22 July 2022
By Sarah Risser
The North West International Rowing Association (NWIRA) is an historic rowing association comprised of competitive rowing clubs from Minnesota and western Canada. The Minnesota Boat Club, the now-defunct St. Paul Boat Club, and the Winnipeg Rowing Club founded the association in 1886 to open up new and more challenging competitive rowing opportunities at a time when enthusiasm for the sport was growing to a fever pitch in Minnesota.
It’s no coincidence that the formation of this Association coincided with the completion of a rail connection between St. Paul and Winnipeg. Minnesota-based railroad baron James J Hill was a friend of and worked closely with Sir Donald A Smith, vice president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In the mid-1880s, rowers depended on railways for personal travel as well as to transport their rowing shells. The railroads were more than happy to accommodate—even incentivize—transport for oarsmen by providing discounted fares and at times accommodation at railroad hotels near regatta sites. Rowing was wildly popular; having rowers and their boosters on trains drummed up business.
During its earliest years—up until 1906—the Association was called the Minnesota and Winnipeg Amateur Rowing Association, and at the time of its founding it featured just six events: the junior and senior single, double, and straight four. The senior four was the most important race, considered the Association’s signature event. Association rules stipulated that each member club must send a senior four-oared crew to each regatta. The Minneapolis Lurline’s full participation in the Association was delayed until 1887 almost certainly because they didn’t have a senior four to enter in the Association’s inaugural regatta.
The Association distinguished itself by including a section in its founding constitution that created a dedicated Status Committee to proactively deal with any questions or concerns about the amateur status of entrants. The Status Committee was powerful, given authority to bar any crew or man from any regatta or race who may not, by a technical definition, be considered an “amateur.” The Status Committee was also given power to interpret the definition. This marked the first time Minnesota clubs showed an interest in formally addressing the issue of amateur, quite possibly because their new Canadian rivals were reputed to be husky ‘haulers of log.’ The Association closed its first meeting with a resolution that membership be limited to clubs composed of ‘gentlemanly’ members.
The Associations first regatta was held on July 13, 1886, at Lake Minnetonka. Crews competed for a silver cup presented by the Manitoba Railway Company. The oarsmen stayed at James J Hill’s Lafayette Hotel, and Winnipeg was heavily favored to win. The Winnipeg oarsmen were experienced as they had been rowing for a long time. The oarsmen were thought to be bigger and stronger than the professional lawyers, bankers, and businessmen of St. Paul. Winnipeg did not disappoint winning the junior four, junior double, junior single, in addition to the most important event of the day, the senior four.
Over the years the NWIRA has grown, with ever-more competitive rowing teams from Minnesota and western Canada joining and traveling to compete.[i] Nowadays, the regatta hosts 52 events over two days with more than 350 entries and at least ten participating clubs. The 117th[ii] Annual North West International Rowing Association Regatta will start today, July 22, and continue tomorrow, July 23, on Rabbit Lake in Kenora Ontario.
[i] Today NWIRA member clubs include: Duluth Rowing Club, Kenora Rowing Club, Long Lake Rowing Club, Minneapolis Rowing Club, Minnesota Boat Club, Regina Rowing Club, Rochester Rowing Club, Saskatoon Rowing Club, Thenuder Bay Rowing Club, Twin Cities Youth Rowing Club, and the Winnipeg Rowing Club.
[ii] The Association regatta has been held every year since 1886 with the exception of 1898 – 1905 and 2020 – 2021, the latter years due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.