On June 28, 1923, the University of Washington's eight-man varsity crew defeats Navy at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship on the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York. The victory marks both the UW's first national title in any sport and the first time a crew from the West Coast has won the rowing crown. The UW oarsmen power a racing shell built by the legendary George Pocock (1891-1976) and are coached by Russell "Rusty" Callow (1890-1961), who rowed for the school in the regatta in 1913 and 1914. UW crews will go on to win several more championships at the annual Poughkeepsie Regatta both before and after a stunning gold-medal victory in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, remaining a formidable force in collegiate rowing competition as the centennial of the first championship approaches.
Early Collegiate Crew Racing
In eight-oared sweep rowing (the premiere event in collegiate rowing competition) each rower uses both hands to power a single oar, arrayed on alternating sides along the length of the racing boat, usually called a shell. Eight-oared competition shells always have a coxswain, pronounced "cocs'n," who steers the boat from the stern and is the on-the-water coach for the crew. The rower nearest the stern is called the stroke and sets the rhythm for the crew, which the coxswain calls out and the others follow. It may sound simple enough, but crew racing requires great stamina, together with a precise coordination of effort greater than that in any other sport.
America's crew-racing roots go back to the very beginning of its collegiate sports history. The first university boat clubs in the U.S. were organized at Yale in 1843 and at Harvard the following year. In 1870, students from Harvard, Brown, Amherst, and Bowdoin formed the Rowing Association of American Colleges, the nation's first intercollegiate athletic organization.
In 1895 Cornell University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania launched the Intercollegiate Rowing Association and held the first of what would become annual races on the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, New York, with the winners each year claiming the national collegiate championship. What became known as the Poughkeepsie Regatta was for the next 17 years very much an eastern affair, with most participating crews hailing from Ivy League schools (although the term "Ivy League" did not come into use until the 1950s).
Crew at the U
Crew racing began at the University of Washington in 1899, when Seattle businessman E. F. Blaine (1858?-1942), who had watched Cornell's crew compete when he lived in Ithaca, New York, offered to have built a four-man rowing shell for the student body, which then numbered slightly more than 500. Additional funds were raised from other local businessmen, and soon two training boats, called gigs or barges, had been crafted by Henry Stone of the American Boat Building Company on Seattle's waterfront.
In January 1901 the UW Amateur Rowing Association was formed, and that summer held a race in which freshmen rowers from the class of 1904 beat the crew from the class of 1903. Two years later, the association raised sufficient funds to pay the expenses of bringing a four-man crew from the University of California at Berkeley to Seattle. In June 1903 the UW oarsmen won a trouble-plagued mile-and-a-half race on Lake Washington. Both crews used training gigs and not true racing shells, which neither yet had.
The UW rowing program remained an all-volunteer effort until 1904, when it was recognized as a sport by the university, although still supported only by student-association funds and private contributions. That year the rowers acquired their first legitimate four-man racing shell, purchased from Cornell, and traveled south for a rematch with California. Since Cal was not yet similarly equipped, both crews again used training gigs for their race on the Oakland Estuary, won this time by the Golden Bears. Returning to the Northwest, the Washington rowers lost a race in Victoria against a team from a private rowing club, then ended the year with a victory over a Portland rowing club on Lake Washington.
In 1905 and 1906 the UW crew competed against California schools and private rowing clubs, always in four-man shells and with mixed results. In 1907, with contributions from the Seattle business community, the program purchased two eight-oared shells from Cornell. Three similar shells were bought by the University of California. Eight-oar racing thus began on the West Coast, culminating in an annual competition, later named the Triangular Regatta, among crews from Washington, Cal, and Stanford. Now, with legitimate eights, West Coast rowers could at least hope to compete some day against the elite programs in the East.
Despite being considered the "father of Washington rowing" (Brown, 46), there is considerable disagreement about just when Hiram B. Conibear (1871-1917) became the UW crew coach. Ready All!, published in 1987 and written by maritime historian Gordon Newell and Dick Erickson, Husky crew coach from 1968 to 1987, states that when the university "decided in 1904 to add rowing to the major sports program, [Conibear] was named head coach of a sport in which he had not an iota of experience" (Newell and Erickson, 35-36). The Boys in the Boat, the acclaimed book about the Husky oarsmen who won Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, says that "in 1908 [Conibear] stepped in as crew coach more or less by default" (Brown, 46).
And the website Husky Crew, "the official published history of the Washington Rowing program" (Washington Rowing ..."), comes down squarely in the middle:
"Even though no official results were recorded for 1906, there was one off-the-water event that would mark the beginning of a legendary time in the history of Washington rowing. Hiram Conibear, a former professional bicycle racer, and trainer for the Chicago White Sox, was hired in the fall of 1906 to become trainer for the football and track programs at Washington. When Mr. Grinstead approached Conibear about the head coaching job for the rowing team, Conibear was typically straightforward: 'I never did nothing but row a boat around a lagoon in Chicago' he said, 'but if you want me, I'll do what I can.'
"Thus began the Conibear years at Washington" ("Men 1900-1909").
Fortunately, when Conibear started coaching crew is of far less importance than what he accomplished during his tenure. He soon moved crew operations to a former Coast Guard station and lighthouse built on Union Bay for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, and he formed the Varsity Boat Club as an organization to raise money for the rowing program, which still received no direct university funding. But it was a 1912 visit by Conibear to Vancouver, B.C., that brought his biggest contribution to collegiate rowing, not just at the University of Washington but across the nation.
Conibear Meets the Pococks
On a gusty day in the spring of 1912, English-born boatbuilder brothers George (1891-1976) and Dick (1889-1967) Pocock were working in their floating workshop anchored in Coal Harbor in Vancouver, B.C. Looking out a window, they saw a man in a rowboat, thrashing away with the oars in a manner that George Pocock described as "like a bewildered crab" (Brown, 45). He seemed to be trying to reach their shop, although it was hard to be sure. So bad was his form, George later said, that "we actually thought he was under the influence of liquor" (Newell and Erickson, 33). When he finally reached the workshop and was helped aboard, he "stuck out a large hand, and boomed out, 'My name is Hiram Conibear. I am the rowing coach at the University of Washington'" (Brown, 45). It was the beginning of a collaboration that would help propel UW crews to the pinnacle of their sport.
Conibear had learned through British Columbia rowing circles of the Pococks' skill at building racing shells, and he lured them to visit Seattle with a claim that the university's crew program needed a dozen eight-oared shells, for starters. What he didn't say was that, although the need was real, he had no money to pay for any of them; the rowing program survived on a small stipend from the school's Associated Student Body and contributions from local businessmen. Unaware of this slight problem, on July 12, 1912, George and Dick Pocock traveled to Seattle by steamer. They toured the campus and the city's inland waterways, then returned to Vancouver undecided.
UW's First Pocock Shell
The accomplishments of Conibear and the Pococks have been amply recorded elsewhere. It is enough to say here that Conibear soon scraped up enough money for a single eight-oared shell. Late in 1912 Dick and his father, Aaron "Fred" Pocock, who had come from England to help built the illusory 12 shells promised by Conibear, came to Seattle to build the one. It was called Rogers, in recognition of the local candy company that paid for most of it.
The Pococks, father and son, worked in a flimsy structure on the shore Union Bay that during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition had housed the Tokio Cafe, sometimes called the Tokyo Tea Room. After finishing the shell the Pococks, father and son, returned to Vancouver, but by the close of 1912 the two brothers had moved to Seattle, along with their two sisters. Back in the Tokio Cafe, they were soon building racing shells and training gigs for not just the UW crew, but for other West Coast schools and clubs as well.
The Poughkeepsie Regatta
It was not until 1912 that the Intercollegiate Rowing Association stooped to invite a crew representing the Pacific Coast to participate in the championship regatta in Poughkeepsie. Stanford (then called Leland Stanford Jr. University) earned the invitation by defeating crews from the University of Washington and UC Berkeley. Stanford did poorly on this first Western foray to the regatta, placing last in the varsity eight race behind five eastern crews, led by Cornell. The dismal finish did nothing to temper the eastern oarsmen's ill-disguised attitude of superiority (both athletic and social), but at least a collegiate crew from the Pacific Coast had finally been able to crash their exclusive club.
Painful memories of Stanford's drubbing were still fresh in 1913, when the Washington crew, having beaten both Stanford and California to win the West Coast rowing title, was invited to the IRA championship to see if it could do any better. The varsity eight oarsmen, coached by Conibear and accompanied by Fred Pocock, who was on his way back to England, traveled by train to Poughkeepsie, along with their eight-man shell. The trip was financed by a $4,000 gift from the owner of the Frye and Company meat-packing plant. To almost everyone's surprise, the UW crew placed third, losing a close race to Syracuse and Cornell, with Wisconsin, Columbia, and Pennsylvania bringing up the rear.
In 1914 UW once again was invited to race in the Poughkeepsie Regatta. Financed once more by donations from businesses and students, the rowers made the trip east. This time they lost badly, trailing the winner, Cornell, by 24 seconds, and were bested by all the teams they had beaten the previous year except Wisconsin. Soon after, the student board that governed the crew program voted to not send another crew to the regatta until 1917 at the soonest. The trip was an expensive proposition, and the fifth-place finish would probably have meant difficulty raising money from local businesses. Also, both the Stanford crew in 1912 and Washington's in 1913 and 1914 had been met with "gawking curiosity, subtle condescension, and occasional open derision" (Brown, 112).
In the 1915 Poughkeepsie Regatta, Stanford placed second, only 15 feet behind always-powerful Cornell after a grueling four-mile contest. The eastern schools were forced to finally sit up and take notice. In 1916 a strong UW varsity eight beat both Stanford and California, and would have been a formidable rival against anyone in the regatta. The student board lifted the two-year moratorium, but there were other problems, including growing disaffection between Conibear and the UW administration. The Washington crew stayed home, and neither Stanford nor Cal was invited in its place.
Due to World War I, the Poughkeepsie Regatta was not held in 1917, 1918, or 1919. When it started up again in 1920, West Coast rowers were ready.
Changing of the Guard
In 1916, after running afoul of UW President Henry Suzzalo's (1875-1933) determination to emphasize academics and de-emphasize sports, Hiram Conibear was fired outright, then allowed to continue coaching crew only after agreeing to take a six-month leave. It may be apocryphal, but some accounts say Suzzalo told him to spend some time in the East "learning how to row a boat" (Newell and Erickson, 51). Conibear returned in 1917, pledging not to meddle further in campus politics, but otherwise ready to pick up where he left off. But he was soon dead, killed in a fall from a tree while picking plums in his back yard. He was replaced by Ed Leader (1889-1958).
Earlier that same year, Dick and George Pocock had gone to work for Bill Boeing (1881-1956), first making pontoons for seaplanes, then hulls for "flying boats" and a line of fast Boeing speedboats called Sea Sleds. But in their off hours they continued to build racing shells, for both the UW and for other rowing programs.
In 1920 UW rowers moved into a seaplane hangar at the eastern end of the Montlake Cut, built by the military in 1918 to train pilots, but never used. Its upper floor was 70 feet long and 20 feet wide, large enough to build eight-oared shells, which average about 60 feet in length. The Pococks went to work there, building racing shells in their spare time while staying on the Boeing payroll. By 1922 Boeing was abandoning wood construction in favor of metal, which held no magic for the Pococks. Dick left first, accompanying Ed Leader to Yale University, where Leader had been hired as coach. Dick would build racing shells in New Haven, Connecticut, for the remainder of his working life.
Also in 1922, George Pocock was asked to build a new eight-oared shell for the UW program by its new coach, Russell S. "Rusty" Callow, who had rowed for the school in 1913 and 1914 and captained the 1915 crew. Pocock agreed to do it as a side project, while keeping his secure job at Boeing. But building this new competition shell struck a deep chord, and Pocock realized that "a man cannot split his loyalties" -- he left Boeing for good on December 22, 1922, and "started anew in my old love, boatbuilding" (Newell and Erickson, 65).
When the Conibear Shellhouse was completed in 1949, Pocock would set up shop there. He eventually moved to a larger shop on Lake Union, where he continued to build the world's best racing shells until 1970, when he turned the operation over to his son, Stan Pocock (1923-2014), and eased into an active retirement. George Pocock was soft-spoken and self-effacing, a gentle craftsman who revolutionized America's oldest organized intercollegiate sport. His finely wrought shells dominated crew racing for decades, but he remained modest about his contributions, saying "There are no fast boats: only fast crews" (Newell and Erickson, 158)
Back to Poughkeepsie
In shock at the death of Conibear and in some disarray, the UW canceled its 1918 rowing season. In 1919 the varsity eight, coached by Ed Leader, nosed out California to win the Triangular Regatta crown. When the IRA's Poughkeepsie Regatta started up again in 1920, no West Coast crew participated. Stanford could not even afford to come north to race in Seattle in the Triangular Regatta, and would close its rowing program later that year. The University of California team did show up and was edged out by the UW rowers by a margin of only five feet. Both teams put up excellent times, evidence that they had fully recovered from the turmoil of previous years.
In 1921, racing on the Oakland Estuary, the Cal and UW crews were once again only five feet apart at the finish, but this time it was the California rowers in the lead. They went on to the Poughkeepsie Regatta, placing second in a two-mile race behind Navy rowers, who were also making their first appearance there. The following year, it was Washington rowers representing the West at the IRA championships, and they also placed second behind Navy. But the results in 1921 and 1922 were harbingers of a new order coming to the collegiate rowing world, and in 1923 the oarsmen from Seattle would remove all doubt.
The 1923 IRA Championship
With Ed Leader gone to Yale, UW rowers started the 1923 season under their new coach, Rusty Callow. On April 21 at the Triangular Regatta (which now had only two competitors and was thus misnamed) Washington's freshmen and varsity eights both beat UC Berkeley crews in Oakland, with a margin of victory in the latter race of six boat lengths. The Huskies (named that in 1922, after the UW's newly adopted mascot) had put in several impressive performances in recent years and had captured the public's imagination and support, as evidenced by headlines, most in bold capital letters, on page one of the April 22, 1923, issue of The Seattle Times:
"ON TO POUGHKEEPSIE, WASHINGTON'S CRY
STATE UNITED IN DESIRE TO SEND WARRIORS EAST
HUSKIES AND COACH MADE GOOD, DECLARES CREW'S INSPIRATION
WASHINGTON OARSMEN, RETURNING MONDAY, TO BE ROYALLY GREETED
Rusty Callow Makes His Mark"
George Pocock had recently put the finishing touches on Husky, the new eight-oared shell ordered by Callow. In June the UW freshmen and varsity crews, accompanied by Callow, Pocock, and the lashed-down Husky, headed east by train, bound for the Poughkeepsie Regatta.
At a stop in Madison, Wisconsin, Hiram Conibear's daughter, Katherine, christened the new shell at Lake Mendota, breaking a bottle of Lake Washington water (this was during Prohibition) over Husky's delicate-looking bow as an anxious crew looked on. The new shell saw its first competition the next day, when the UW freshmen eight rowed it to a decisive victory over the University of Wisconsin frosh, followed by an easy win by the varsity eight.
