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Boat Races on the Miami in 1867


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, November 5, 1933



By Howard Burba


     The Miami river, and particularly that part of it coursing between the Main and the Washington st. bridges, has not always been the narrow little rivulet we are now accustomed to seeing.  There was a day when it earned the right to a place on the map as the “Great” Miami.

     Back in the years following the flood of 1913, when the work of removing innumerable islands from the stream was under way and when a temporary dam was located near the Washington st. bridge, Dayton had an opportunity to see what the stream looked like fifty or a hundred years ago.  Then it was a river—broad, expansive, beautiful to gaze upon.  But with the removal of the islands and completion of flood-prevention work, the stream settled into the narrow, shallow channel through which it now courses, and Dayton became the possessor of a magnificent stretch of river with bed but a stingy strip of water running over it.

     Passing over the fact that every now and then someone comes forward with a plan to restore the river to its original beauty, only to have that plan ignored, and without commenting on the additional fact that some day Dayton will boast a river of which it can be proud, let’s go back to the days when it was in truth the Great Miami, and when boat races and regattas were staged on its broad breast.  Few there are living today who recall the time when thousands of people lined the river banks and watched six-men crews skim the surface of the stream in a sport as clean and manly as it was exciting.  Yet early history has not overlooked those old regattas on the Miami river.  Their story was too clearly written among the events of early days to be lost sight of.

     The greatest of these early regattas occurred on Sept. 7, 1867, just 66 years ago.  That it was of more than passing interest is evidenced by the fact that the little four-page dailies of that date gave it a prominent place on the first page of their issues of Sept. 9, there being no Sunday papers in those days, and the regatta having been held too late on Saturday to be “covered” in issues of the same day.  Let us turn back the pages of those old files of 66 years ago, and read the story as a reporter of Civil War days wrote it, for it should be noticed that the great conflict had come to an end but a brief two years before.  Here is his description of the event:

     “It was pretty widely circulated about the city that the crew of the rowboat ‘Queen’ had accepted a challenge from the crew of the rowboat ‘Temple’ to row a match on the Miami for the championship.

     “The announcement that the race would come off on the Miami between the Main st. bridge and New bridge on Saturday afternoon attracted a very large crowd to the river bank.  About 5 p. m. the Regimental band appeared on the north bank of the noble stream, and their charming music served to lure to the scene large accessions to the crowd already there.

     “We will not attempt to give an estimate in round numbers of the multitude attracted to the scene of the regatta, a large portion of whom were ladies.  The north bank of the river, from a point a few rods west of the bridge, and nearly to Tate’s Mill (now the entrance to McKinley Park) was fairly lined with all manner of vehicles; the areas of shade under the scores of majestic sycamores which look into the river over the entire extent of the north bank were taken up with anxious beholders.  The yards in the rear of the mansions on the south bank were occupied by family groups; the terminal of Ludlow and Wilkinson sts., on the river’s brink, were thronged with spectators, while under the shade of the trees at a point opposite DeKalb st. it was literally alive with people.  It was a crowd hard to estimate on account of its extended lines, but we heard an old soldier say that there were a couple of thousand persons scattered along both banks of the Miami to witness the boat race, and persons who heard the remark thought the estimate far under the mark.  It was a big crowd, however, much larger than was ever before attracted by any similar trial of  ‘manly sport,’ for it was the most novel encounter ever inaugurated here.

     “The river was dotted in all directions with skiffs that were loaded with men and women, moving about smoothly and easily and seeming to invite the competitors to come out and win.  The two more noticeable of these craft was a trim-built boat with two bows, and propelled by a man with a scull; and a blue skiff with a white stripe at the gunwale which mast moved up and down the stream by two expert boatmen with the velocity of a locomotive, and so great a favorite was this ‘bonny blue boat’ that a good many persons were eager to back her against either the ‘Queen’ or the ‘Temple,’ or both of them.  It was really astonishing to see the large array of craft in the Miami.  ‘It’s catching,’ remarked a clever old gentleman who looked on the ‘fleet’ with admiration.

     “The crews with their chosen judges and umpires were present at the starting point on time.  Indeed, the crew of the ‘Temple’ indulged in a little scoring preparatory to the great contest.  This ‘wasting of raw material’ was marked by a gentleman of a sporting turn of mind, who offered to bet that the crew of the white boat would break down and couldn’t make the round trip.  These chances were taken up by venturesome fellows who affirmed that their favorite crew had any amount of ‘raw material’ to spare.

     “The friends of the ‘Queen’ were numerous and sanguine and they greedily picked up all bets they could secure.  And thus matters were going, to the music of the band, while awaiting the start of the boatmen.

     “The delay, it seems, was caused by a question raised about the equipment of the crews.  It seems that the challenge was given by a six-oar boat to another six-oar boat, crew against crew, and no points were raised and no details were settled.  When the crowd was gathered and the competing crews made their appearance a protest was put in by the ‘Queen’ that the oars used by the ‘Temple’ were two feet longer than hers.  The ‘Temple’ protested that she was two feet longer than the ‘Queen’ and that the difference of oars put them on an equality. The argument was finally settled.

