Ned Hanlan's Impact on Rowing and Toronto Island

Ned Hanlan’s Impact on Rowing and Toronto Island as a Port City


Liam Harris

Toronto - 2023

Rowing in the city of Toronto has been a popular sport since the late 1800s. The result of rowing in Toronto has led to the increased popularity of the sport in Canada, increased amounts of tourism, and the evolution of the sport in general. Rowing in Toronto gained popularity because of the Canadian athlete Ned Hanlan. Ned Hanlan was impressive because of the role he had in evolving the sport in a more technical aspect. Before Hanlan, rowing was a sport where being big and strong was the primary way to win. Hanlan, smaller than the average man, proved his competitors and spectators of the sport that there was more than just physical requirements to being a good rower. His presence brought thousands of people from across the world to Toronto to watch him race. Ned Hanlan has had one of the most impactful developments on sports throughout history and in Canada. Furthermore, as a result of Hanlan’s impact on rowing, Toronto Island has become a staple in Toronto’s tourism development industry. Lastly, it will focus on the rowing history of Toronto Island and its development through recent history. Rowing has had a beneficial impact on the history and development of Toronto Island because of Ned Hanlan.

Rowing is extremely relevant to port cities because under its most basic definition, it is a form of transportation across bodies of water. The origin of rowing goes back to ancient times in areas such as Egypt, Rome, and Greece as a means to transport goods across waterways.1 However, as a sport rowing goes back to the 1700s when the first recorded races were on the Thames River in London in 1715.2 Rowing became relevant in Canada as European immigrants began to continue the sport when they moved to parts of Canada. Rowing is an extremely technical sport with many moving parts that allow athletes to move as fast as they can across the water. Rowing boats involve the shell (the boat itself), riggers, oars, sliding seats, and feet holders. Rowing boats can vary from seating one person, two people, four people, and eight people. There are also two different variations of rowing: sculling and sweeping. Sculling includes boats with one person (single), two people (double), and four people (quad) where each person is holding two oars. Whereas sweeping consists of boats with two people (pair), four people (four), and eight people (eight) where each person holds one oar to the port or starboard side of the boat. Fours and eights may also include a coxswain who is the person who steers the boat and simultaneously coaches them as they row.

Rowing has seriously progressed throughout the years as racing shells have become lighter, faster, and more efficient. Additionally, the technique of rowers has progressed significantly to improve speed and efficiency. For example, the sliding seat was not equipped in rowing shells until the later 1800s which allowed rowers to use their legs as well as their arms to gain a longer and more powerful stroke throughout the water.3 Ned Hanlan was described as one of the first people to master the sliding seat which contributed heavily to his greatness in the sport. Furthermore, Hanlan was able to prove that the sport involved more than strength to excel. This was proven as he was able to beat competitors that were much stronger and bigger than he was. The technique of rowing involves many variables to do everything possible to not slow the boat down. It depends on when and where the oar is put into the water and taken out, how fast the person is moving up the seat, where the person’s center of gravity is within the boat, etc. Hanlan was a massive innovator of the sport and progressed it to where it is today.

No one would have ever expected Ned Hanlan to become the rowing superstar that he was. Hanlan stood at a mere five feet seven inches and weighed less than 150 pounds. He is pictured in Figure 1 in an American newspaper and described as “America’s Oarsmen” showing that he was not only an icon within Canada but globally.4 Hanlan was an inspiration to youth and athletes across Canada and the world because he was always underestimated due to his size as size can provide a huge advantage when it comes to rowing. The Canadian sports legend was born in 1855 in Toronto to a family of Irish immigrants.5 As he was born into an impoverished family, it was unexpected that he would arise to the amount of fame he did. Hanlan first started rowing when he was 16 years old and quickly improved his talent in the sport where he was deemed a professional in 1876 at age 21.6 Before going professional he quickly built his resume by winning multiple amateur championships in Toronto. The rowing superstar went on to race in different cities across North America stunning his opponents in each race. He was often mocked by opponents before his races due to his size. During his races, he was known to toy with his opponents mentally, sometimes even stopping in the middle of the race to let his opponents catch up only to gain a massive lead again when they did.7 Due to his physical and mental domination of his opponents, Hanlan had created an intense popularity that the sport had never seen before. Hanlan drew massive crowds to watch him race as he was a crowd favourite. Many Americans claimed to favour him to watch because they enjoyed seeing a much smaller man race larger men with ease.8 In 1880, he raced the former world champion Edward Trickett on the River Thames in London, where it was estimated to be over 100 000 people cheering in the crowd. Ned Hanlan is often described as Canada’s first sporting hero.9 This is no surprise as he drew himself to international fame and drew these mass crowds to sporting events that many sports had never seen before, let alone rowing. Furthermore, Ned had amassed what would in today’s value hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize funds from winning these events. His career peaked when he won the world championship four years straight beating opponents from the United States and England. Ned Hanlan was an incredible Canadian athlete and did many things to progress the sport of rowing in Canada, as well as the rest of the world.

Figure 1: Ned Hanlan poster that was published in the New York Police Gazette newspaper in 1880.

