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The First Boat Race
Before there was The Game, there was The Boat Race, the first of which was held in 1852 on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee between crews from Yale and Harvard and gave birth to intercollegiate sports in America. Below, Yale’s reigning authority on the contest describes the earliest encounter.

In May, 1852, at the end of his junior year, young James Whiton was tired. The heavy diet of Tacitus, Plato, and physics imposed by the Yale faculty had told on him, especially since Whiton took it all very seriously. He stood second in his class, a bare fraction of a point off first. His admiring parents had journeyed down from the family farm at Holderness, New Hampshire, to see him and thus proudly launch the 12 orations that made up the Junior Exhibition (he spoke in Latin on “Roma Disrepta”). “Feeling out of sorts,” James followed his parents home for a rest. He was to miss the third term of his junior year, for apparently he did not return to Yale until fall, but he was meanwhile to help inaugurate intercollegiate athletics in America.

Of old Yankee stock, the Whitons personified the changing New England of the time. Grandfather John, an 1805 graduate of Yale, tended a parish in Antrim, New Hampshire, for almost 50 years. His son James skipped college for the excitements and profits of a merchant’s life in Boston. The profits enabled him to retire in 1849 to Holderness and the life of a country gentleman at Woodlands. That same year young James Junior proceeded to Yale after finishing Boston Latin School. It was to Woodlands and the mountains that he came to recuperate in May of his junior year.

Lake Winnipesaukee and the White Mountains region to the north, already known as resorts to the more adventurous traveler by horse and stage, were through the help of the railroads entering the vacation business in earnest. When the Boston, Concord and Montreal was chartered in 1844, three other routes were already under way. As the latecomer, the BC&M experienced great trouble in enlisting capital. Even its new English rails and the magnificent all-blue engine, “The Old Man of the Mountains,” were not enough to win the wary investor. The BC&M unloaded shares of stock on farmers along the right-of-way in exchange for ties, fence rails, and firewood. James Elkins, the aggressive young conductor who rose quickly to become local agent for the road, used to appear on the platform at new stations with his shiny conductor’s lantern to deliver a speech on the benefits the BC&M would eventually bring. It was January of 1850 before the road made Plymouth to complete the opening up of the Winnipesaukee region.

The elder Whiton was a director of the new line, so it was natural for his son to fall into conversation with agent Elkins one bright morning in June of 1852, while the train was skirting an attractive stretch of smooth water on the Winnipesaukee River between Weirs and Laconia. As the bow oarsman of the brand-new Undine, the eight-oared barge that had just been completed for the class of 1853, Whiton commented on the possibilities of a rowing regatta at that location, especially with the opportunity for an observation train to accompany the races. He went on to tell more of boating at the colleges until Elkins, fascinated with the prospect of excursion trains and publicity, exclaimed: “If you will get up a regatta on the lake between Yale and Harvard, I will pay all the bills.” Whiton, with the supreme confidence that only youth possesses, accepted the offer on the spot.

Whiton’s classmates in the Undine Club were as easily convinced, attracted by “the assurances of a free excursion and a jolly lark.” Although the Yale faculty frowned on any outside racing until after Commencement on July 29, there was every prospect that other boats would be forthcoming from among the five clubs then operating at Yale. Harvard’s cooperation was more difficult to obtain. Circumstances had combined to reduce the fleet on the Charles to one boat, the veteran Oneida, the eight-oared boat that had inaugurated Harvard in rowing in 1844 with the class of 1846 and was now owned by the class of 1853. Her captain and coxswain, Joseph M. Brown, had been a classmate of James Whiton’s at Boston Latin. There was no question of getting anything more representative than this class-club crew, and even to persuade the Oneidas to muster a boat required a trip to Cambridge by one of the Yale enthusiasts. Harvard’s vacation began two weeks earlier than Yale’s, and the “novelty of the proposition,” in Whiton’s words, quite nonplussed the Harvard men. Finally the place was accepted, the time was set for the first week in August, and both sides agreed “to test the superiority of the oarsmen of the two colleges.”

On Friday evening, July 30, the day after the Commencement in New Haven, 30 oarsmen from Yale met 11 oarsmen from Harvard in the depot hall at Concord, New Hampshire. Present for Harvard were eight rowers, two substitutes, and one coxswain; three seniors from 1852 had consented to replace three unwilling regulars in the Oneida, and the rest were juniors. Out of the Yale clubs three boats appeared: Undine, an eight with two substitutes, all from 1853; a second eight that Shawmut, another 1853 club, had borrowed from 1854, complete with her captain. A third Yale club, the Atalanta, was rightly concerned that its heavy boat, which was built for the Sound, would prove too sluggish against Harvard and so had borrowed a four-oared racing boat from a New York club.