     “The race was to New bridge and back, a little over a mile for the round trip.  It was just half past five o’clock when the boats got off, rather evenly.  At first the crews pulled nervously and laboriously, but they soon settled down to their work and shot along like veteran watermen.  And they kept along together for about half the distance down when the ‘Temple’ drew a little ahead.  This gave rise for applause on the part of her admirers.  And just here we will say that when the boats passed westward past the multitude the scene beggars description.  Everybody who had charge of a vehicle seemed taken with a sudden and irresistible desire to leave the spot and rush toward Tate’s Mill, from which point they could get a view down the river.  It was rough on weak nerves, and a little heavy on strong ones.

     “When the boats had made about two-thirds of the way to New bridge the ‘Temple’ was a full length ahead and she gained gradually—almost imperceptibly—to the place of turning.  Here, it seemed to us, the ‘Queen’ went about 200 feet farther than the ‘Temple’ before she made a move to turn, and then, she turned so slowly as to give the impression that she would stop altogether.  The ‘Temple,’ on the other hand whirled around as though she had been turned on a pivot and the crew were speeding her on the home-stretch before the ‘Queen’ got her bow upstream.

     “The return of the boats upstream was remarkable only for slogging hard work on the oars.  The ‘Temple’ was considered in the lead when the boats started back and the ‘Queen’ put two or three additional bow lengths between her and the goal.  Notwithstanding this, the ‘Queen’ steadily gained on the ‘Temple’ all the way back, and although there was little chance of beating her, the ‘Queen’ was only about a length and a half behind when the west line of the Main st. bridge was reached by the ‘Temple.’  It was remarked that if the boats had a quarter of a mile further to go and the ‘Queen’s’ crew could have held out with the same stroke and power she would have won.  The ‘ifs’ spoil the case and besides, the race was from Main st bridge to New bridge and back, and not a quarter of a mile further on.

     “So the ‘Temple’ won the race and the championship, making the round trip in just 10 minutes and 43 seconds.  After the award of the judges, the victorious crew bore the Star Spangled Banner in triumph down the street amid the plaudits of the multitude and music by the band.  It was an exciting affair, the first regatta on the Miami river and the people greatly relished it.  We have already heard whispers of a challenge from the ‘Queen’ for a second race.

     “The crew of the ‘Temple’ consisted of: Dr. D. F. Hayes, J. C. Bremer, D. J. Caine, W. K. Young, William Bates, J. Paul and F. Morrison, coxswain.   The crew of the ‘Queen’ consisted of: J. Hoglen, W. B. Marshall, E. Walter Keith, W. J. Hoglen, A. Anderson, E. C. Boyer, and W. Phelps, coxswain.  The judges were: A. C. Brown, C. J. Tyler, D. Trump, T. W. Cridland, W. S. Phelps and J. L. Wuichet.”

     That the regatta had been a complete success, and yet a disappointment to those who cheered the crew of the “Queen,” and probably had risked a few of their hard-earned dollars on that craft, goes without saying.  It had been an unusual event in sporting circles and sporting blood, being pretty much the same then as it is today, did not stand aside with a single defeat and indulge in “ifs” and “maybes.”  It demanded another contest of the very same kind.  Little wonder then that we find supporters of the “Queen” insisting upon a second race, and having their demands promptly satisfied.

     Winners of the initial contest, firm in their belief that they could duplicate their victory, agreed to row a second race, and the date was fixed for Saturday, Sept. 21, just two weeks after their first triumph.  In a paper of Sept. 23, 1867, we read these words concerning it:

     “The surroundings of the regatta on the Miami river Saturday afternoon were immense.  The Regimental band was there.  The people were there by thousands on foot, on horseback and in all manner of vehicles.  The river was fairly alive with boats of every description known here-away, and these little crafts were filled with men and women, who seemed eager to mix as much as possible in the aquatic contest.  There were about twice as many witnessed the second race between the ‘Queen’ and the ‘Temple’ as were present the first time.  There were twice as many horses and wagons of various styles and get up.

     “Just before the time for starting the boats it was discovered that one of the row-locks of the ‘Temple’ was fouled and another had to be supplied.  This occasioned some delay, which was not compensated by quite as much music as met the public demand.  The people were kept in a good humor, however, by their lively anticipation of the race.

     “It was a little after 5 o’clock when the judges took their positions on the Main st. and the New bridges and the rival boats started on the race for the half-mile goal, and return.  Their start was very even and the crews struck the water with confidence, but after going a few boat lengths one of the ‘Temple’ crew snapped his oar at the blade and the ‘Queen’ shot right ahead from the very start, widening the space between the two crafts every moment.  The breaking of the oar seemed to have lessened the confidence of the ‘Temple’ crew, for they did not pull with the same steadiness they were accustomed to use and there was an unsteadiness in that boat due to the uneven pulling of three men on a side against two on the opposite side.  All the while the ‘Queen’s’ crew pulled away with the regular, sweeping stroke of veterans, striking the water squarely and withdrawing their oars without splashing.  The boat fairly darted along at each uniformed pull.  It is not our purpose to disparage the manly efforts of the ‘Temple’ crew when we say that their only chance of wining was lost with the broken oar, and they deserve credit for their pulling through the match under such adverse circumstances.

