Husky rowing was a crowd-pleaser from the start

The first intercollegiate race for University of Washington crew – a program with some of the school’s most amazing athletic feats and that’s produced more Olympic medalists than any other Husky sport – came one Wednesday evening on Lake Washington.

The scene on June 3, 1903, was far from the Windermere Cup, as the Montlake Cut wouldn’t officially open for another 14 years and the bridge above it wasn’t completed until 1925. But the 5,000 spectators had the same Husky spirit, creating the largest ovation a UW sport had seen.

“Amid the shrieks of sirens, the wild waving of flags and handkerchief and the frantic cheers of enthusiastic partisans, the University of Washington four raced home yesterday afternoon three lengths ahead of the California crew in their great mile and a half struggle for the intercollegiate championship of the Pacific coast,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote in its front-page coverage.

The course was marked a mile and a half directly south of the Leschi Park Pavilion – the building opened in 1890 at the end of the Yesler Way streetcar line, near the gambling casino that lasted until 1909. The course was “an ideal place to struggle for a championship,” the Seattle Times wrote, because “people sitting in the big grand stand could command a perfect view of the race.”

Dozens of boats were on Lake Washington dressed in purple and gold, and Husky students and alums who chartered them “vied with each other in the amount of noise they could produce in some three hours” as the Husky band played “Hail to Washington,” the Times reported.

The P-I had the Huskies time at 9:33, with Fred McElmon as strike, Clinton Lantz in the number three seat, Daniel Pullen in the number two, and Captain Karl Van Kuran in the bow.

“Had the Washington crew been pushed harder at the finish they could have clipped several seconds off the record,” the P-I wrote. “As it was, the bow oar in the California gig steered about fifty yards outside the course at the finish and almost collided with the sea lion tank on the Leschi park grounds He noticed the mistake too late to overtake the Washington crew, which had already crossed the line.”

Click here to read a PDF version of the P-I coverage of that first UW crew intercollegiate race. The day also included rowers from the James Bay Athletic Club of British Columbia.

According to the UW yearbook published in 1903, the university’s first crew race was held two years earlier between the class of ’03 and ’04. Newspaper accounts from 1903 tell of the UW preparing for Cal that ’03, including during May 1 Junior Day festivities.

It “proved to be an exceptionally pretty contest,” the Seattle Times wrote. “Coach [James] Knight picked the respective crews with the idea of making as even a race as possible, and it was in the last twenty yards that the winners were able to pull away from their opponents.”

Knight, who was the first paid coach, also was coach of the Husky football team at the same time he coached crew. Knight started his tenure as football coach in 1902 with an Oct. 18 shutout win against an all-Seattle team. The Huskies went 5-1 that season, ending with a 16-0 shutout against Washington State.

Knight remained the football coach through 1904, compiling a 15-4-1 overall record. And if his football work was any indication, Washington should have a winning crew, the Tyee staff predicted.

The yearbook staff also hoped that the race with California would become an annual tradition, “and the time will come when rowing will be as popular in Washington as football or track.”

The Washington-California dual series that began in 1903 has now had 101 meetings between the two schools – and Washington men have won 71 of them, including the last six. Last year, the Huskies men swept their fiercest rival at their home course of Redwood Shores, retaining the Schoch Cup by finishing the 2,000-meter race in 5:30 – an unofficial record.

The world-renowned success of the Husky crew program seems to follow what was predicted when that Washington-Cal rivalry began.

“Our natural advantages for rowing are many,” the 1903 Tyee staff wrote, “the course on Lake Washington is superb, the distance from the campus short and our backing by the people of Seattle good.”

“Few universities have these advantages, and it’s now for us to use them.”