Some years back, I did a lot of research for an article about Charles E. Courtney (1849-1920; up on the left) and professional rowing in America. While there are quite a few books and articles about professional oarsmanship in North America, there are not that many books about Courtney, which surprised me. After all, he was the most famous and successful sculler on the south side of the Canadian border; of course, Ned Hanlan (1855-1908; up on the right) of Toronto being the most famous sculler north of the Canadian border, and probably in the world when he was World Sculling Champion in 1880 to 1884. My article, “Charles Courtney and the Decline of Professional Sculling in America”, which was published in The Log of Mystic Seaport, Vol. 56, No. 1, 2005, is, as the title suggests, also about the deterioration of American professional sculling.
Courtney and Hanlan met three times to row for the American champion title and to collect a heap of money doing so. Never had there been so much publicity before a rowing race as when Courtney and Hanlan met on 3 October 1878, a five-mile race which the Canadian won, but not with the same ease as he had beaten other opponents. A re-match was eventually set for 16 October 1879. On the morning of the race, Courtney found his racing shell sawed in half. The race was however not postponed, and as Courtney refused to race in a borrowed shell, Hanlan rowed the five-mile course on his own, but found out after the race when he went to collect his prize money, $6,000, that the president of the Hop Bitters Company, which bottled the patented medicine “The Invalid’s Friend and Hope”, and who had set up the prize money, had already left town with the money, claiming that one man in a shell does not make a rowing race. And it was probably here it started, the beginning of the end of professional sculling in the US. Had Hanlan had some of his men to saw Courtney’s shell in half, or was it Courtney or one of his men who had damaged his boat? We will never know.
On 19 May, 1880, the two North Americans met for their third race, again for a wager of $6,000. A few minutes into the race, Hanlan was far ahead. Halfway to the turning stake, Courtney stopped, and rowed back to his dock. The Canadian continued to row the full course and claimed the prize money. Six months later, Hanlan easily beat the World Champion Ned Trickett of Australia on the Thames in London.
Books on Charles Courtney, Margaret Look’s Courtney: Master Oarsman – Champion Coach (1989) and C.V.P. Yong’s Courtney and Cornell Rowing (1923), only briefly talk about Courtney’s career as a professional oarsman after the American’s last race against the Canadian. Instead, at length the authors write about Courtney’s successful career as a coach at Cornell University which began in 1883, but was only for ten days. Two years later, Courtney was hired to coach the Cornell Navy’s crews full time.
Very little seems to be known about Courtney’s rowing career between 1880 and 1885. The other day, on the web, I happened to find a little article in The New York Times from July 1884 about a challenge that Charles Courtney sent to another well-known professional sculler at this time, Wallace Ross (on the left). Courtney asked Ross to put up $1,000 against the same amount of Courtney’s money for a five-mile race on Seneca Lake on 16 August. According to the article, published on 13 July, 1884, Ross turned down Courtney’s challenge as he, Ross, had signed an agreement with other American professional oarsmen “never to row with him again.” The newspaper actually published the whole agreement. It reads,
“In view of the public career of Charles E. Courtney for several years past, and particularly because he has done so much to disgrace professional sculling, we, the undersigned, in order to protect ourselves and encourage square, manly rowing hereby pledge ourselves with said Courtney, either by rowing with or against him, at regattas or elsewhere – Wallace Ross, Fred A. Plaisted, George H. Hosmer, Albert Hamm, George Gaisel, George W. Lee, H. Peterson, James A. Ten Eyck, John Teemer, and James H. Reilly.”
This is the first time I read or heard about this agreement between the professionals to boycott Charles Courtney. I know that he was a man of controversy, also as a coach for Cornell (see my entry on 5 December, 2009: ‘Americans at Henley in 1895’), but I am astonished by this article. Is there anyone who can explain what happened that led to this boycott of Courtney?
On page 11 of his book, Rowing Faster, Volker Nolte suggests that the series of failed races between Hanlan and Courtney “ignited a growing mistrust in professional rowing sport”.
Maybe there was a consensus of the other professionals that Courtney had thrown the races with Hanlan, especially as he had two rowing shells to choose from for his second challenge, and then not really putting in effort and giving up in the third challenge.