The Legacy of George Faulkner

Riverside Boat Club 150th Anniversary History Series

By: Richard Garver and Susan Waldman

In 1919, Riverside Boat Club celebrated its 50th anniversary with a banquet attended by over two hundred at the boathouse. Dinner was followed by music and a speech by Harvard crew coach Bill Haines, after which Cambridge Mayor Quinn made a presentation to George Faulkner, former professional sculler, Harvard coach and talismanic Riverside figure.

Faulkner’s great great-granddaughter Susan Waldman and her husband Dennis recently visited Riverside hoping to swap information about him. The Faulkner family, with six year old George, left Ireland in 1847, the worst year of the “Great Hunger.” They came to Boston by way of St. John New Brunswick, Canada where they had been quarantined during a typhus epidemic, finally settling in East Boston.

Rowing soon became part of both George’s leisure and professional life. In 1856, at the age of fifteen, George took part in his first race, an impromptu affair between stevedore boats for a side bet of $10. Two years later he participated in his first regatta on the Charles River in the six-oared Shamrock. At the age sixteen or seventeen, George began rowing for a Commercial Street company that offloaded cargo from incoming ships. It was his job to race other companies’ rowers out to ships arriving in Boston harbor to secure the job of unloading them for his company. Faulkner might row upwards of 40 miles a day securing contracts for his employer. He would eventually purchase the company and run it well into his 80s.

George Faulkner (right) with his father Cary (left), circa 1857.

George Faulkner (right) with his father Cary (left), circa 1857.

Popular interest in rowing boomed following the Civil War. The region of the country that was most enthusiastic about professional rowing, and the wagering associated with it, was New England. Under the protocols of the day, Faulkner was considered a “professional” because he earned his living on the water. He was one of the most successful rowers in both sweep boats and singles. In 1876, the city of Philadelphia scheduled a regatta on the Schuylkill River as one of three sporting events (the other two being riflery and yachting) as part of the nation’s Centennial celebration. Faulkner entered the pairs competition with Charlestown’s Patsy Reagan, with whom he had been racing since 1868. Rowing out of South Boston at the time, he and Reagan defeated the vaunted Ward brothers and a celebrated pair from England to win the competition, collecting $1,000 and the title of world champions.

The popularity of rowing was so high in this era that Faulkner’s 1877 match race with Michael Davis, an Irish immigrant sculler and rowing innovator from Portland, Maine, attracted 30,000 spectators to the Charles. Faulkner was strong but Davis was a rowing innovator. He shocked Boston by defeating Faulkner. Buoyed by his victory, the following year Davis challenged any Boston sculler to race him over a four-mile course with a turn for $1,000 and the New England championship. Patsy Reagan, Faulkner’s 1876 Centennial Regatta pairs partner, was undefeated as a sculler that season and a hometown hero. He accepted Davis’ challenge. A longshoreman of few means, Reagan hoped to profit not only from winning the purse, but from betting what little money his family had and every penny he could borrow on the race.

Sponsored by the Old Colony Railroad, their race and three others that season were re-located from the Charles River to Silver Lake in Kingston, south of the city. The railroad had invested in recreational property on the lake and was hoping to promote sales as well as boost weekend ticket purchases. Anticipating unprecedented interest in the October 8, 1878 race, it scheduled a dedicated excursion train with several extra cars to transport competitors, spectators, and gamblers to the venue.

George Faulkner (standing) and Patsey Reagan, circa 1876.

George Faulkner (standing) and
Patsey Reagan, circa 1876.

Reagan started strongly. He had a solid lead past the viewing stands. As the boats came back into sight following the turn, which was beyond the spectators’ viewing range, however, they were dumbfounded. Davis had a clear lead. Reagan lost. The crowd rushed the ticket booths, suspecting that there was collusion or tampering of some type. Shots were fired as officials tried to control the angry mob. By the time a distraught Reagan had been safely escorted to a passenger car and the outraged spectators had boarded the excursion train back to Boston, it was quite late. In the falling darkness, the train ran into a freight car, throwing its cars off the track. Gaslights ignited a conflagration that killed nineteen people and injured nearly 200. Among the dead were Reagan and George Faulkner’s young wife, Margaret L. Brennan, mother of his two children. Reagan left a devastated young family. Six thousand people took off work to attend his funeral.

After retiring from racing, Faulkner became one of the most respected coaches of his day, including controversial stints coaching Harvard crews. During the 19th century, college rowing, like the other principal football, baseball and track, was organized on a club basis. Each club elected a captain, who was responsible for team selection and arranged for coaching, usually by a graduate with financial support and direction coming from alumni. Coaching by professionals was generally eschewed, but as college rowing grew in popularity, the pressure to win mounted. Despite Harvard’s reminder that, “it had been once agreed by Yale and Harvard that professional coaches or trainers would not be employed,”(New York Times, March 17, 1880) Yale, having lost to Harvard in fifteen of their last nineteen dual races, hired sculler Michael Davis, to Harvard’s condemnation. His crews were victorious in 1881 and 1882 but Yale reverted to amateur coaching after it lost to Harvard in 1883. The direction of condemnation reversed in 1885 when Harvard captain James Storrow, to maintain a veneer of amateurism, arranged for George Faulkner to be retained in a vague capacity other than as coach, in which he would observe his crew and give him advice, which Storrow passed on to his rowers. The ’85 crew, its stroke revised by Faulkner, beat Yale but lost badly in 1886. Faulkner continued to appear in Harvard coaching launches into the 90s. Nevertheless, from 1886 to 1905 Yale beat Harvard in eighteen of twenty dual races. In 1894, after being thrashed by Yale, Harvard rowers gave up control over their program to the college athletic department.

As the 20thCentury arrived, Riverside Boat Club was at its competitive peak. The Boston Globe’s rowing reporter proclaimed it “the first racing club in America.” Coached by Faulkner, its 1903 senior eight, repeating as New England champion, was considered the best the club had put on the water to-date. The Club’s J. Peterson, also coached by Faulkner, was a force in the senior singles.

Cary (bow) and William Faulkner (stroke).

Cary (bow) and William Faulkner (stroke).

Faulkner’s sons continued his Riverside legacy. To select the club’s intermediate singles entry for the 1908 nationals, it held a much publicized race among four members—reported to be the first time in Boston rowing history that there were four men in one club that were so competitive in their class. Up-and-coming Carey Faulkner, George’s son, defeated another second generation oarsman, Joe Ryan, prominent Cambridge boat builder William Davey’s son Frank, and J. Brassil to represent the club. Carey Faulkner won his event at Nationals. To celebrate, Riverside presented him with a gold watch and made him a life member. In 1909 he was the New England senior champion. Over the balance of the decade Riverside scullers were ascendant. Frank Davey won the New England singles championship in 1912. CareyFaulkner, his brother William, Davey, and Yale oarsman Henry Livingston formed a quad that won the U.S. National Championship in 1913. They repeated as champions the next year.

As Riverside’s 1919 50th anniversary testimonial to George Faulkner attests, he and his sons distinguished themselves during the fifty years period in which Boston rowing evolved from rough-and-tumble workingman’s competitions dominated by professionals into an amateur sport conducted by well-organized clubs and embraced by elite colleges.