"Just after 12 o'clock tonight, when Monday is five minutes old," said the New York Sun of Oct. 7, 1888, "three strokes will be hit upon a gong and twelve brawny men will start to row around the track in Madison Square Garden. There won't be any water and there won't be any boats."
The Sun was heralding the debut of a new spectator sport involving 12 superstar oarsmen. By utilizing the new Madison Square Garden, the rowers would be under a single roof instead of on a remote lake. Seeing them would be easier, and so would charging admission. And the problem of finding a vehicle for waterless rowing apparently had been solved with the development of the roadsculler, or rowing tricycle.
Constructed of light iron with a single 20" wheel in front and two 40" wheels in the rear, the roadsculler was equipped with an intricate system of grooved pulleys, axles and great lengths of ‚⅛" wire cable. It supposedly was capable of speeds of more than 15 mph when the operator pulled a handle with both hands in the manner of an oarsman.
The roadsculler looked good on paper, as did prospects for the new sport. Oarsmen in the 1880s were national heroes, and the prospect of seeing a dozen of the most celebrated competing in a six-day race was irresistible.
The names of these heroes mean little today, but they comprised an all-star lineup in 1888. Among them were Jacob Gaudaur, a Canadian known as "the black Brunswicker"; George Bubear, champion sculler of England; William O'Connor, a strong claimant for the American title; John McKay, champion of Nova Scotia; John Largan, Ireland's titleholder; and Albert Hamm, characterized by the Sun as "something of a jolly wanderer." Prize money of $10,000 was added as an inducement to the glory of being crowned unofficial champion of the world.
The rowers' "course" was a ‚⅛-mile track, 21 feet wide, divided into four lanes. The inside three were for normal racing, the outside lane was for passing or "spurting." And although confidence in the rowing tricycle was high, arrangements were made in advance should one or more of the vehicles break down. "There is some danger in the race," The New York Times reported, "for the pulley wire will break and collisions may occur. If a man is dismounted, he may continue the lap afoot and have it counted and find another machine awaiting him at the goal."
Despite the disconcerting prospect of seeing the rowing contest turn into a race of angry walkers, opening night was everything the promoters could have hoped for. Celebrities Robert Ingersoll, the noted agnostic and author, and General William T. Sherman were in attendance as the first of the contestants, Peter Conley, jogged onto the track "gay in a pink shirt." Then as the 13th Regimental Band struck up a lively tune, the 12 racers pulled away in a start that was described by the Sun in a sentence nearly as complex as the workings of the roadsculler: "The twelve oarsmen set off upon the first six hours of their sixty amid the glare of 35 electric arc lights and some hundreds of gas jets, the blare of 75 musicians, each trying to outblow the other, and the cheers of something more than 7,500 spectators, among whom were included some hundreds of women whose bright costumes illuminated the boxes all around the track, and the battery of whose eyes made even the electric lights dim, and the music and huzzas were terrific for those of the oarsmen who had susceptible hearts beneath the gay and scanty gauze shirts which covered their manly forms."
Everything went perfectly—for five minutes. Fred Plaisted's machine broke a cable at 12:10 a.m., then William East's. By 12:15, half of the contestants had mechanical trouble. The first smashup occurred not long afterward when John Teemer's vehicle sent him sprawling in front of the scorers' stand. "Wallace Ross' machine was on top of him in an instant," the Sun wrote, "and Gaudaur's on top of them both." Although no one was injured, the prospect of solid contact appealed to the fans. "The possibility of serious injury to some of the racers was at once apparent...and the audience began to take a redoubled interest in the contest," went the account. "Coroner Messemer, who was up by the scorers' table and was getting ready to leave, sat down again, remarking, 'I guess I'll stay.' "
The contestants were less enthusiastic. Except for Gaudaur, whose machine functioned perfectly and allowed him to pile up a substantial lead, nearly all of the racers had complaints. Largan was "greatly annoyed by the tendency of his wires to slip without gripping the wheels so that pull hard as he would he could not attain great speed." East had so many mishaps that he withdrew from the race after only seven miles, seven laps. Hamm's steering gear gave way just as he was rounding a curve, and he ran into the front row of seats.
At the end of two days' racing, Gaudaur had completed 172 miles and John Teemer was second with 165. Teemer did not remain in contention long. On the third day he "awoke with blisters as large as copper pennies and the dry and inflamed skin was cracked at all the joints. It was a physical impossibility for him to close his hands." The Times added that O'Connor was crippled "elsewhere," an indication that the sliding seats also were malfunctioning.
But the grim marathon continued. On the third day another mishap occurred. "A restaurateur at the west end of the promenade started a charcoal fire in a portable furnace and left it," the Times noted. "The furnace emitted clouds of suffocating smoke which floated across the track toward the exits. Largan and Plaisted happened to plunge into the noxious vapor and they inhaled more than they could comfortably stand." The Irish champion was sick for a quarter hour.
Frustration reached a climax on the last day of the contest, when a fight broke out between two trainers. While it was in progress, Teemer. who was standing on the sidelines, stepped in and struck and kicked another contestant. A fight ensued, during which both men were badly scratched and their clothes torn.
On Saturday, Oct. 13, the regatta came to a halt. Gaudaur, who had negotiated 465.1 miles, was the winner. Ross was second with 462.1 and Teemer last with 177. No one dared predict, as some had before the meet, that land rowing would eventually replace water sculling. If anything had been proved, it was that rowing on land can be nearly as difficult as walking on water.