In 1872 a group of amateur oarsmen, collectively known as "the Orioles", pooled their resources to initiate the Argonaut Rowing Club. The Orioles had been rowing scratch races throughout Southern Ontario in the 1860s, employing an in-rigged, four-oared gig, with coxswain. The Oriole’s competitors were other like-minded "gentlemen" oarsmen - lawyers, doctors, military officers and clergy. Despite their amateur status, the Orioles were a tough group. They typically raced four-mile long courses, usually with a turn at the midpoint of the race, in their heavy boats. The Orioles defacto leader was a lawyer by the name of Henry O'Brien, originally from Kempenfeldt Bay on Lake Simcoe.
In the 1860s, amateur rowing (as opposed to the professional match racing later practised by Ned Hanlan and his competitors) was a loosely organized pastime. Each crew was expected to own and care for their own equipment and, often, were the builders of their racing boats. O'Brien and the Orioles were determined to establish a club where members could share the costs of acquiring and maintaining equipment, thus expanding access to the sport to a larger group.
Using the example of the rowing clubs in England at the time, a group of interested oarsmen met at the Rossin House Hotel, and organized the Argonaut Rowing Club on June 21st, 1872. O'Brien was recognized as the club's "founder, first president and first stroke". The club members chose its colours to be the light and dark blues of Oxford and Cambridge (the ubiquitous Argo "double blue"), a nod to the rowing backgrounds of many of the founding members. The club name was taken from the great oarsmen of Greek mythology
A Long Time Ago c2000-1400 BC
Although somewhat debatable, the first Argonaut Rowing Club dates back to ancient Greece, sometime before 1400 BC. The club's purpose was to search for the Golden Fleece, thus allowing Prince Jason to reclaim the throne of the Kingdom of Iolkos from the usurper Pelias. After many adventures, the Argonauts retrieved the fabled Golden Fleece and returned to Hellas, for Jason to assume his rightful place as ruler.
The name of the club was drawn from their single, thirty-oared shell, the Argo, which had been named after its builder, Argos. The shell was designed so that she did not require a dock; it was possible to simply remove the rudder and fin, allowing the ship to then be simply run aground to unload its oarsmen (a tradition that has been kept up by Argonaut Learn to Row classes to this very day).
This first Argonaut Rowing Club had an illustrious membership. A partial list follows: Jason (stroke and club president), Tiphys (coxswain), Argos (three seat and boat repairs), Orpheas (seven seat), Castor (two seat), Polydefkis (bow), Mopsus (six seat), Hercules (five seat, went on to represent the club at the first Olympic games), Calais (four seat), Anceus (took over as coxswain after Tiphys was eaten by a sea monster).
Judging from the above list, one can't help but admire the perfect organization of the Argonauts, all of them well educated and experts in their fields as well as excellent oarsmen. Not unlike the Argonaut Club of today!
The fledging rowing club acquired a small boathouse on a pier at the foot of George Street (near Front and Jarvis Streets). The house was so small; it could only contain the Orioles' single boat.
Citing the need to maintain and increase personal fitness levels when conditions on Lake Ontario were too rough to row, the oarsmen founded the Argonaut Rugby Football Club in 1873. In addition to regattas, oarsmen played a handful of organized rugby games a year in the early days, against teams from Hamilton and the University of Toronto. It was soon observed that injuries sustained during rugby matches were interfering with the club's rowing program, which resulted in the dissolution of the rugby team. However, football was reintroduced to the club in the 1890s and continued well into the 20th century.
Among the original Argonauts were the brothers Roger and Harold Lambe. The Lambe brothers had recently moved to Canada from England, and provided the young club with its first major victory outside of southern Ontario. In 1873, they travelled to Saratoga, New York, and "easily won" both the Senior Pair and Senior Double events (it is worth noting that 126 years later, the Argonaut Rowing Club won the Best Club trophy at the same site, in the 1999 Head of the Fish regatta).
By 1914, the club had reached a membership of six hundred, and was one of the most renowned athletic institutions in Canada. In this same year, the Argonaut rugby football team won its first ever Grey Cup, defeating the University of Toronto in a blowout match.
