There couldn’t have been more excitement in town if George Clooney, Tom Cruise and Ryan Gosling had been spotted strolling together down Christina Street.
No, it’s hard to imagine today the sensation Ned Hanlan created when he visited Sarnia twice more than 135 years ago.
Physically, he was hardly an imposing figure. Five foot nine and a mere 150 pounds, Hanlan was, nevertheless, the first Canadian athlete to be a world champion in an individual event - single-seat sculling, or rowing.
He was Canada’s biggest international sports star in its most popular spectator sport. Crowds of 25,000 to 100,000 thronged waterfronts to witness his performances.
It was said every man admired him and every woman dreamed of meeting him.
Born in Toronto in 1855, the child of working class Irish-Canadians, Hanlan defeated everyone he faced in dramatic fashion. He was known during races to deliberately slow down his boat to wave and blow kisses at spectators while competitors struggled to catch up. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were wagered on races. He was one of the country’s first media darlings.
On June 21, 1879, a fascinating new tourist attraction called International Park opened in what today is Canatara Park. It was big, and featured various games, a merry-go-round and inviting dance pavilion. Steamboat and rail excursions brought in the crowds, and, for the grand opening, a sculling exhibition by the great Ned Hanlan.
A year earlier, Hanlan had begun a series of three highly publicized and sensational races against the U.S. champion, Charles Courtney. The first, fought at Lachine, Quebec in front of 20,000 fans was won narrowly by Hanlan – earning him a $10,000 purse –despite his usual showboating.
When Hanlan appeared at International Park that September day, the second race was just weeks away and the crowd was in high anticipation.
On the eve of the second race on Lake Chautauqua in New York, someone sawed Courtney’s boat in half. Gamblers were blamed.
Ned Hanlan returned to Sarnia less than three months after the third race on the Potomac River, which President Rutherford B Hayes witnessed, and for which the U.S. Congress adjourned so congressmen could attend.
In August of 1880, Sarnia hosted Firemen’s Day, a massive three-day celebration that brought hundreds of firefighters to town for competitions, parades, and banquets. The Sunday highlight was a sculling competition refereed by Ned Hanlan from a ferry on the St. Clair River. During his second stay in town, he was a guest at Sarnia’s famous Belchamber Hotel on Front Street.
Ned Hanlan was one of Old Sarnia’s most celebrated visitors.