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A row between rowers

We tend to think of sports as static in their popularity — as if baseball, football and basketball have always been the center of our collective attention. In the mid-1800s rowing was among the most popular sports in the United States.

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It had started in busy harbors, where oar-powered water taxis and other craft would compete in informal races for cash prizes that the crews put up. It soon spread to colleges and universities, where it remains popular today. In fact, the Harvard-Yale Regatta, founded in 1852, is the oldest intercollegiate sporting event in the country, held annually since 1859 except during major wars.

On Sept. 9, 1867, two of the country’s leading rowers, James Hammill of Pittsburgh and Walter Brown of Portland, Maine, met in a 5-mile race on the Hudson River to compete for a $4,000 purse — a princely sum. Estimates put the crowd at 50,000 people. Betting was as heavy as any could remember.

Hammill’s single-person shell was built in Harlem, New York, by James McKay. Brown’s was built at the Elliott yard in Greenport, New York, on Long Island. Both rowers were followed by barges with supporters on board, and each barge had a pistol-wielding “referee” to ward off any skullduggery.

Brown got off to his usual fast start on the up-and-back course, but Hammill, always slow off the line, reached the turning mark first. Unfortunately, the current forced him into the stake boat. “Brown, seeing the predicament, headed directly for Hamill [sic],” a report says. “[He] broke his boat and put Hamill, who could not swim, into the water to be picked up by his pilot. Then Brown went on down and claimed the race.”

Talk about serious competition. A contentious dockside protest followed. Brown’s move was called a foul, and the race was awarded to Hammill. Meanwhile, the dock they’d all been standing on sank, dumping half of the contestants into the water.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue.