Club History

The Don Rowing Club History

We are looking for past members that may have something to contribute to the compilation of the history of the club. If you have any resources that you think might be valuable to the club, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We are particularly interested in old photos, uniforms, trophies, and any other memorabilia that could be put on display at the club. Many thanks to Margaret Faherty for her work in compiling this history.

Chapter 1 – The Beginning

The Don Rowing Club was established in 1878 by the Christie brothers. They owned a vacant house in downtown Toronto, on Vine Street (now Overend Street). Vine Street bordered the Don River before the course of the river was changed. With three other friends, Andrew McFarlane, T. Hogarth and J. Swanson, they formed the genesis of what was to later become the Don Rowing Club. At the time, the club was no more than an informal and convenient place for the friends to meet for rowing and to use for the storage of their equipment.

Champions RCHR 1908 Junior and Intermediate Doubles: W. Cameron and J. Ryan

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, rowing was a popular pasttime for young men looking for an enjoyable, competitive sport. Regattas were held on Saturday afternoons, and the Don became one of many small clubs in the Toronto region. Clubs were generally informal, usually consisting of no more than three or four men that liked to row. With the Humber and Don Rivers easily accessible and the waters of Toronto Bay close by, there were plenty of opportunities for rowing. With the popularity of rowing remaining high, the club attracted more interested rowers. Soon it became necessary to move to larger quarters. A boathouse was constructed on Eastern Ave., still near the Don River, where the activities of the club were confined to skiff rowing. A skiff was a one-person kind of working boat, or type of small rowboat. In 1880 a clincher four (another older style of working boat) was purchased from W. Laing of Ashbridges’s Bay, but that same year the Don River overflowed, flooding the area of the boathouse. The members moved again, to a less vulnerable area. A new building was erected around the Queen Street bridge.

From the beginning, Don rowers were keen competitors. C. Enright and W. O’Connor were two early members of the Don that brought fame to the club by winning the C.A.A.O double in 1884. Immediately after this win, a four was purchased from the Toronto Rowing Club. In this boat the crew * won the Junior C.A.A.O. Four in 1885. At the C.A.A.O in Lachine in 1890 , another crew** won the Senior Shell Fours. They repeated this win at Barrie the following year. A junior crew also won at Barrie the same year and again in 1893 at Hamilton. In 1895 a four*** won at Hamilton. Later, this crew was sent to the national at Scranton. However they were beaten when they failed to turn a marker buoy by the club. In the latter years of the century the Junior Doubles were won each year almost exclusively by the Don.

*J. Long, W. Rame, W. Chisholm and T. Reynolds

**J. Sullivan, F. Liston, C. Rame and J. Hurley

*** J. O’Connor, A. Trayling, W. Nelson and L. Kennedy

Chapter 2 – 1900-1930

i Cherry Street

Though the club was achieving great success on the water, the same could not be said of events off the water, for once again the club was forced to re-locate when work began that changed the course of the Don River, cutting them off from access to the river and lake. Club headquarters were moved to temporary quarters at the Mulock foundry on a strip of marshy land, at the mouth of the river.

This area was once an island, called Fisherman’s Island. It was joined to the mainland by a spit of land that later became Cherry Street. The land between the mainland and Fisherman’s Island became a landfill project, and today includes the shipping channel. There is no longer much evidence of this former island except for the south shoreline which remains as it once was. Those interested in pinpointing exact locations should consult old city maps which clearly illustrate the old course of the river, and places like Fisherman’s Island.

ii Ashbridges Bay

Winners 1914 HRCR 140lb Primary Eight, Champions of Canada

In 1912 the club moved to Ashbridges’s Bay and constructed a fine club house at the foot of Morely Ave. (Woodfield Rd) Ashbridges’s Bay was a much larger area than it is today, and in 1913 the club officers succeed in obtaining the honour to hold the Dominion Day regatta over their course. Then the day before the regatta disaster struck. Fire tore through the structure, utterly destroying it. Once more the members had to start all over again. Valiantly they re-built once more on the same site. During this time the club prospered. Social and rowing events flourished in a club that boasted a large dining area and a grand piano.

Much of the information about the difficulties experienced by the Don in the early part of this century come from correspondence between the Don and the Harbour Commission which leased land to the Don for the club’s activities.

During this time, Toronto was rapidly growing. Many changes were taking place along the waterfront which severely curtailed the activities of the club. Diverting the course of the river and land fill projects along the lakefront both created, at different times, enormous problems for the oarsmen. Now, just as the club was doing so well, municipal authorities, in the name of progress, established their main waste disposal works on the adjacent property, creating an insoluble problem for the DRC.