After a train change in Chicago, the Husky entourage arrived at Poughkeepsie and settled into their spartan accommodations (which had no showers and were infested with bedbugs) and next day began 10 days of pre-race training on the Hudson River. During practice, Dow Walling, who had a badly infected leg, was replaced at stroke by Rowland France, but Callow put Walling back in the key position for the actual race. On the eve of the race the shells were rowed up to a masonry boathouse about a quarter mile from the starting line. The varsity oarsmen for the next day's race would be Sam Shaw (team captain), Dow Walling (stroke), Pat Tidmarsh, Rowland France, Charles Dunn, Fred Spuhn, Max Luft, and H. J. Dutton. The coxswain's seat was filled by Don Grant, a diminutive five-foot-two.
On June 28 the competition began in a light rain. The Husky frosh competed first, edging Cornell by inches in a two-mile race. The Cornell rowers, following tradition, took off their rowing shirts and gave them to the Husky crew. But then the official results were announced, and the win was given to Cornell. As Pocock later wrote in an unpublished memoir, "The Washington oarsmen had to hand over the Cornell shirts, and their own as well" (Newell and Erickson, 72). A photograph taken at the finish line later confirmed the Husky rowers' narrow victory, but the "official" result stayed in the record book and the crew accepted the loss with good grace.
The varsity eight race came next. Pocock, viewing the three-mile race from a train that ran along the shore and kept pace with the rowers, had the joy of watching a sleek shell of spruce and Spanish cedar that he had made entirely with his own hands carry Husky rowers to the national championship in a victory over the powerful Navy crew, which had won the title the previous two years. As Navy nosed ahead late in the race, Washington coxswain Don Grant, knowing that he would not be heard over the noise of the crowd, raised a red flag, a pre-planned signal for his crew to "give it their all" (Brown, 112). Pushing the stroke rate to over 40 a minute, the Huskies edged out the Navy eight. Walling, in considerable pain from his infected leg, had to be lifted from the shell by his teammates, but he had stroked the crew to the first IRA title won by a West Coast school, and to UW's first national championship in any sport.
The normally serene Pocock was uncharacteristically exuberant as he cheered the crew on, and later said, "I must have acted like a child" (Brown, 112). Years later he could look back with a calmer view, and he described the race succinctly in his memoir:
"Columbia went off with the lead, followed by Navy, Cornell, Syracuse, Washington, and Wisconsin. Then Navy took the lead and Washington got by Columbia for second place ... With a mile to go, Navy [led], with Washington a very close second, and Cornell third. On the observation train [that was] following the race, the excitement was loud and hectic. All the different school supporters, except those for Navy, were yelling, 'Come on Washington!' And come on Washington did, knifing past Navy and crossing the finish line by a big enough margin to leave nothing in doubt ... This was an unprecedented upset, a crew from the Far West soundly defeating the best in the East. The easterners were asking, 'Where on earth is Seattle. We never heard of it'" (Newell and Erickson, 73).
The 1923 Poughkeepsie Regatta marked the first appearance of a George Pocock eight-man shell in the East, and it was the only one there. Within weeks of his return to Seattle, he had received orders for eight shells from universities across the country, including Harvard, California, and Wisconsin. Within a decade, most of the boats raced in the regatta were made by Pocock. By 1943, all of them were.
The winning crew elected coxswain Don Grant as 1924 team captain, an honor almost always reserved for oarsmen. The Huskies went to the Poughkeepsie Regatta again in 1924, and again they won. Rusty Callow remained Washington's coach through the 1927 season, then went on to coach the University of Pennsylvania crew.
Since the landmark 1923 victory, the Huskies have been a powerful and often dominant force in conference, NCAA, and IRA competitions, not only in the men's varsity eights class, but in junior varsity, freshmen eights, and women's crew as well. In recent years, the men's varsity eight won the national IRA crown six times between 2009 and 2015. The Gold Medal win in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, with Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Joseph Goebbels looking on in dismay, remains the Huskies' most famous victory. But the stage for that victory was set more than a decade earlier, in 1923, when they brought home the university's first national sports championship and became a perennial force to be reckoned with in intercollegiate rowing competition.