Harvard Crew Training on the Charles River, ca. 1869*
August 3d 1852
Tuesday Cut out a linen & moire skirt for Catharine
to make and Susan a night gown I have
at last got my travelling dress done I believe
cape and all. How provoking it is to have
to alter so much Julia Mahoney has been
to work for Mrs Witherell making a Borage Delaine
Augusta & Mrs McHanna were here this afternoon
For Evelina, this was a fairly ordinary day of sewing and socializing. Her big news was that she “at last” completed her new traveling outfit.
In the annals of American sports, however, this was no ordinary day. In a two-mile regatta on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, under a bright blue sky, Harvard beat Yale in the very first intercollegiate athletic competition ever held in the U.S.A. Harvard’s Oneida beat both of Yale’s boats, Shawmut and Undine. The first prize, a pair of black walnut oars, was presented to the Crimson team by one of the six judges, soon-to-be-president Franklin Pierce. Today, those oars are the oldest intercollegiate athletic prize in North America**. The contest itself has since moved to New London, Connecticut. It recently celebrated its 150th anniversary (not having been held in consecutive years in its earliest iteration.)
The contest was initiated by Yale, who “issued a challenge to Harvard ‘to test the superiority of the oarsmen of the two colleges.'”* According to the written recollection of James Morris Whiton, Yale Class of 1853 and bow oar of Undine, “[t]he race was supposed to be a frolic, and no idea was entertained of establishing a precedent.”*** The enthusiasm of the participants and the entertainment of the spectators, however, insured that a tradition had been born. Anticipation for the event had been high, so much so that the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad footed the bill for the event, believing it would attract visitors to the area. The excursion trains it set up arrived loaded with visitors.
The oarsmen themselves were so enthused about the occasion that they tried to arrange a dance at the inn where they were staying. According to Whiton, “Many of the College boys stayed at the Pemigewasset House, Plymouth, and it occurred to them it would be pleasant to give a ‘hop’, and invite the rural beauties of the town to the festivities. With this end in view, they applied to the landlord of the hostelry and received this reply: ‘Ye can hav the hall, young men, if ye want a gander dance, but ye won’t get no gal timber there, I tell ye.'”
No doubt the failure to dance with some of the “rural beauties” was a disappointment, but otherwise the race and its aftermath were entirely successful. By 1875, thirteen eastern colleges offered crew.
* Image from Harper’s Weekly, 1869
**Harvard Athletic Association, Courtesy of http://www.gocrimson.com
*** Wikipedia, accessed July 30, 2015
****James Morris Whiton, “The Story of the First Harvard-Yale Regatta by a Bow Oar,” published in The Outlook, June 1, 1901 and privately printed with photographs of Lake Winnipesaukee and of the course of the race.