In a letter to the Harbour Commission in 1921, the club asked for a new site because they were completely hemmed in by improvements in the bay. In 1923 they wrote again asking to have pipes cleaned in the circulating channel so they could get in from the lake without having to row up to the eastern gap. By 1924 they were loudly complaining to the Harbour Commission that they would be unable to hold their annual spring regatta because Woodbine beach was being closed in by landfill, and the sewage treatment plant was creating severe pollution problems for the oarsmen who were becoming sick from rowing in the muck. Not only was the water severely polluted, but it had become shallow as well. In some spots, the water was no more than a few inches deep.

iii Shipping Channel

At this point the club executive identified a site on Harbour Commission plans called the Polson extension (include map here to show where this was) that would suit their purposes. They would train their crews on the shipping channel which was still unused, until such time as it was needed. In 1924 the Board approved an application from the Don for temporary occupancy of the Polson extension for rowing purposes. The Don wrote to the Commission with their plans for a building 20 feet by 70 feet to be built on the site, erected at their own expense and removed when instructed by the Commission. The site was approved for one year for the princely sum of a $1.00 rental fee, starting April 1925, with 30 days notice to vacate. By 1926, O.G. McIllroy, Don secretary, wrote the Toronto Harbour Commission that the site was unsuitable for rowing. They moved back into the old clubhouse at Ashbridge’s Bay while looking for a new location.

iv Ashbridge’s Bay – old Clubhouse

Still in 1927 they had no new site and club members were asking the mayor (name) for help. Conditions at Ashbridge’s had so deteriorated that the social aspects of the organization were non-existent, and the club was on the wane. The Star reported the bay was so foul it was impossible to induce new men to row on its “turbid, sewage laden surface.” Valiantly, the Dons battled on, until in 1932, fire totally destroyed the club and several costly boats.

1931 Four in Port Dalhousie. From bow: Jack Guest, Lou Scholes, Bob Pearce, Joe Wright Jr.

v Coatsworth Cut Site

Seeking new quarters, the officers at this time came in contact with a proposal to build a breakwater along the eastern beaches. Board of Control for the City of Toronto passed a motion, that Mr. Robert Dibble, on behalf of the club could make application for a piece of land 100 feet by 200 feet on the lakefront just east of the Cut known as Coatsworth Cut. This location (still marked on some city maps) was situated on the lakefront, between Woodbine Ave, and Leslie Street in the vicinity of the turning basin. The clubhouse planned for this site was an ambitious project, estimated to cost around $30,000; an enormous sum of money for the time.

The building was to be erected by George Gooderham, and presented to the organization. The rent for the site was set at $25.00 a year. However, soon after receiving the land, authorities rejected the idea of a breakwater. When the sea wall proposal was turned down, the club reluctantly abandoned their plans. When the club vacated the Coatsworth site, the only structure on it was a frame building of no value for housing rowing shells. The magnificent clubhouse was never built.

Chapter 3 – 1930-1960

Located between the Alexander Yacht Club and the National Yacht Club, the Don set up its next locale on Stadium Road near the C.N.E. Here they constructed a frame boathouse. From the bottom of Bathhurst Street the rowers enjoyed, and were challenged by the sometimes turbulent waters of the lake. Jim Pogue remembers that in those days sores on the bottom were a regular consequence of rowing in wet woollies through those wavy waters of the western gap.

But the troubles of the Don were far from over. These were depression years. People had no money and neither did the Don. Increasingly frustrated letters from the Harbour Commission were fired off to the DRC in a vain attempt to collect taxes and rent owing, letters the Don administration just didn’t bother answering. Rent for the premises was set at $100.00 a year, plus taxes. The Harbour Commission also wanted rent of $25.00 a year for the unused Coatsworth cut site for which the Don had signed 21 year lease.

Under these kinds of pressures many clubs might have closed their doors, but under the able leadership of Bob Dibble, the Don worked out a deal with the Harbour Commission to transfer back to the Harbour Commission a portion of the site at Ashbridge’s Bay, for which the club had paid $3000 and couldn’t use because of the operations of the sewage plant . The Harbour Commission would pay all arrears of taxes on the Bathhurst Street property, a sum of $809.00 and would grant the club a new lease on a site nearer the bay immediately south of Tip Top Tailors. The Telegram reported that the deputation to the Toronto Board of Control consisted of Bob Dibble, Cap Crawford, Bill Carter and Jack Guest. Dibble told the Board of Control that “the Don is one of the oldest clubs in America, but is absolutely broke”.

