The Boy in Blue

Friday, 19 October 1894, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

This week I have been staying in the Hotel Hanlan on Toronto Island. Until 1858, this island was a peninsula, until a big storm washed away the connecting land. The island is really a shifting sandbar, but people build summer cottages here anyway.

Toronto Island, across the Harbour from Toronto
One of the first settlers to the newly formed island was an Irish fisherman named John Hanlan. He built a home for his family on the east end of the island, but in 1865 a storm blew the building off its foundation and across the harbour to the west end of the island. John took the hint and built a small hotel on the spot for the tourists coming from across the bay. This is now called Hanlan Point.

I have been staying at Hotel Hanlan with a lovely view of the harbour from my window. John passed away some years ago, but his son Edward, better known as Ned, has taken over. Ned in fact invested quite a bit of money in enlarging the place. Ned got rich rowing. In fact many a Torontonian got rich betting he could out row everyone else.

Hotel Hanlan in 1894
Living on an island and the son of a fisherman, Ned could easily row across the harbor by the time he was five. He rowed several kilometers everyday so he could attend school on the mainland. He developed a technique while still a child, so he could beat all the adult fishermen to market with the fish he caught so he would get the best price.

Ned Hanlan rowing in a competition
In 1871 at the age of sixteen, Ned began competing in rowing races and became the best in Toronto. Five years later a group of astute investors decided to form a syndicate club to back Ned so he could compete professionally. They bought him a state of the art racing boat with two new innovations: swivel oar locks and a sliding seat. Both helped the rower lengthen his stroke. Soon Ned was competing in the United States and became the North American champion. In 1880 Ned went to England to become the world champion.

All the other racers had sliding seats, too, but Ned was the first to learn how to really use it to the best advantage. Only 150 pounds and less than 5’9”, he was smaller than most of the men he raced against. However they rowed with their arms; Ned used his legs. He rowed 36 strokes per minute while others rowed 44, but each of his strokes had more power and took him further. Ned was so fast he once mocked an arrogant competitor by crossing the finish line, then doubling back to where his opponent was so he could beat him twice in the same race.

Ned Hanlan
During Ned Hanlan’s career he won more than 300 races and suffered defeat less than a dozen times. He has recently retired and is now concentrating on the hotel. People are trying to talk him into going into politics. He will eventually become an alderman. However, his real passion is still rowing. He will start coaching the University of Toronto Rowing Club in 1897, then in 1900 go on to coach the Rowing Crew at Columbia University in New York. He will pass his secrets on to the next generation. Ned Hanlan is considered the father of modern one man rowing, better known as sculling.

Ned Hanlan always wore a blue shirt when racing, earning him the nickname “the boy in blue.” He will be remembered as the greatest Canadian athlete of the nineteenth century. And all because he couldn’t afford to ride the ferry to school.

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