Kenora Rowing Club History

Based on research by Kyle Ferguson for a paper prepared for Lakehead University P.E. course 1994

In 1890 the Rat Portage Rowing Club was formed. On May 11, 1905 the name was changed to the Kenora Rowing Club on the day the community also changed it’s name. Waszush Onigum –portage of the muskrat was the traditional Ojibwe name for the area. Hence the original community was called Rat Portage. The name Kenora came about by utilizing the “KE” of neighbouring Keewatin the “NO” from the neighbourhood of Norman and “RA” from Rat Portage.

Kenora is 200km east of Winnipeg, 500km west of Thunder Bay and 240km north of the Canadian-US border. The railway development started in 1877 and came through in 1882 allowing another mode of access to the Lake of the Woods upon which Kenora is situated.

When the rowing club was established the population was just over 1500. The first lapstreak four oar boats were purchased in 1891 from the Winnipeg Rowing club, one for the Rat Portage Rowing Club and two for the Keewatin Rowing Club to allow for local competition. The original purchase price was $26.50 per boat plus $13.20 delivery charge. The first regatta was held on Dominion Day, July 1, 1891.

From the Rat Portage Weekly Record
“Dominion Day, 1891, will be marked as a real letter day in the history of Rat Portage, and well it may be. A monster demonstration inaugurated the “first annual” regatta held here. Though strictly speaking it was not the first regatta held on the water on Lake of the Woods, the aquatic spirit is now so thoroughly developed, its yearly recurrence in future may be looked for.”

The first one and one-half storey boat house was erected in the central downtown area in 1892 for a cost of $1260.00. Along with rowing It was the Exhibition Hall for the Kenora Agricultural Society and local dance hall and used in the winter as a curling rink.

In 1894 the Rat Portage Rowing Club joined the Minnesota-Winnipeg Rowing Association, established in 1885. The first local rower to catch the attention of the world was John L. Hackett, known to his peers as Jack. A St. Paul newspaper after the 1894 regatta commented

“In Hackett, the Rat Portage Rowing Club has undoubtedly the fastest amateur sculler in America today, and he is only a beginner. There are those who venture the prediction that if he follows up rowing he will be able to beat any oarsmen in the world, three or four years hence….He possesses three qualifications that are not always found even in the most successful oarsmen—exceptional lung power, great strength and a long sweep. He can row as fast and strong at the finish as at the start and his hardest efforts do not seem to cause the least exertion.”

Hackett went on to the professional rowing circuit competing for purses of up to $1000 dollars and $100 for expenses. He never challenged the world famous sculler and fellow Rat Portage resident, Jake Gaudaur, for the World Championship title but they did team up as a dynamic double sculling crew.
Jake Gaudaur was born in Orillia, Ontario in 1858 and moved to participate in the mining boom from near St. Louis, Missouri to Rat Portage in 1897 and joined the rowing club upon his arrival. Standing six foot two and 175 pounds he made an impression on his fellow citizens. He held the title of World Rowing Champion from 1896 to 1901. On September 7, 1901 Gaudaur (age 43) brought national attention to his small town for the $2500 prize purse race against George Towns (age 31) from Australia.

From the Rat Portage Weekly Record
“Strangers in large numbers are arriving in town every day, to be present at the great boat race between Towns and Gaudaur. All permanent hotel accommodation is being taken up by telegraphic messages, and the question of housing visitors is beginning to cause some anxiety. The CPR Company will shortly announce a $2 return rate between here and Winnipeg and the NPR is to follow suit to reduce rates from St. Paul and Minneapolis in order to get a big crowd across the border. The Rainy River Navigation Company has made arrangements to handle all the water traffic, and will run excursions from Mine Centre, Fort Frances and all intermediate points on the American and Canadian side of the river. Contingents from eastern cities including New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa are also making ready to start for Lake of the Woods. A party of Englishmen and Australians are now on the water and will be here in time to witness the great event”

This was to be Gaudaur’s last competition. He was beaten decisively by Towns and took the defeat with the same grace with which he competed. In his 20 years of competing he collected over 200 first place finishes in single and double races.

After a hiatus due to the Spanish-American and Boer wars regional racing resumed under the auspices of the newly formed Minnesota and West-Canada Rowing Association in 1906. In 1909 the Association changed its name again to become the Northwest International Rowing Association commonly known as the NWIRA. Kenora hosted its first NWIRA regatta in 1910. In 1914, Sir Thomas Lipton, a wealthy tea merchant from England donated a trophy for use as the NWIRA championship cup valued at $5000.00. As extra incentive each member of a winning crew would win the association’s official gold medal at each annual regatta. A few days before the declaration of World War One Kenora hosted the 9th annual NWIRA regatta. The regatta had a royal flare as the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and Princess Patricia arrived in town on July 25, 1914 to a warm small town welcome. The NWIRA regatta did not occur during WWI from 1916 to 1919 and after the war rebuilding was initiated as many young men never came home and those that did had not been in a boat for many years. The first post war regatta occurred in 1920 in Winnipeg.

It took until 1930 but Kenora was finely able to win the coveted Lipton Trophy, with a fifteen member club!

