were welcomed by a Saint John decked with bunting, with 7,000 people in the streets to watch the men given that Freedom of the City and $500 each.

The crew stayed together for several years after their 1867 triumph. In 1868 they defeated the best U.S. four, the Ward Brothers of Cornwall, N.Y., on the Connecticut River at Springfield. They went on to win numerous other races.

In 1870 at the Lachine Regatta in Quebec, they met their match in the Tyne crew stroked by James, Renforth, and their defeat was a disaster for their home town, where a number of Saint Johners were said to "have lost their all" in betting. "Everyone here, except Sons of Temperance, seemed to get intoxicated," wrote one citizen.

The Renforth race of the following year was to be the big rematch.

The Paris Crew went on to score victories at an international regatta on the Kennebecasis in 1875, but in1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Regatta they were soundly defeated by a Halifax team. It was their last race.