A great race, a great fiasco: Local historian recounts 19th-century scull racing

COURTESY OF THE CHAUTAUQUA INSTITUTION ARCHIVES

COURTESY OF THE CHAUTAUQUA INSTITUTION ARCHIVES

For those who know it, Chautauqua Lake can get busy in both summer and winter, the water and ice providing a welcome medium for activities of many kinds. But rarely do those who know the lake see the kind of busy that Chautauqua Lake welcomed on Oct. 16, 1879.

In a book titled Chautauqua Lake’s Great Race: The Courtney-Hanlan Fiasco, local historian and writer Fletcher E. Ward recorded the story of that day and the events leading up to it.

At 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ, as part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series, Ward will elaborate on the paradox in the two parts of his book title.

Ward grew up in Bemus Point, in a house across from what is now the Lawson Boating Heritage Center — a former marina and now a museum dedicated to preserving and displaying Chautauqua Lake boating history. Ward is a docent there, and his work with the museum a natural extension of what he does everyday: living a lake life.

“It was a great boyhood experience,” he said, living in and on the lake year round — he worked at the marina; he fished morning until night, duck hunted and sailed; in winter he skated and ice boated.

Not only was Ward a water rat, but as a youngster he was also “kind of a weird kid interested in history” and writing, an interest sparked by various characters in Bemus Point, including his Latin teacher, Winnie Lewellen, longtime hostess of the Wensley House at Chautauqua Institution.

One particular history that attracted Ward’s interest was the Courtney-Hanlan race, or fiasco, depending on how one looks at it. Scull racing was very popular in the late 19th century. One race in England in 1869 was reported to have attracted 750,000 spectators. The race on Chautauqua Lake pitted Charles Courtney from Union Springs, New York, against Edward “Ned” Hanlan, native of Toronto and son of an Irish fisherman.

Courtney and Hanlan raced many times and made a good living on the scull racing circuit. The 1879 race on Chautauqua Lake drew a lot of attention and a grandstand had been constructed along the north basin to accommodate 50,000 people.

There was much interest, especially related to gambling, encouraged by the racing promoter and catalyst Asa T. Soule.

“Soule was a master manipulator, and owned a percentage of the hotel proceeds and the food,” Ward said.

As well, he took a commission on all the legitimate bets.

At the time in scull racing, cheating was routine business. Ward said that racers had been poisoned, and rapscallions might send out a vagrant boat intended to disrupt the organized proceedings. For one trick, a meddler would stretch a thin wire across the waterway, pulling it tight to obstruct the passage of a racer whose victory might destroy favorable odds.

In the Courtney-Hanlan race there was intrigue, nefarious doings, double-dealing and double-crossing, sabotage, snake oil and various forms of jiggery-pokery. In scull racing of the time there was also considerable athleticism, Ward said, and the story of the contests contributes to all of athletic history and the history of Chautauqua lake.

Ward has also written a book on the history of fishing and rearing muskellunge on Chautauqua Lake. It was while researching Chautauqua muskies that he learned about the Courtney-Hanlan race. Both books will be available at Ward’s lecture and in the Chautauqua Bookstore.