It may be hard to imagine now, but before football, baseball and hockey became national pastimes, rowing was "second to that of no sport in the country," said the Detroit Free Press in 1870. Indeed, rowing captured headlines across the country.
Wherever races were held, they drew thousands of spectators to the riverbanks. Grandstands were built for dignitaries. Vessels of all sizes floated near the course, decorated with streamers and banners and crowded with eager onlookers.
Race days began with a parade of competing boats and ended with host clubs putting on fabulous banquets where trophies were awarded and toasts were made. And oarsmen were sports celebrities of the day - including Saginaw's own brothers Barney and Hanford Topham who won the National Rowing Championship in 1879. Even the New York Times reports their win!
Boat clubs started in the 19th century on the East coast and quickly spread to the Midwest. Rarely were attempts made to race against other clubs, other than small rivalries that grew between nearby clubs.
That changed in 1867 when the Milwaukee Boat Club challenged the Detroit Boat Club to a friendly match on the Detroit River. Milwaukee won by a mere 15 seconds, and the race sparked interest in forming an organization to promote racing among clubs far and wide.
The following year, 1868, a boating association was formed - the Northwest Amateur Boating Association (NWABA) that would sponsor annual regattas, and 47 clubs joined.
That same year, a group of Saginaw men – described by the New York Times as “hardy pioneers and lumbermen” - organized a boat club and named it Wah-Wah-Sum, a Chippewa phrase meaning “lighting on the river.” The Wah-Wah-Sums joined the NWABA and quickly lived up to their name.
In 1870, they took first prize in the Detroit race when they rowed their 6-oared barge 1-1/2 miles to cross the finish line in 11 minutes 45 seconds. The next year, Saginaw’s oarsmen again won the regatta in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. In 1872, they won the championship for 6-oared shells in Erie, Pennsylvania. The following year in Toledo, the Wah Wah Sums won the 6-oared shell, beating their closest competitor by 100 yards.
At the 6th annual NWABA Regatta in Toledo in 1874, the Wah-Wah Sums added to their laurels by winning the 4-oared race. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that “The boats started off handsomely but the Wah-Wah-Sums bent down in a manner that showed in a few seconds which was to be the winning boat. It was painfully obvious to the friends of the other crews that the Saginawans had a training far more thorough and scientific than their competitors had subjected themselves to.”
The Wah-Wah-Sums continued to dominate regional championships and went on to compete nationally. And it was at the national competition in Saratoga, New York in 1879 that Barney and Hanford Topham, left, rowed their way to first prize.
The mural is a tribute to this proud moment in Saginaw history. It’s located at the N. Michigan Avenue entrance to the alley between the P.C. Andre buildings at 110-112 N. Michigan and the one on the corner of Court Street and N. Michigan. It’s painted on the latter which, coincidentally, welcomed its first tenant the very same year the Topham brothers won the national championship. The mural was painted by Saginaw artist Jim Fives who also restored the mural on the side of the building.
- Betsy de Parry, VP, Sales and Marketing