For many years, we had the Toronto Canoe and Royal Canadian Yacht clubs for neighbours, reflecting Canadian's passion for water sports of all kinds. A club history compiled in 1911 boasted that most of the bank presidents in the city had been Argonauts at one point or another. A prestigious club in its own right, it was nonetheless sometimes viewed as an outpost of "the British amateur sportsman". Like similar organizations throughout Canada, most of the all-male membership went off to fight in the Great War. Tragically, a large proportion of those Argonauts did not return.
Of the many characters that have been associated with the club, none stood out like Joseph Wright Sr. This impressive athlete dominated Canadian rowing in addition to being a star in several other sports. Competing for the Toronto Rowing Club in 1891, Wright won the Junior NAAO singles race, and, in 1892, won the Intermediate singles. Racing for the Diamond Sculls in 1896, Wright was defeated by the great Vivian Nickalls.
By 1897, Wright had joined the Argos, where he was stroke for most of the club's premier crews, culminating with the 1906 Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta. Wright retired from rowing soon after, and became the club's head coach. In 1916, Wright left Toronto to become the head coach at the University of Pennsylvania, taking over from Nickalls. From 1926 to 1935, Wright directed Penn's rowing program. He then returned to Toronto, becoming Argonaut Rowing Club president. Although a huge man (weighing more than 240 pounds) he was a great proponent of lightweight rowing. The Senior 155 lb Eights trophy at the Canadian Henley is named for Wright.
The resumption of competitive rowing in 1919 saw the return of the Argonauts' predominance over Canadian rowing. That summer, Argo crews won the Senior Eights and Fours, and the Senior and Junior Doubles, at the CAAO championships. They were just as successful the next summer as well. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Argonaut Rowing Club was the most successful in Canada. At the 1920 Olympics, Canada was represented by an Argonaut Four, John Strathearn Hay, Robert Hay, H. Landriau, H. Harcourt and A. Everett (as Cox). At the 1928 Olympics, Canada was represented by an Argo Eight.
However, the club lost the trials for the 1932 and 1936 Olympics to the Leander Boat Club of Hamilton, Ontario. In 1939, at the last Henley Royal Regatta before the outbreak of the Second World War, an Argonaut heavyweight Eight lost the final of the Grand Challenge Cup to a Harvard University crew. This was the closest an Argo crew had ever come to winning the coveted trophy.
The interwar years saw an array of Argonaut scullers with the depth and talent to collect numerous titles. The lightweight scullers Fred Burns, Ken Thorburn and Jack Flavelle won several championships in both Singles and Doubles events from the mid 1930s into the 1940s. Argonaut C. Campbell won the CAAO Championship Singles event in 1934 and 1936, and went on to represent Canada, and the Don Rowing Club, at the 1936 Olympics.
During Joe Wright's tenure at Penn, one of the oarsmen that he coached was his own son, Joe Wright Jr. In 1927, the younger Wright returned to Canada to train for the Diamond Sculls at Henley Royal Regatta. Wright made it to the finals of the event for three consecutive years, and won in 1928. That same year, Wright teamed up with Jack Guest and together won the silver medal in the double sculls at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.
As the century turned, the old boathouse at the foot of York Street was showing its age. The Toronto Canoe and Royal Canadian Yacht clubs moved locations, leaving the Argonaut Rowing club on its own. Increased harbour traffic and expansion of the Harbour Commission's operations forced the club to consider finding a new home. However, Toronto has few areas of protected water to accommodate ideal rowing. The two principle rivers in Toronto are the Humber and the Don, and both are navigable up to Bloor Street. However, both rivers were prone to substantial spring flooding (a lesson learned the hard way by the Don Rowing Club in 1880, two years after their founding) and each had several tight turns that were too tight for an Eight to manage without stopping. In 1921, taking advantage of the newly constructed break wall protecting the city's western beaches, the Argonaut Rowing Club acquired a parcel of land at the foot of Dowling Avenue, in the Parkdale area. There a boathouse was built in the classic style with a long veranda overlooking the dock and Lake Ontario.
