The Demise of Professional Rowing

Professional crew on the Harlem in 1888. From the bow: Fred Plaisted, Albert Hamm, Peter H. Conley, Jack Largan, Wallace Ross, Jacob Gaudaur, George Bubear and George Hosmer. Cox is James Pilkington, owner of The Golden Oar saloon near Boathouse Row in Harlem. From The Triumph of the Amateurs (New York Historical Society).

23 April 2021

By Bill Miller

Rowing historian Bill Miller reviews Bill Lanouette’s new book The Triumph of the Amateurs. A thoroughly enjoyable read, Miller thinks.

Bill Lanouette. Photo courtesy of Tom Weil.

The Triumph of the Amateurs by William Lanouette is a wonderful collection of historical details about an era in rowing history that is just about all forgotten: the professionals. Few people realize that professional rowing was huge in the 19th century. It rivals professional sports of today in popularity. The difference is gambling was the fuel that supported professional rowers, while today it is advertising and marketing.

Bill Lanouette describes the life in professional rowing, its popularity, its pitfalls, its demise, then the rise of amateur rowing capturing the attention of the public that once focused on the professionals.

I’ve been reading about the professional rowers for decades and have always been amazed at the wild stories. I thought I had uncovered almost all of the details. For well over 20 years, Bill has researched the professionals and uncovered many, many more facts and details which have rarely seen print. He has woven these obscure facts into a great story, especially about the famous Biglin Brothers, Barney and John. They were smack in the midst of racing, gambling, shading and throwing races for profit although they mostly raced cleanly but not the others. It seems that rarely did the professional escape moral criticism.

Perspective sketch for “John Biglin in a Single Scull” by Thomas Eakins, c. 1873. From The Triumph of the Amateurs (Museum of Fine Artists, Boston, gift of Cornelius V. Whitney).

Thomas Eakins memorialized the Biglins in his famous Rowing Pictures, capturing the energy of the Biglins racing. Eakins was a sculler himself and admired the physical strain of rowing, Bill explains.

He describes other nationally famous racers such as the Ward Brothers from Cornwall-on-Hudson, Edward Hanlan from Toronto, Walter Brown from Portland, Maine, James Hamill from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Charles Courtney from Union Springs, New York, and dozens of others all working the public for attention and profit.

Cartoon of Charles Courtney getting ready to meet Ned Hanlan for their third race – observe the saw. At their second meeting, in 1879, someone sawed Courtney’s shell in half the night before the race. Courtney blamed the Hanlan club, and Hanlan blamed Courtney. Hanlan rowed over the course alone, but he did not receive the $6,000 in prize money. From The Triumph of the Amateurs (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 22 May 1880).

Did you know that tens of thousands of spectators would attend just one race between two scullers? In addition, tens of thousands of dollars were wagered on it, in 1870s-dollar value. In one race, a pro sculler could win between $500 and $5,000 then add to that, the cut from the bookies. No wonder races were fixed or interference arranged. One prominent sculler was poisoned before his race. The same sculler had his racing single and backup single sawn in half the night before another race when $6,000 was waiting for the winner.

New York Times headlines were read by many such as:
May 22, 1867 “Walter Brown Fouls James Hamill”
July 15, 1875 “Sixty Thousand Persons Waiting For The Race” (Saratoga NY)
May 31, 1877 “Oarsmen Surrounded By Petty Swindlers”
July 15, 1877 “Courtney Drugged By Gamblers”
Oct 17, 1879 “Courtney’s Boats Ruined, The Contest Prevented By Dastardly Act”
May 5, 1880 “Farce on the Potomac, Courtney Gives Away The Race To Hanlan”

Ned Hanlan in Canadian Illustrated News, 1878.

Bill weaves all these events into a great picture of what professional life was like as a rower, and how the public became disgusted with their antics. Finally, the public turned their backs on the professional rowers and the gambling that supported their livelihood. In its place, amateur rowing grew and captured the public’s interest along with other sports such as baseball. Collegiate rowing was growing rapidly. Hundreds of rowing clubs were formed all over the country, from Portland, Maine, to Minneapolis to New Orleans. Amateur associations were formed in all regions to host amateur championships.

The title leads, The Triumph of the Amateurs but could just as well be “The Demise of Professional Rowing.” Both titles are accurate for this book. I thoroughly enjoyed all the details Bill Lanouette uncovered and wove into its chapters.

Bill Lanouette’s The Triumph of the Amateurs: The Rise, Ruin, and Banishment of Professional Rowing in the Gilded Age, published by Lyons Press, (hard cover, 282 pages, and e-book.)

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