History from Here: The Royal Canadian Henley Rowing Course

Home of the St. Catharines Rowing Club, Brock University Rowing, the Ridley Rowing Club, and the Ridley Graduate Boat Club; a training site for numerous school rowing teams, and a venue for rowing competitions of all levels, including the highly reputable Henley Regatta – the Royal Canadian Henley Course has welcomed and cultivated world-class rowers and coaches on its waters, since 1903. 🚣‍♀️🚣‍♂️

On this episode of History from Here, Sara takes you to Rennie Park, across from the Henley Grandstand, to learn about the Royal Canadian Henley Rowing Course in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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When the Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsmen began looking for a permanent course for their annual regatta, the calm waters of the old Welland Canal were put forward as a candidate. The old canal route at Martindale Pond offered a preferred climate for rowing: shelter from the wind, little current, a straight length suitable for watercraft racing, and ample space on shore for enthusiastic crowds to cheer on competitors. Furthermore, the course would be ideally situated in proximity to Toronto, Buffalo, and Hamilton, and also easily accessible for athletes and spectators by both water or rail.

Spectators wait in-between races at the Henley, c. 1920. STCM 1974.152.19A

So, a rowing course was measured at 2112 metres long, the same distance as the Henley Royal Regatta in England at the time. A wooden grandstand was built, located on the opposite side of the course from today’s current grandstand. And a government building, initially used for Third Welland Canal maintenance, was retrofitted to store boats, accessories, and additional rowing shells. In August 1903, the Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsmen held their 24th annual regatta on the new Royal Canadian Henley course. An estimated 10,000 spectators attended the sporting event – an impressive attendance considering the population of St. Catharines at the time was about equal to that number.

The St. Catharines Rowing Club was established in tandem with the formation of the Henley course. First calling itself, the St. Catharines Rowing and Canoe Club, it was more considered a social club than an athletic association. Over time, the club took training for the sport more seriously. A clubhouse, shell house, and other buildings were erected to accommodate the growing number of local and visiting rowing enthusiasts interested in training.

The old St. Catharines Rowing Club clubhouse, c. 1910. STCM 1482-L.

Over the decades, the rowing facilities would be upgraded and, in some cases, multiplied to meet the increasing needs of Niagara’s rowing community. In 1965, silt from dredging the course, along with additional fill, was used to create Henley Island. By 1967, this would become the new heart of rowing in the city and one of Canada’s premier rowing venues.

Beyond the annual Royal Canadian Henley Regatta and Canadian Secondary School Rowing Association Regatta, which is the only national competition for secondary school rowing in the country, St Catharines has also hosted the World Rowing Championships in 1970 and 1999, the Pan Am Games rowing events in 2015, and is set to host the rowing events of the 2022 Canada Summer Games. All here, at the Henley Course.

In 1947, the first female rowers raced on the Henley Course. By 1972, women’s racing became a permanent competition at the Henley Regatta. A long list of male, and female, rowers and coaches who have trained in St. Catharines have gone on to achieve national and international accolades. Most notably, 1984 Olympics Men’s Heavyweight Eight Gold Medalists, Brian McMahon and Kevin Nuefiled, coach Neil Cambell, and more recently, coxswain Kristen Kit, who led the Canadian Women’s Eight to Gold, in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The Canadian Men’s Heavyweight Eight Gold Medal Champions at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Team members Blair Horn, Dean Crawford, J. Michael Evans, Paul Steele, Grant Main, Mark Evans, Kevin Neufeld, Pat Turner, Brian McMahon and coach Neil Campbell pose for a photo. STCM 1999.160.5.2A.

From the first Henley Regatta held at Martindale Pond in 1903 to today, rowing has become intrinsic to St. Catharines’ sense of pride and identity. With vision towards the future, the new, state-of-the-art Henley Rowing Centre will open on Henley Island in 2022, ensuring the continued legacy as a world-class rowing destination. Here, the next generations rowers and coaches will train, compete, and keep St. Catharines rowing on the international stage.  

Grandstand crowds at the 1982 Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. STCM 2003.36.167.

You can watch more History from Here episodes on our Youtube Channel. Want us to take you to a specific place in St. Catharines for a future episode? Drop your suggestions in the comments!

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