From the Kenora Daily Miner and News
“Unleashing a dogged, determined, irresistible drive for championship honours to row at times to Herculean feats of pluck and endurance, the Kenora oarsmen swept in a triumphant wave to the crest of victory on Saturday afternoon to win the Twenty-first NWIRA Regatta defeating their Winnipeg opposition with an effectiveness and decisiveness that left little doubt as to the superiority of the Kenora crews, and in the magnificent final race, the junior eight only lost to the powerful St. Paul eight by eighteen inches defeating enroute the much vaunted Winnipeg eight stroked by the experienced Culver Riley”

From 1931-1935 the depression prevented travel outside of Kenora for the local club except for one crew a year going to the NWIRA, meeting the hosting requirements of the NWIRA and ensuring the return of the regatta to Kenora in 1936. During this time of little work and much time the rowers all trained twice a day. In 1936 they were well prepared and for the second time on their home course won the Lipton Cup.

In 1940, economic hard times once again affecting the community, the membership fee dropped from $10.00 to $5.00 for the season. At this point in time high school students were invited to join a club previously comprised solely of working men. Once again, after WWII was a period of rebuilding for the club. In 1947, again on home water, the 27 member club entered every event in the regatta save two and was leading the regatta by one point going into the final race, the seniors eight. Unfortunately the finish was Fort William first and second, Regina third and Kenora fourth leaving the men in second overall.

In 1953 the membership dues were $5 for high school students and $ 10 for all others. In 1955 K. (Bud) Malmo joined the club and remained a driving force and participant in rowing activities for six decades. He was able to witness firsthand the perennial rise and fall of membership from one rower to as many as forty members. Other names of the day like Jim Francis and Tom Maluish also remained active and involved for decades. In years with larger numbers of members more equipment was needed. In the late 50’s an eight and a four were acquired, the first new boats since the beginning of WWII.

In 1963 two successful crews of four combined to win the junior heavy eight and the Minneapolis trophy at the NWIRA. This was the last major men’s crew in the Kenora rowing club capable of challenging in international competition. Since that time we have had a variety of successes, with many of our smaller boats winning NWIRA gold. The possibility of a club of 15-30 members from a town of 17,000 competing against large clubs from large urban centers to win the coveted Lipton Cup remains small. At this point the Lipton Cup makes an appearance every two years as we host the NWIRA regatta and award it to one of our larger neighbouring competitors.

Times of Change
After 75 years as a landmark on the Kenora Harbour front the Kenora rowing club building was demolished in 1970. Without a clubhouse for a year, the club rowed out of the Norman Hotel with a four and an eight while all the other boats were put in storage. The new club was a cinder block construction on Lake of the Woods at Norman Beach. Once again, the club membership had been falling, until late in the 1960’s with the introduction of women to the sport. It took until 1977 for the NWIRA to decide that women’s points would count towards acquisition of the Lipton Cup. Our women were strong and competitive it was not uncommon in those years for them to win more points for the Kenora club than the male crews.

In 1980 the Kenora Rowing Club held its first annual regatta on Rabbit Lake in the nearby community of Jaffray Mellick. A 2300 m landlocked lake running east-west it was a perfect venue. The course was felt to be so good that Rabbit Lake hosted the 79th annual NWIRA regatta in 1982. It was suggested at that regatta by the NWIRA officials to make Rabbit Lake the permanent home of the NWIRA championships. By 1990 the recurring peak and valley cycle of membership left two members at the club and another cycle of rebuilding. Along with struggling membership, the Lake of the Woods was beginning to see a rapid increase of motor launch and float plane traffic past the boathouse at Norman Park. Turning the once calm waters into a tumultuous wave park. It was time to start thinking about another move for the rowing club.

During this same time period, Masters rowing (over the age of 27) began to take hold across North America. It took many years of lobbying but eventually Masters races also counted toward NWIRA points for the Lipton Cup. The Kenora Rowing Club has learned that Master rowers bring with them not only their skill in the boat but leadership, financial knowledge and contributions, organizational skills and many hours of volunteerism. A full circle from the initial club made up solely of working men 125 years ago.

It was in fact, a group of Master rowers, who had the vision and capacity to develop a business plan and secure funding to relocate the club house to Rabbit Lake. The final move for the club occurred in 2001 when the last boats stored at Norman, on Lake of the Woods during the winter and in trailers at the west end of Rabbit Lake for the summer, were put on a new rack system in the current boat house.

The Rabbit Lake Boathouse may no longer see World Championship challenges with cash purses or have royalty attending. However, the Rabbit Lake venue has clearly been recognized as the best course between St. Catherine’s in southern Ontario and Elk Lake in Victoria, BC. Home to the NWIRA regatta every second year, our own Tops and Bottoms annual junior/master regatta and recently the Mantario Rowdown between Pinawa, Winnipeg and Kenora. The site has been chosen to host the Canadian Master National Championship Regatta in 2002 and 2015. 2017 will see the first Canada Summer Games rowing event on Rabbit Lake during Manitoba’s year to host Canada Summer Games.

There are far too many people to single out over 125 years of history without the certainty of missing those fading in our memories, or in error, overlooking someone from recent years. Let it just be said our community of rowers has always been small in number but large in presence in the rowing scene in this part of North America. For giving countless hours through training, coaching, officiating, organizing, building or hosting events, those gone before you and those yet to come thank you for your efforts!

Latest Posts