Three fishermen and a lighthouse keeper, known as “the Paris crew,” won the world rowing championship in an upset victory in Paris in 1868; lost a race to an English crew two years later when their boat was swamped in rough weather, then beat the English crew in calmer weather the next year.
“Canada is excited by the Boat race which comes off today between the ‘Paris crew’ of Saint John, N.B., and the Tyne crew of England,” says the Nova Scotia, Yarmouth Herald, September 15, 1870.
Regarded as country bumpkins—a lighthouse keeper and three fishermen—the Saint John crew won the world rowing title at the 1868 Paris International Exhibition in a shocking upset, and later won the championship of the Americas.
Now, at the Montreal suburb of Lachine, before an estimated 30,000 to 45,000 spectators, victory again seemed certain. Well before the race began, “A stranger would suppose that we had won,” said the Saint John Globe. Flags and streamers brought to celebrate the victory had already fluttered. A million dollars was said to have been waged, $100,000 from Saint John. Odds of three-to-one went begging.
At 5:17, after a rough wind abated somewhat, the race was off. Saint John lead for the first 100 yards. Then, “A sudden gust of wind came sweeping down,” reported the Saint John Telegraph. With a lower gunwale, the Saint John boat was not as well equipped as the English boat for the rough water. It took on water, its bow was driven under at one point and it was almost swamped. The Tyne crew crossed the six-mile finishing line first; the Saint John boat, 30 seconds later. Their boat was so laden that the crew had to turn it over and dump the water before they could lift it.
“The Saint John crew and most of the Saint John people leave for home tonight, all much chop-fallen,” said the Globe. “Saint John is dead,” reported the Halifax Morning Chronicle. “Everybody here, except sons of temperance, seemed to get intoxicated.” Those who wore blue to honour the English crew were reportedly thrashed. “Business suspended yesterday, and today nothing has been done.”
There was a rematch the following August, on the smoother water of New Brunswick’s Kennebecasis River. This time, the Saint John crew won, but the leader of the Tyne crew collapsed in his boat, apparently from heart failure, and died.
Unfamiliar Canadian history