Despite their battles on the financial front, the gallant DRC were victors in competition, winning the 1937 Men’s Junior 8, and in the same year, the Intermediate U.S. Nationals. These events were extensively reported at the time in the Toronto papers, sparking a great interest in rowing.

During 1937 plans were made for a proper clubhouse just south of Tip Top Tailors. Again Bob Dibble was the driving force behind these plans to erect finally a proper clubhouse. A news article of Feb. 19, 1938 reported on their $6,000 objective and asked sportsmen to:

“rally round the banner of this popular club which has been fated with more than its share of ill luck down the years. April 1 the first sod will be turned at the site of the new clubhouse. It was reported that Don crews have been training all winter at the central Y and a program mapped out with total points earned, giving the winner the Bob Dibble trophy which will be competed for annually.”

A gala evening was was held at the new boathouse on Friday November 4, 1938 to celebrate the opening of their new $7,000 facility. With hopes high for a bright future, the club settled into their brand new quarters. Just two years later, events on the larger world stage would once more affect a small rowing organization.

We all live within particular historical periods. In ways that can sometimes only be seen from a vantage point well beyond them, historical events control and shape our lives. The twenties were good years. There was money for boats and a clubhouse with a grand piano. The Don prospered. This was followed by the dirty thirties. The depression years made it difficult for the DRC to pay its bills. People had no jobs and no money for extras like rowing. The end of the depression coincided with another watershed in the the world history – World War 2. Thousands of young Canadian men enlisted, or were conscripted to fight overseas. Membership dwindled as the type of young men a rowing club needed and wanted, were being recruited to fight for their country.

Then in May of 1940 mother nature dealt another blow. On Sunday May 19, 1940, a devasting storm with winds of 90 miles per hour destroyed the new clubhouse, ripping off the roof and and destroying nearly all the shells. Only two shells survived, one belonging to Jack Guest, the other to Set Adourian. Dibble and Guest appeared before the Harbour Commission on June 12 and stated

“that the club had paid about $7000 for construction of the club, the storm had caused about $2500 damage to the clubhouse, but with the destruction of the shells, damage was closer to $30,000 and now the club had no money in its treasury because so many active members had enlisted.”

Unless the clubhouse was restored, the club could not continue. In turn, the Harbour Commission reminded the deputation, that since moving into the new site, they had not paid either rental or taxes, and until they did, their request for recompense was going to fall on deaf ears.

However help was at hand from the Argos who offered the Don members use of Argo boats and quarters. The Argos also initiated a campaign to raise $2500 for the Don club. In July of 1940 the club arranged with the Harbour Commission to reconstruct the building, after which the Don would occupy the property as tenants on a rental basis with the Don to pay all outstanding debts. But as the war dragged on and more men enlisted, the club had no new source of members to draw upon. In 1941 the club sublet the premises to the Royal Norwegian Air Force and the area became known as Little Norway. What little equipment had survived the 1940 storm went into storage, and the club ceased operations until the war’s end.

Intermediate 8+ at Port Dalhousie

When the war ended, the Don started re building. Campaign efforts raised enough money to buy three eights, a four and two doubles and in 1947 they were back in competition. Still another setback occurred in 1948 when a brand new eight oared shell hit a submerged piling off the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion and was completely wrecked.

Rowing was competing in the late forties and early fifties with other activities along the waterfront, setting the stage for damage to boats in confrontations with other water users. Just to illustrate the old adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same, there is a letter, sent to the Harbour Commission in 1948, from a Mr. Scandrett, who operated Sunnyside Pleasure boats. This gentleman is furious that, once again, while he was out of town another rowing shell has rammed one of his canoes on the Sunnyside water course. He is deeply concerned about the possibility of a fatal accident. He states; “I cannot for the life of me understand how they can expect to successfully train their athletes by continually dodging the small craft within the breakwater.”

