Race at Skaneateles" by Harry Sunter, 1878 Courtesy
of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester
· Marion Stratton Gould Fund
members may recall the above painting as the one used
13 years ago in the Chapter's 1995 Boat Show poster
- the first FLC Boat Show held in Skaneateles. The
artist, Harry Sunter, lived in Auburn, NY, and his
25x33-in. oil depicts the great scull race of July
4, 1878 - 130 years ago this summer. This is the story
behind the painting. -Ed. PS The poster has become
a valued collectors' item.
n the latter part of the 19th century, the Finger
Lakes, with their long, narrow and fairly calm waters,
became known as headquarters for the sport of sculling.
Spectators would come from miles around to see and
wager on races between the competing oarsmen of the
morning of July 4, 1878, brought thousands of people
to the village of Skaneateles. They came on the Skaneateles
Railroad, by team and by steamboat. The day was one
long to be remembered for the huge parade, various
races and contests sponsored by the Skaneateles firemen.
But the principal attraction was a single-scull race
in the afternoon between two of the greatest oarsmen
of that era - Charles E. Courtney, a carpenter from
Union Springs, NY, and James Dempsey, a blacksmith
from Geneva, NY.
was 29 years old, stood six feet, weighed 178 pounds
and had a chest measurement of 42 inches. His boat
was 30 feet long with a twelve inch beam, and weighed
30 pounds! Prior to each race, Courtney religiously
went through a very stiff training period. He had
won every race he had entered. Dempsey was 34 years
old, five feet-eleven inches tall, and also weighed
178 pounds. His chest measured 44 inches. His boat
was the same size and weight as his opponent's. However,
unlike his opponent, Dempsey did not think it was
necessary to train for a race. Courtney was the favorite!
a month before race-day, the village newspaper had
run a story in which it noted that Courtney had ordered
a fine new scull to be built for the race. It had
been completed the previous December and had been
left in the shop until summer to "season." It was
a beautiful craft constructed of bank-note paper and
was so transparent that a person could see the bottom
of the boat when looking through the deck! But when
the boat arrived in Skaneateles, it was found broken-in-two.
For a while, it looked as though there might not be
a race since Courtney had sold his only other race-boat
to Dempsey. But Courtney had a friend in Troy, NY
who learned about the accident and saved the day by
sending his personal boat in time for the big race.
five-mile race course was a single loop, two and a
half miles in length, allowing the contestants to
start and finish on the lake just off Thayer Park,
east of the business blocks along the south side of
East Genesee Street. Echo, a small steamboat, would
carry the referee and press reporters, and follow
the competitors around the course.
On race day, the park shoreline was well-lined with
spectators except where viewing stands had been built.
The stands had been set up to accommodate 4,000 to
5,000 people, but only a small number of seats were
occupied as spectators thought the 50¢ rental fee
was exorbitant. They could just as easily see the
race sitting or standing on the park lawn. And because
race starting time had not been well-advertised in
advance, much of the huge crowd that had come to the
village was not at the park to see the start of the
At 2:00pm the race got underway. Courtney began by
pulling a slower stroke than Dempsey. At the two and
a half mile stake-boat, Courtney was one minute ahead.
On the home stretch, Courtney led by about an eighth
of a mile and won the race in 40 minutes, 48 seconds
"with a splendid sweeping stroke." Dempsey, no match
for his opponent, followed one minute later. There
was nothing exciting about the contest!
days later, the Skaneateles Free Press published a
long account of all the other events of that July
4th - firemen's parades, marching bands, hand-pumper
(fire engine) competitions, walking races, tight-rope
walking, fireworks, and a gala ball to wrap things
up. It sounds like those that made the trip to Skaneateles
had a wonderful time. But nothing was written about
the unexciting scull race which was to have been the
highlight of the day!