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REMEMBER THIS: Oarsman extraordinaire wowed massive crowds (4 photos)

In this week's Remember This, Mary Harris looks back on Ned Hanlan's visit to Barrie in 1878 and the festivities (and shenanigans) that followed in his wake

What do you think of when you hear mention of Hanlon’s Point in Toronto?

Aha, that’s what I thought!

Well, this corner of the Toronto Islands is much more than its current status as a clothing-optional beach. In fact, it was home to Canada’s first superstar athlete, a colourful character who amazed the crowds here in Barrie one summer day.

Edward ‘Ned’ Hanlan (sometimes also spelled 'Hanlon') was the Sid the Kid or the Great One of the 1870s and 1880s. Instead of rising to extreme fame with a hockey stick in hand, as our Canadian celebrity athletes often do, Ned Hanlan wielded a pair of oars.

Young Ned was the son of a fisherman and was raised on the Toronto Islands, so boating was as natural as walking for him. The family home was on the east side of Centre Island, but legend has it that even the house itself went sailing one day as it was washed to the opposite side of the island by a fierce storm.

As a five-year-old, little Ned took a small skiff out to the flotilla of boats waiting to greet the visiting Prince of Wales in Toronto Harbour and thought nothing of it. In a few years, Ned himself would be the attraction on the water that people would be clambering to see.

Ned was a regular participant in the once-common rowing competitions in the harbour and a regular winner. At 18, he was amateur champion and two years later he became a professional in the sport of sculling.

The young athlete was smaller in stature than most of his opponents, but what he lacked in size he made up for in charisma, skill and shenanigans.

Hanlan wasn’t above toying with his adversaries as they struggled to keep up with him on the water. Rumours of bribes and sabotage swirled around him, as well. In fact, one opponent found that all of his boats had been sawed in half just prior to a championship race.

Barrie believed that the waters of Kempenfelt Bay would be ideal for a Hanlan-centred sculling extravaganza so they invited his handlers to bring their man to town. The town was elated when they accepted. Hanlan’s very name prompted competitive oarsmen from all over to sign up as well.

The two-day event was held on Monday and Tuesday, the 12th and 13th of August, 1878. The organizing committee had a large grandstand constructed between the Barrie railway station and the water’s edge. Every steam boat and available water vessel was called in to provide floating viewing places.

The Northern Railway sent a special observation train. They also sent train after train of spectators to Barrie and reportedly increased the town’s population by 20,000 people during the event.

Every hotel was at the ready, but it was the Barrie Hotel, now called the Queens Hotel, that got the honour of housing Ned Hanlan himself. Hoteliers and other business people set up numerous food and drink stands near the waterfront. In the end, they got stuck with a lot of the food and ran out of drink, as the crowd turned out to be a rather thirsty one.

The Northern Advance of Aug. 15, 1878 simply gushed with delight over the story they subtitled ‘The Red Letter Day in Barrie’s Annals which Immortalizes old Kempenfeldt in Aquatic Circles’ and lamented that they didn’t have limitless space to report every detail.

The main event, the professional single-scull race, was held at 6:40 p.m. on the Tuesday evening. The crowds, circling the entire bay, came to see Ned Hanlan win, and win he did. The Northern Advance described the setting in picture detail almost suggesting that Hanlan’s appearance and victory on our bay was heaven-approved.

Ned Hanlan’s star continued to rise at a very rapid pace as he earned more championships and a great deal of money in the next few years. His unofficial fan club, the people of Barrie, were eager to keep up on his every move after 1878, and the local papers obliged.

Meanwhile, Hanlan’s father had turned hotelier. Upon Ned’s retirement from sculling, he also got into the hotel business. He operated his late father’s hotel until his own death in 1908 and Hotel Hanlan burned down the following year.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.