Rowing through the years

June 2016

There are a variety of sports that I have always said I would like to try. Included on that list is rowing. My desire is heightened every time I see images of rowing shells gliding gracefully across the water. I am eventually brought back to reality when I realize that my desires do not necessarily match my athletic abilities. There have been a number of people from our community who have taken up the call to the oars and done so with great success. This summer as our local rowers lower their shells into the Kaministiquia River at the Thunder Bay Rowing Club, they will be carrying on a long and proud tradition dating back over a century.

The sport of rowing has been a part of our sports scene since the 1880s when local oarsmen would take to the water in friendly races held as part of holiday celebrations. Kenora holds the distinction of having the oldest established rowing club in the region with their roots reaching back to 1890 with the formation of the Rat Portage Rowing Club.

Thunder Bay’s rowing history can be traced back to the early 1900s with the construction of a clubhouse near the old Mission Bridge and the formation of the Fort William Rowing Club. With membership fees set at $10 the newly formed club elected E.R. Wayland as their first President in 1905 and adopted Cambridge blue and white as their official colours.

Around the same time a clubhouse was constructed in front of the railway station in Port Arthur and soon rowing regattas were taking place between the rival communities with thousands of people often drawn to the water’s edge to cheer on their favourite oarsmen.

Every sport has its holy grail and for local rowers the goblet of their desire first appeared in 1914 when Sir Thomas Lipton, of the tea company fame, presented a three foot high silver trophy to the overall winner of the North Western International Rowing Association (NWIRA) annual regatta. Both cities had crews compete in early NWIRA regattas, and hosted the association championships on various occasions. Considered the Stanley Cup for rowers from across western Canada and the upper mid-western United States, competitors from our waterways have sipped from the Lipton Cup on many occasions. Having displayed the trophy at the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame throughout much of the 1980s I can tell you that their beverage of choice was most definitely not tea.

The FWRC won their first Lipton Cup title in 1935 under the leadership of coach Harry Tuckwell and claimed three consecutive titles from 1937-39. By 1940 the Port Arthur club had ceased operations and NWIRA regattas were cancelled due to World War II. When the oars hit the water again in 1946 the FWRC maintained their dominance, winning consecutive titles between 1946-49, and adding more Lipton Cup honours in 1952, 1954, 1955 and 1958. Following a twenty year drought, the club returned to Lipton Cup glory in 1978 as the re-named Thunder Bay Rowing Club and dominated the event throughout the 1980s.

The excellence of our local rowers has not just been limited to NWIRA events as our community has also been well represented in provincial, national and international competitions. In 1938 Jack Chambers claimed the FWRC’s first individual title at the prestigious Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, with the Junior 4’s crew of George Moors, George Nickerson, Jim Miller and Murray Teeple claiming our first team title that same year. In 1951 another Junior 4’s crew brought home Henley gold with Jack McDonald, Emil Charban, Leonard Lundberg and Bill Stavert doing the honours. During the 1970s and 80s a number of TBRC rowers claimed individual and team Henley titles including such multiple winners as Terry Hamilton, Rob Karle, Jeff Reitberger and Bill Scollie on the men’s side and Helen Fleming and Barb Kukko for the women. In 1983 Maureen Grace brought home a bronze medal from the Pan-American Games.

Some of our locally developed rowers have also made it to the world level with Bill Scollie representing Canada at the 1975 World Championships in Nottingham England where he just missed making the top 12 list amongst a very competitive field. That same year Kim Brown became one of the first females to join the TBRC and went on to help Canada win a bronze medal in the women’s eight at the 1978 World Rowing Championships in New Zealand. In recent years it has been TBRC alumni like Erik Oinonen who competed at two World Rowing Championships, and Liam Parsons who won a bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing as a member of Canada’s Lightweight Men’s 4 crew, that have carried on the tradition of rowing excellence.

The success of the Thunder Bay Rowing Club does not just lie in the laurels of victory. It is the dedication of the countless athletes, coaches and volunteers who have kept the organization going through often challenging times that is perhaps its greatest achievement. If their dock could talk, it would no doubt tell some great stories. It would recall the incredible commitment of people like Skipper Jimmy Eaton who helped keep the boats afloat from the 1930s to the 80s. It would speak proudly of Bill Stavert who was a regular on the water for four decades and contributed his talents as a builder by serving as President of both the FWRC and NWIRA. It would speak glowingly of the commitment to rowing shown by such people as Terry Hamilton who began with the club back in 1973 and remains involved as a recreational rower, coach and executive member to this day, and of the passion of Past- President Cy Goshgarian who has been involved with the club in a number of capacities since the early 1980s. It would also express hope that the legacy of this storied club will continue on for many more years to come.

This summer as our Canadian rowers take to the water at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, hopefully they will inspire some local residents to head on down to the Thunder Bay Rowing Club and give rowing a try. Who knows, maybe this is the year that I will finally join them.

Diane Imrie is the Executive Director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. She can be reached at

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