The next day the crews continued together, transferring at Weirs Landing onto the Lady of the Lake, a three-year-old side-wheeler destined to voyage on Winnipesaukee for the next 40 years. A 90-minute voyage brought them to their headquarters at Center Harbor, Center House, where “a splendid dinner” was provided by the proprietor, Major Curtis Coe.

At Center Harbor a bay faces southeast, possibly a half mile across and a mile long, its entrance divided in two by little wooded Mile Island. On either side are wide channels, through which other islands can be seen, carrying the eye out and down the lake. Around Center Harbor the wooded shores slope gently to the water, though elsewhere they are quite precipitate. At the top of the bay the principal street of the town leads west to Red Hill. Lakeward this street ends at the steamer dock, around whose pilings the water laps with that quiet timelessness so characteristic of landlocked waters. On that first morning at Center Harbor the men kept the Sabbath. By modern standards none of the crews could be called anything more than a scratch outfit. The Shawmuts, who had just been thrown together, were especially eager to practice when the boat arrived on Monday. Although Harvard looked the more experienced to the newspaper critics, later one of the Oneida crew admitted “they had only rowed a few times for fear of blistering their hands!” Some care was observed in diet, for Whiton recalled that the men abstained from pastry that day. Finally, bottoms of the boats were black-leaded—an old recipe for victory. This done, all settled down to fishing.

Meanwhile, the clans were gathering. Eager to reap full advantage of the affair, Elkins and the Boston, Concord, and Montreal had flooded the neighborhood with posters, extolling the boats “built at great expense” and their crews “disciplined in the most perfect manner.” The races were to consist of several “one-mile heats,” and “the ground has been so selected that any number of spectators however large will obtain each an equally good view!” Music would be provided by the Concord Mechanics’ Brass Band. Special excursion trains were bringing the crowds to the races, among whom was General Franklin Pierce, New Hampshire’s “favorite son” and the Democratic candidate that year for the presidency of the United States. A board of five judges was chosen from among the neighboring worthies, and one of them, Colonel H. B. Baker of Concord, was general manager of the affair.

Tuesday, August 3, proved a perfect summer’s day, cloudless and moderately warm, with a light breeze from the northwest. To provide the crowd with a full bill of fare a scrub race was arranged for 11 o’clock. Already the shore was filling up with spectators, among whom, as the New York Tribune observed, “the betting ran quite high.” All the crews rowed in the “little go,” a course of about a mile and a half from the landing out to a boat moored off Mile Island. In retrospect the affair takes on the mellow atmosphere of a melodrama as “at the third blast of the bugle, the boats shot forward almost with the speed of race horses, while the band on the shore struck up a lively tune.” The little parties aboard the skiff and sailboats that lined the course urged on the oarsmen “with encouraging shouts as they rushed by them.” Oneida came in first, racing the course in 11 minutes; Shawmut was two lengths behind, with Undine and Atalanta close on her heels. As this was a scrub race, however prophetic, the only prize was a set of silk flags donated by the committee.

Between 3 and 4 came the main event, to be rowed over a straight course from two miles out on the lake to a flagged line in Center Harbor. Atalanta was barred from the final because of the inequality in size. As if to underline the seriousness of this climax, the three boats were towed to the start by a horseboat, a craft that was powered by a horse on a treadmill amidships. “Every steamer” was landing fresh crowds of friends and spectators who lined all the open shores of the harbor or sought by boat a front seat along the course. The Concord Mechanics had gone to sea for this grand climax and were now located aboard a steamer halfway down the course. Though they “played some very fine airs for the benefits of the onlookers,” they “attracted no attention from the oarsmen who were too busily occupied.” It was a “straight pull” into the harbor against so light a breeze that “where the sun struck the lake it looked like a bed of diamonds.” The boats backed up to the line: the vermilion-hulled Oneida with its oarsmen dressed in white shirts with blue trim; black Shawmut,, the men in white edged with red; and the red Undine, its crew in white faced with blue. At the sound of the five-minute bugle, “expectation is on tip-toe,” to quote the New York Herald. Another blast and they were off, Oneida a little slower than the others. Over the first mile the lead changed several times, but gradually Oneida, “better together and steadier,” went into the lead and with a “very powerful” finish beat Shawmut by about two lengths in the rather slow time of fourteen minutes. Undine came in another two lengths behind. Later some of the Yale supporters argued that Shawmut had lost inpart because its captain had confused the referee’s “dock” (meaning the steamboat dock) with a temporary one set up for spectators, causing Shawmut to steer a diagonal course, somewhat longer than Oneida’s.