The fifties

A history of the club written up by Jack Guest in 1952 is filled with optimism for the Don’s future, and for good reason. In 1951, just four years after rising once again from the ashes, this particular phoenix won victories at Hamilton, Toronto, Lachine, Detroit, Washington, as well as six Canadian championships at the Royal Canadian Henley in eights, fours, doubles and singles. They finished as the top Canadian club that year, second in total points to Westside of Buffalo. Most notable victories of the year were the wins of the 145 pound eight and Jack Guest Jr. in singles. The eight oared championship was the first won by the Don since 1937, and Jack’s victory followed his spectacular race in England for the Diamond Sculls where he was narrowly defeated by Larsen of Denmark. Consider these accomplishments in light of the fact that this was a first year of rowing for many of the oarsmen. This was a club that had fought back from incredible adversities and near extinction over the course of its history. Always returning to battle on, the versatility of the Don crews was an important factor in the Henley wins since Jack Tipping the stroke of the 155 lb four and the 145 lb eight was hospitalized with pneumonia the day before the regatta. Reg Dubeil took his place in the eight, leading his crew to victory, while Walt Thornborough took over stroke seat in the four and duplicated Reg’s performance. That year in May of 1956, Mark Thompson became manager of the club.

Now just as these successes were bringing status to the club, once more changes to the waterfront began to disrupt their activities. Along the lake shore, in front of the CNE, landfill operations were being carried out. Letters to the Harbour Commission in 1957 from the Don objected strenuously, on account of this being the only waterway satisfactory for regattas with races over 3/4 of a mile. If this area was filled in, then the Don training facilities would disappear, and the clubhouse would be of no further use. Despite their objections, plans went ahead to fill in this area, the Toronto Harbour Commission approving a plan to fill in 75 feet of the frontage along the shore of the CNE.

The Don countered that they would withdraw their objection if the city would make a suitable financial settlement, giving them money for their present boathouse, which would be totally useless to the rowers after the landfill operations, and for the inconvenience of being displaced. Metro agreed to settle the matter for $25,000. Now the Dons, found themselves once more looking of a new home.

Chapter 4 – 1960-1970

In 1960 the Don Rowing Club moved to the town of Port Credit. Not long before this move, Port Credit had expropriated the land along the river south of the railway trestle bridge for public use. This action on the part of the town was due in part to initiatives of the recently formed Credit Valley Conservation Authority. The C.V.A was created in the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel which devastated parts of Toronto in October of 1954. People living along the river floodplains of the Humber, Credit, Rouge and other waterways suffered terrible damage and loss of life from this storm. The Credit River for example, rose seven feet the night of Hazel. As one of its objectives, the C.V.A. wished to move homes away from these floodplains in order to prevent such tragic losses from happening again.

Where the Canoe and Rowing clubs are now located, there was a marina consisting of about 25 boats for rent. It was owned and operated by the Hare family. After Hazel the town decided to expropriate this land, in accordance with the aims of the Conservation Authority. Since it was owned by a family who not only lived there, but drew their livelihood from the river, and since the CVA had no power to expropriate on its own, it was necessary to have another valid reason for the expropriation. One suggestion was to construct an aquatic facility on the site.

An aquatic facility was a fortuitous choice, because the Toronto Island Canoe club had been destroyed by Hazel, and they were looking for a new location. Their president was also a member of the Conservation Authority.

The Credit Valley Lions were asked to assist with the formation of the aquatic facility. They agreed to help, and the Lion�s Aquatic Association was formed to fund and co-ordinate the project. Knowing that the Don Rowing Club was also looking for a new place for their activities, the DRC was approached to become part of this new aquatic facility.

While the Don had some money from the City of Toronto for having to move from Bathhurst Street, the canoe club had almost none. The Lions agreed to find the necessary money to construct the building. They went to the bank for the capital, but the banks refused to loan them money. Far from admitting defeat at this unexpected roadblock, the Credit Valley Lions made an unprecedented gesture to keep the aquatic facility alive. Each member, pledged one thousand dollars of their own money as security for the loan. The boathouse was built as a shared facility, with bays for both the rowing and the canoe club.

Ten thousand dollars of the Dons’ money was used towards the construction of the building and to the purchase of equipment necessary to operate a rowing club. Building the old boathouse was an expensive undertaking. Pilings had to be driven 35-40 feet down into the ground beneath to stabilize the land before building could begin. The fact is, that underneath the old boathouse, and the strip of park beside it, there is still swampy wetland, just like the land that lies along the river north of the railway bridge.