The new venue provided more than three miles, or five kilometres, of relatively protected water, extending from Bathurst Street (home of the Don Rowing Club from the 1930s to 1960) to the mouth of the Humber River. When weather conditions permitted, it was usual for shells to enter the Humber. Despite these factors, rowing behind a break wall on Lake Ontario can be far from ideal, as anyone that has attended an Argonaut regatta can attest to. Any wind above 25 knots out of the south or southwest can make water conditions challenging to say the least.
However, quite often, the lake can be mirror smooth, and beckon crews beyond the break wall. For many years, a row to the "stacks" in Port Credit and back was a favourite long distance challenge. Just as often, a crew would have to place a phone call back to the club, begging for someone to bring the club trailer to pick up their shell after the weather had changed.
In May 1940, a devastating storm with winds in excess of 90 miles per hour destroyed the Don Rowing Club's boathouse and all but two of their shells. The damage amounted to $30,000. This compounded financial and tax difficulties the Don Club had been having. Despite their strong rivalry, the Argonauts offered the use of club facilities and shells. In an additional act of magnanimity (or crankiness from having to share with the Don's) the Argos initiated a fundraising campaign to raise $2,500 for the Don Club. Thus, in July of 1940, the Don rowers arranged for the reconstruction of their clubhouse.
The Argonaut Club has not been without its own disasters. In 1973, the water level in the lake was so high that the break wall was submerged. Sand bags were laid across the boathouse doors to prevent them from flooding. A storm in January of 1978 destroyed the docks, broke through the boathouse doors and left three feet of solid ice inside the boathouse. In May of 1982, another storm destroyed the docks. The worst calamity to afflict the club however would have to be the 1947 fire that completely gutted the club, taking most of the Argonauts' treasured memorabilia with it.
During the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Argonauts were still winning at important regattas, but were facing much stiffer competition from other clubs on the national stage.
In 1952, the Argonauts defeated the Vancouver Rowing Club at the trials for the Olympic Eight (see 1952 Olympic Crew section). This 1952 Olympic crew was one of the club's best ever, but damaged equipment prevented them from performing to their potential.
The British Columbian rowing program was to dominate the sport in Canada for the next dozen years. The late 1960s saw the rise of the St. Catharine’s Rowing Club as the premier rowing centre of Canada. Although the Argonauts did well in the lightweight events at Canadian Henley, we had few wins in the senior heavy entries between 1954 and 1980. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was a highlight for the club, with sculler Lief Gotfredson representing Canada.
In 1957, Argonaut Rowing Club sold its ownership of the football club (Toronto Argonaut Football) to a syndicate, which included then Toronto Telegram publisher John Bassett. Up until that point, the football team had been playing at Varsity Stadium (located at Bloor Street West and Bedford), and had won a total of ten Grey Cups. The proceeds of the sale went into a trust fund, the interest from which was to go toward supporting the club's rowing program.
Through the 1960s and into the 1970s the club went through some changes that were not initially appreciated by the membership. Many of the members were not oarsmen, and had joined the Argonauts either as social members or to play squash (the club's squash courts have since been converted into two singles bays, and the gallery for the courts is now the club's workout room). The non-rowing membership slowly gained more control over the administration and, more significantly, the direction of the club.
By the Argonaut Rowing Club's centennial year in 1972, many of the active oarsmen had retired from rowing or had moved to other clubs. The result was a break in the tradition of older generations of oarsmen passing on the torch to the younger athletes, coming up through the club's high school programs. However, the club did have some successes in this time.
In the mid 1970s, Forbes Marnoch coached a number of youth (under 18) crews to some international prominence. The 1975 junior heavy eight and the junior 145lb four were also examples of the club's continued rowing ability and perseverance.
The low point in the club's rowing history came at the 1979 Canadian Henley, when just four Argonauts competed. For those former Argonauts then rowing with other clubs, it was a miserable spectacle. By this point, the trust fund, that had been intended to support the rowing program, was used to retire a large portion of the club's mortgage.