Save for a slight mishap, the winner’s time might have been better. A water-soaked board off a temporary platform in Center Harbor drifted onto the course, and Sid Willard, rowing five in Oneida, suddenly found it sitting on his oar at the finish of a stroke. A lesser man would have caught a crab, but Sid, “a brawny fellow,” held his oar submerged and trailing in the water until it was clear. By such Titans was the first race rowed.

After a moment’s rest the victors paraded off the shore. At the command of the captain, oars were set at “rest, peak, and let fall aboard.” Again in the words of the Herald, the crowd raised “a hearty cheer and the fair ones wave their handkerchiefs while the deep melody of the band reaches over all and comes softly and eloquently over the rock-bound lake." Their prize, a pair of black walnut oars, silver-tipped, was presented by the future U.S. president from New Hampshire.

Popular support of the first races encouraged the railroad and steamboat officials to stage an immediate return engagement two days later off Wolfborough. A drenching rain prevented the actual race, but once the weather improved the crews marched in full uniform, “preceded by the band,” to the wharf and “rowed about the lake for the gratification of the townspeople.” That evening the crews enjoyed a gala dinner and dance at their hotel. The prize intended for the Wolfborough race—a black walnut boathook with silver plating—was awarded to Shawmut for its second place in Tuesday’s regatta. Toasts were drunk, and the oarsmen passed resolutions thanking their hosts and particularly the committee for the treatment they had received. Then each man received free passes on the Boston, Concord, and Montreal and sufficient funds “to pay their expenses back to their respective colleges.” Pleasant rowing and sumptuous entertainment at the best of hotels had been the oarsmen’s lot. As stout Ben Phelps of Undine gleefully reported, the modest dime with which he had confidently begun the week was “not broken yet.”

Whiton himself looked back on the occasion “as an eight days’ junket at the expense of a railroad corporation … as unique and irreproducible as the Rhodian colossus.” The contemporary press, unaware of the epoch-making character of the race—it was the first American intercollegiate contest of any kind—treated it as resort news to be sandwiched in among the more alarming news of an outbreak of cholera in New York City, a report on a Fourierst phalanx in New Jersey, and the possibility that Webster might resign from the cabinet in a dispute over the Hawaiian Islands.

Perhaps the most old-fashioned aspects of the race were the boats and equipment. The outrigger, the smooth-skinned shell, and the sliding seat, each of which radically altered the art of boat racing, lay all in the future. The 1852 race was won, fittingly enough, by the old Oneida, an octogenarian survival whose lapstrake construction, great beam, wooden floor, and hardwood gratings in bow and stern looked ungainly alongside the already sleeker Atalanta. The two Yale eight-oared boats still resembled the Oneida. Their heavy ash oars varying from 13.5 feet in the waist of the boat to 12 feet in the bow and stern, were worked against crude tholepins by oarsmen seated on narrow seats with red baize-covered cushions and driving off a plain bar of hardwood for a stretcher. They were a far cry from modern racing.

Despite such contrasts the race must not be dismissed as a mere antiquarian curiosity. Even though the crowd may well have assembled through novelty and ballyhoo, the oarsmen felt sufficiently the delights of racing to applaud the proposal to race again another year. While in fact three years would pass before the next race, the interest aroused at Winnipesaukee did find more immediate expression: Within a year, the New Haven fleet combined to form the “Yale Navy”—an essential development if occasional boating was to acquire real permanency. And finally this first race had already captured something of the intangible spirit that would represent so much of the sport’s appeal for its devotees. In the words of Carolus, who described the festivities for the Boston Daily Advertizer:

“It is gratifying to observe the friendly disposition which the members of the various clubs bear toward each other. Neither seems to view the other in the light of rivals, but as congenial companions in the same pursuits, and I do not doubt that this meeting will do much to create and foster a cordial interchange of courtesies between the men of Harvard and Yale.”  the end


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