     “When the boats started from the Main st. bridge the crowds on each side of the river evinced their delight in an uproar of cheers.  As the competing crews pulled away down the river there was a general tendency of the throng to move westward.  The great body of people, however, maintained their position and order was better maintained than on the occasion of the first match.  There was not nearly as much excitement either as everyone felt the race was one-sided after the accident of a broken oar.

     “It was the very general verdict of the knowing ones that the crew of the ‘Queen’ displayed superior rowing qualities yet the disparity on the part of the ‘Temple’ boys may have been owing to their misfortune.  It was very evident the crew of the ‘Temple’ did not pull as well as the crew of the same boat two weeks ago.  If the contest was simply between the boats, and it was to be decided which is the best boat it would be proper to change crews until the best power could be secured to operate them.  But if these contests are to decide the skill and endurance of the crews, then the crews who contend should be the same in every match.

     “The time made by the ‘Queen’ in the race Saturday was 10 minutes and five seconds.  She met with a delay of about 15 seconds in turning at New bridge, having failed to go under the structure as far as the judges decided, and was compelled to back a few feet in order to meet the requirements.  The ‘Temple’ came out some 43 seconds behind, her crew pulling gamely against fate.

     “The ‘Temple’ having been the victor of the first match and the ‘Queen’ having won the second one, it seems that a third contest will have to be made to test the superiority of boats and crews—the ‘best two in three,’ as the sports say.”

     With a victory chalked up for each side, there just had to be a deciding contest.  The public demanded it and the crews were too certain of their skill to have it otherwise.  So a third, and deciding, contest was arranged for the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 27.  That gave sufficient time for broadcasting the event, with the result that the greatest crowd ever assembled along the river banks up to that time was present for the third race.  And here is a word-picture of the event, drawn by the same reporter who had “covered” the two previous contests:

    “That boat races comprise the quality of manly, outdoor sports which pleases our people has been largely attested on the three occasions which have transpired here.  A large number were present to witness the first match; the crowd was more than doubled at the second match, and it is estimated that not less than 5000 persons thronged the banks on the occasion of the third match, or Saturday.  There were not as many horses and vehicles on the north bank as on former occasions, but the number of people was far in excess.

     “The third race was most fairly made and the ‘Queen’ crew won it on their merits.  There was not the least jockeying manifested at any point and there being no issues raised the referee had only the agreeable task of presenting the championship flag to the victors through their captain, W. Wins. Phelps.  Capt. Bremer, of the ‘Temple’ then proposed three cheers for the ‘Queen,’ which were given with a will   Then Capt. Phelps returned the compliment to the ‘Temple,’ and three rousing cheers went up.  And then three deafening cheers were given for the ladies and the delighted multitude separated and departed.

     “The ‘Temple’ was the first of the two boats built, being the first ‘wherry’ with a regular crew ever introduced on the Miami.  Soon a number of young men residing east of the canal announced their intention to secure a boat of the same quality.  It is understood that the same party built both boats.   It is further stated that the builder, having decided the bow of the ‘Temple’ set up entirely too high out of the water determined to rectify this fault in the ‘Queen.’  It is thought that he went to the other extreme and set the ‘Queen’s’ prow rather low down in the water.  Be that as it will, both boats have their admirers, and so have the captains and crews.

     “It was half past three when the boats got under way in the third and final dash of the championship contest, and to race off the tie.  For a time they kept well together but before the fourth of the distance to New bridge was made it was evident that the long, steady stroke of the ‘Queen’s’ crew had the advantage of the short sharp pull of the ‘Temple’s’ crew and the gain was apparent when the boats were making the curve down to New bridge, the ‘Queen’ being at least half a dozen lengths ahead.  The ‘Queen’ made the turn in just five minutes from the starting point, and she came out ahead the first mile, making the turn at the stake boat in just nine minutes and forty-five seconds, the ‘Temple’ coming in about four lengths behind and turning in a mark of ten minutes and fifteen seconds.

     “In the third and final contest the crew of the ‘Queen’ consisted of: Wm. Bradshaw, Chas. Anderson, Joseph McCammon, Henry Fraily, J. B. Hoglen, Wm. R. Marshall.  The ‘Temple’ crew in the final contest consisted of: Wm. K. Young, Geo. Hinckley, Jacob Hock, John Heide, James Beatty, John J. Langdon, coxswain, and John C. Bremer, captain.  Judges of the final match were: D. W. Reese, Captain Hicks, Cy Osborn, Milton Miskelly, Will. Bates, and Jesse Booher.  J. Z. Reeder was the referee.”

     That forms the concluding chapter in the Great Miami regattas of 66 years ago. A great deal of water has passed under the Main st. and the “New” bridges since that time.  But not as much as Dayton citizens would like to see flowing beneath them today, and not as much as probably will be flowing beneath them when the city finally awakens to the possibilities of the old stream, and brings it to a stage where it will not only be a joy to the eye but a thrill to the heart as future generations find happiness on its waves as did a generation passed and gone.