Getting the boathouse built solved the problem of a permanent location. There was still the problem of the water conditions. It seemed the Don could not escape sewage treatment plants. Right beside the present day Canoe Club, where the Royal Canadian Legion building stands was a sewage treatment centre. The Legion was built on top. The tank in the basement of the Legion where many people took their first Learn to Row lesson, was the place where sewage was treated. Liquid effluent from the treatment process was then pumped directly back into the river. Dave Beatty a former captain remembers that the foam of the effluent was frequently level with the dock. Marathon swimmers, Marilyn Bell and Cliff Lumbsen trained for their swims in these polluted waters. When Port Credit became part of the city of Mississauga, the plant was closed. The last remaining evidence of its unsavoury past is the old tank in the subterranean depths of the Legion and the pipe just above the canoe club where the sewage poured into the river.

On September 23, 1961, the new clubhouse opened as The Lion’s Aquatic Facility. Opening day ceremonies, included an address by then MPP for Peel, one William Davis who officially opened the building (and who in later years became the premier of Ontario). President of the Lions, H. Lee Williams welcomed the Canoe and Rowing clubs to the site and presented both with keys to the building. Jack Guest of the Rowing club and A.W. Whisking of the Canoe club then spoke. Two hours of entertainment and an exhibition regatta followed the official ceremonies. This was an ambitious start for a club with only six active rowers.

The Lions managed the facility through the Lion�s Aquatic Association. This association consisted of one member of council, one member of the Credit Valley Lions, one member from the Don, one from the Canoe Club and one member of the public. They oversaw the organization until the late sixties when the rowing club had the necessary number of members to allow them to manage their own affairs.

The sixties were a time of growth and change for the Don. Despite the fact that members were few and the boats were well past their best days, only two years after their hopeful beginning in Mississauga, the fledgling club won its first major victory in 1963 at Henley, winning the Junior 145 class.

Schoolboy rowing at the new location started from the growing interest at Lorne Park Secondary School. By 1964 there were 15 steady rowers and they turned in a stellar performance at Henley, winning both the Junior and Senior 135 events and the Junior 145. By 1965 there were 30 boys and they remained champs in the Junior 135 class winning the senior 135 the following year. In 1968 the Don won both the Junior and Senior 135 events at Henley. Lorne Park was the only school in the entire Toronto area to win championship events at the Schoolboy Regatta in 1968, and they won two of them.

In May of 1965 the Don received its first new boat in twenty years. The St Lawrence Starch Company, which was located at the corner of Lakeshore and Hurontario took an interest in community activities. They took it in turn to help buy boats for the Canoe club and the Rowing club. On the 15th of May 1965, club president Art Monteith and the Lorne Park Secondary School 145 lb crew, with their coach Dr. Fred Parteger took possession of the Beehive 1. This shell built by the R. Sims company was 61 feet long, 2 feet wide, made of Honduras cedar and weighed 250 pounds. An elaborate ceremony accompanied the christening of the Beehive 1. It was given an official row in front of the clubhouse by its proud young crew. Forty high school boys from Lorne Park and Port Credit Secondary schools were training with the Don that year. They hoped, with their new boat, to improve on their last year’s fifth place finish in the School Boy Regatta.

Through the sixties the club remained exclusively male. One of the events of the 1968 season was the father and son regatta held in September. This was a fun event and a chance for the fathers to see what their sons had been struggling with all summer. There was even a familiarization session the evening before so these brave souls could see what they were in for.

There is solid evidence that the Trent university rowing program had a lot of early support from the Don. Trent was a relatively new university in the early seventies. It numbered among its students some keen rowers who had rowed with the Don. In July of 1970, the director of athletics at Trent wrote to the Don about initiating a rowing program at the university. These students who wanted to continue to row at Trent, had suggested that the club might be willing to lend Trent the use of an eight during the Fall. This would be an excellent arrangement from Trent’s point of view since (letter dated July 1970) intercollegiate training took place during September and October. In return, Trent would loan the Don a two paired shell for training during the summer months. Trent was not the only place helped out by the Don during the sixties and seventies. When Westside suffered a disastrous fire (when) it was the Don that helped them back on their feet with boats.

Around 1968 the Aquatic association that oversaw the management of the Don was beginning to breakdown. In a letter written to the mayor in July of 1968, the club expressed its frustration with the paralysis that had overtaken the association. They began to withhold their monthly rental fee, in an effort to precipitate some action by the association. Since the Don had money had $10,000 invested in the site, while the canoe club had nothing, it was imperative that there be proper management. To try and remedy a deteriorating situation, the Don made a proposal to the mayor that they take over the entire management of the premises under a lease agreement (letter July 16 1968) with assurance that the canoe club could continue as tenants in the space they occupied.

Coming Soon!