Newsletter of the Finger Lakes Chapter, ACBS

Volume 18, Issue 1 Newsletter of the Finger Lakes Chapter, ACBS March 2008

UPDATED March 18th 2008 - page 7

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"Boat Race at Skaneateles" by Harry Sunter, 1878 Courtesy of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester Marion Stratton Gould Fund

FLC 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.

I 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 day.

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.

Courtney 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!

About 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.

The 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 race.

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!

Two 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!

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