Mark Twain On Rowing

Earlier today, rowing historian Bill Lanouette sent me an e-mail with a very interesting piece of literary and rowing history: a rowing race report from author Mark Twain from November 1868. The article is about the race between the famous professional oarsmen the Ward brothers (see illustration) and the St. Johns crew. Many thanks to Bill for this great culture find!

San Francisco Alta California, November 15, 1868



A Lively Boat Race – The Wicked “Wickedest Man” – On the Wing – Something About Chicago – Story of a Rail – Personal Gossip

International Boat Race.

HARTFORD, October 22, 1868.

I went up to Springfield, Mass., yesterday afternoon, to see the “International boat race” between the Ward brothers and the “St. Johns” crew, of New Brunswick. We left here at noon, and reached Springfield in about an hour. It was raining. It seems like wasting good dictionary words to say that, because it is raining here pretty much all the time, and when it is not absolutely raining, it is letting on to do it. I assembled on the bank of the river along with a rather moderate multitude of other people (moderate considering the greatness of the occasion), and waited. A flat-boat was anchored in midstream, and on it were collected the judges, the boats’ crews, and some twenty of their friends. A dozen skiffs and shells were hovering in the vicinity. The conversation of the crowd about me seemed to promise that I had made this journey to little purpose, since all the talk was to the effect that the idea of anybody attempting to conquer the Ward brothers on the water was simply absurd. Everybody appeared to think that the St. John’s gentlemen would be so badly beaten that it could hardly be proper to speak of the contest as a race at all. My sympathies always go with the racer that is beaten, anyhow, and so I began to warm toward those New Brunswick strangers in advance. The cries of “Two to one on the Wards!” “Ten to one on the Wards!” “Hundred to five on the Wards!” I felt like resenting as so many personal affronts. Shortly two “shells” were brought to the front — long, narrow things like telegraph poles shaved and sharpened down to oar blades at both ends. The contestants took their places — the four St. John’s boys dressed in pink shirts and red skull-caps, and the four Ward’s in white shirts and with white handkerchiefs bound round their heads. They were all find looking men. They rowed away a hundred yards, easily and comfortably. I had never seen such grace, such poetry of motion, thrown into the handling of an oar before. They ranged up alongside each other, now, abreast the judges. A voice shouted

“Are you ready?”

“Ready!” and the two shells almost leaped bodily out of the water. They darted away as if they had been shot from a bow. The water fairly foamed in their wake. The Wards had a little the start, and made frantic exertions to increase the advantage but it was soon evident that, instead of gaining, they were losing. The race was to be a very long one – three miles and repeat. When the shells were disappearing around a point of land, half a mile away, the St. John’s were already a trifle ahead. The people in my vicinity made light of this circumstance, however. They said “them Ward’s” knew what they were about. They were “playing” this thing. When the boats hove in sight again “them Ward’s” would be in the lead. And so the betting against my martyrs went on, just as before. Finally, somebody suggested that appearances seemed to indicate that the race was “sold.” It had its effect. the most enthusiastic shortly began to show a failing confidence, and to drop anxious remarks about the chances of the race having really been betrayed and sold out by the Wards. But, notwithstanding all this talk was so instructive, the next twenty minutes hung heavily on my hands. There was nothing in the world to look at but five hundred umbrellas and occasionally a fleeting glimpse of the water — and even umbrellas lose their interest in the long run, I find. there is nothing exciting about umbrellas — nothing thrilling. One’s pulse beats just as calmly in the presence of umbrellas as if they were not there. And they don’t really amount to anything for scenery, being monotonous when there are so many. But in the midst of these reflections some one shouted:

“Here they come!”

“Whoop! St. John’s ahead!”

“For fifty dollars it’s the Wards!”

“Fifty to twenty-five it’s the Wards!”

“Take them both! – hundred to a hundred it’s _____”

“Three cheers for – Oh, the suffering Moses, the St. John’s are ahead!”

It was so. It was easy to distinguish the pink shirts, now, flashing back and forth. On they came, dividing the water like a knife, and the white shirts far in the rear. In a few minutes they came flying past the judge’s stand, every man of them as fresh and bright and full of life as when they started, and handling the oars with the same easy grace as before. A cheer went up for the gallant triumph, but there was little heart in it. The people on the shore were defeated, in pride and in pocket, as well as the opposing contestants. The Wards came in rather more than a hundred yards behind — and they looked worn and tired. The race was over, and Great Britain had beaten America. Time, 39:38. there was but one consolation, and that was, that in a six-mile race on the same water, last year, the Wards made it in 39, thus beating the present time by 38 seconds. The Wards went into the contest yesterday in inferior condition. Their mainstay, Joshua, had been sick and was still unwell. However, these boys behaved in an entirely becoming manner. They said that they were badly beaten, and fairly beaten, and they wanted no excuses made to modify their defeat or diminish the brilliancy of the St. John’s victory.

On 21 April, it was exactly 100 years ago Mark Twain died. ‘Mark Twain’ was pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens (30 November 1835 – 21 April 1910).

One comment

  1. Nice to see some Canadian history get talked about in America, i'm from Saint John, N.B where the Saint john's crew were called here Saint John, N.B the Paris crew because they went to the 1867 Paris International Exposition in France for the world rowing championship and defeated the London rowing club who were the best in the world at the time.
    The City of Saint John stood behind our rowing team and bet $100,000 on the race and won, hmmm wonder what $100,000 dollars in 1867 be today in 2013?

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