The low point in the club's rowing history came at the 1979 Canadian Henley, when just four Argonauts competed. For those former Argonauts then rowing with other clubs, it was a miserable spectacle. By this point, the trust fund, that had been intended to support the rowing program, was used to retire a large portion of the club's mortgage. The Argonaut rowing program had all but disappeared.
Some of the club's former members took this as a sign to rally and reorganize. In 1980, long time member Jim Ingram forced his way into the club captainship and took charge of the rowing program, recruiting an eager group of coaches. With this, the club's fortunes began to change.
That summer, the lightweight men won the Junior 155lb four at the Canadian Henley, with Ingram at the bow. More significantly (and in defiance of the Board of Directors), Ingram pushed for and started the Argonaut Rowing Club's first women's rowing program.
Larry Marshall (Past President of the club) was the women's program's first coach. At the 1980 Central Ontario Rowing Association (CORA) regatta in London, the Argonaut women's crew won its first gold in the lightweight coxed four. Women's rowing had long been overdue at the club. The Argonaut Rowing Club was the last to open its doors to women. However, now initiated, the women's program grew and was quickly on equal footing with the men's crews, in terms of membership and performance.
In 1981, the lightweight women won the pair and coxed four events at the Canadian National Championships in Montreal. The first Argonaut women's victory at Canadian Henley came shortly after, in 1982, when Tori Young and Kathryn Barr won the Junior (Intermediate) pair. Young and Barr went on to win the senior pair in 1983 and 1984. For five successive years, the Argonaut women finished in second place in the Junior (Intermediate) Lightweight eight at Henley, losing to a different crew each year. This jinx plagued the lightweight program until 1989, when they captured the gold, with the help of coaches Phil Monckton and Scott Fraser.
Over the following years the lightweight women won the Senior and Junior (Intermediate) eights at Henley. A highlight of the heavyweight program was the 1989 Henley win by the Junior (Intermediate) eight crew, which also finished a strong second in the senior eight category as well. Argonaut lightweight women literally dominated the sweep events at the 1997 Henley, with the coaching of Carolyn Klepac.
Two other important programs developed during the 1980s. The Masters rowing program facilitated the return of a number of former members, some whose membership dated back to the 1950s. The enthusiasm and training regimens these oarsmen and women brought to the club bolstered the competitive spirit among all the rowers.
The other significant program to arise in this time was the Recreational (or Rec) rowing program. This was a natural outgrowth of the learn-to-row program. Recreational oarsmen and women compete at a number of recreational regattas held throughout Southern Ontario and New York, but prefer a more "civilized" training schedule than those adhered to by the Competitive crews.
The Argonaut Rowing Club's recovery during the 1980s was dramatic. The successes of the women's program throughout the 1980s was matched by the men's. Rowing membership grew and diversified, and the club had occasion to celebrate many Canadian Henley wins. Twice in this decade, Argonaut men's eights travelled overseas to Henley Royal, and competed for the Thames Cup.
In 1986, the same men's crew won both the junior and senior Heavy Eights at Canadian Henley. For most of the 80s and into the 1990s, Argonaut members competed in ice canoe races along the St. Lawrence River at the Quebec Winter Carnival. In 1986, the first all-female crew to compete in (and complete) this dangerous and gruelling event was comprised of Argonaut lightweight women.
Since the 1980s, the Argonaut Rowing Club has rebuilt its reputation as a presence in North American rowing. Medals and excellent showings at Canadian Henley, the Head of the Charles, the World Masters' Championships and numerous other regattas are a testament to the dedication and cohesion of our club and its athletes. Check out our profiles of the Argonauts who have gone on to compete at a national or Olympic level (including Marnie McBean, Kay Worthington, Shannon Crawford, Phil Monckton, and our own Steve Sandor).
As the club moves into the 21st century, it is again in an unending search for a golden fleece, providing every individual member the opportunity to learn from the personal discipline and social cohesion embodied in the sport of rowing.
Compiled by Xavier Macia and Andrew Boggs (January 2000). Revised (October 2003) by George McCauley.