Hanlan’s success quickly began to create different business ventures to create revenue from rowing to capitalize on the popularity he was bringing to the sport. After claiming dozens of victories as an amateur, Hanlan had created a name for himself that many people would respect. Once Hanlan was deemed professional, The Hanlan Club was established by businessmen who invested in the sport. The Hanlan Club was used to create contracts for athletes, arranged matches and regattas, and discussed prize money for the winners.10 This resulted in more athletes picking up the sport as it was more organized than it ever was and there was a cash incentive to win. Rowing also drew gamblers’ attention to the races as betting on the sport became extremely popular. Many people loved betting for or against Hanlan because of the mental games he would play with his opponents. Many bettors questioned whether he could keep winning when he was stopping in the middle of his races to allow his competitor to come back. They hoped it would come back to haunt him so they could win a fortune. Unfortunately for them, it rarely did. It is estimated that in the biggest races, the amount of money people wagered was between the range of ten million to twenty million dollars in today’s value of money.11

With prize funds being a large incentive to most competitors, there were often accusations of bribery and sabotage thrown around in Hanlan’s races. In 1876, a rivalry was lit between Hanlan and American rower Charles Courtney. When they finally raced, it was very close until the end when motor vessels called barges were blocking the final 500 meters forcing the race to be put on hold until they were out of the way. In the end, Hanlan only won by a boat length, and it was questioned whether or not Courtney took a bribe to lose the race.12 Furthermore, when the race was rescheduled, Courtney’s racing shell was sabotaged and decided not to race after that.13 Bettors were fuming that they were unable to get their money back and it was speculated that both oarsmen were bribed to throw the race.14 Ultimately, it could be viewed that these forms of sabotage and bribery were a good thing because they kept the sport interesting as well as no one could have predicted the economic impact the sport could have had. In races that take eight minutes, many millions of dollars have profited through forms of gambling. Ned Hanlan’s legacy had not only created a mass popularity for rowing but also a positive economic impact.

Toronto Island has been a port used for rowing since the 1800s. Today, it is currently home to three different rowing clubs including the Argonaut Rowing Club, Hanlan Boat Club, and Don Rowing Club. The racing course today is called Allan A. Lamport Regatta course and the race course size is 1000 meters.15 Originally, the race course was along Hanlan’s point but it moved to Long Pond in 1915 which allowed the course to expand in size.16 The original course is shown on the map (Figure 2) and the current course is shown in the photograph of the finish line (Figure 3).17 The racecourse provides incredible views of downtown Toronto, the C.N. tower, and a harbour filled with boats in the summertime. Currently, the most famous regatta that Toronto Island hosts is the Dominion Day Regatta. This regatta hosts rowing clubs from all over Ontario as well as kayaking, dragon boating, and canoeing races. To access Toronto Island, a short ferry ride must be taken from the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. Currently, Toronto Island has many recreational activities for tourists as well as locals looking for a day of relaxation or fun. Toronto Island is home to a beach, cottages, restaurants, an amusement park, kayak and canoe rentals, and many other activities.

Figure 2: Original layout of Toronto Island before being change in 1915.
Figure 3: This photo displays the present-day finish line and grandstands of the rowing course at Toronto Island.

The impact rowing had on the Toronto Island ultimately led it to be the tourist destination it is today. As large crowds began to attend Ned Hanlan’s races, its popularity began to soar. Additionally, after Hanlan’s rowing career had ended, he played a role in maintaining and developing the island. Hanlan was able to grow up on the island as his father owned “Hanlan’s Hotel” which was located on what is now called Hanlan’s point. Hanlan eventually took over the hotel and expanded it. The hotel was extremely successful under Ned’s supervision earning over 25 000 dollars in one summer.18 Hanlan also had a hand in city politics where he won the ward four alderman election in 1898 and oversaw the Toronto Harbour Trust.19 He often voiced his opinions and ideas on how to improve life and the development of Toronto Island. It was because of Hanlan that new bike paths were created, a new library was built, and a swimming pool was built on the island.20 After Hanlans time in city politics had ended, Toronto Island continued to develop to appeal to tourists with the building of restaurants and an amusement park in 1967. All of this development has led to Toronto Island having approximately one and a half million visitors yearly.21 Recently, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Toronto Island has had an extreme loss of revenue because of its closure. Before the pandemic, tourism and recreational activities grossed more than five million dollars for the city of Toronto.22

In conclusion, the legacy of Ned Hanlan is unmatched by any other Canadian athlete. Hanlan was able to accomplish multiple world titles, he brought the sport of rowing to light in Canada, and he had positive impacts on the development of Toronto Island as a port city. This paper has discussed Ned Hanlan’s accomplishments as an athlete such as his four-year reign as international champion in the singles sculling competition. Hanlan’s influence on viewing rowing as a business venture creating organized matches and prizes funds Toronto would have not seen without him. In addition to that, rowing proved to be a huge betting market. The development of Toronto Island as a port city has been discussed with recognition of its tourist attractions as well as its current place in rowing. As well as Hanlan’s contributions to developing and maintaining Toronto Island so it could continue to host rowing events as well as recreational activities. It’s important to note that rowing has become somewhat of a staple in Toronto’s culture. Ned Hanlan has provided Canadians with the advancement of a sport that had never been seen before and the success Toronto Island has seen in recent history.

  1. Roger Jackson, “Rowing” The Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Canada, February 5, 2013),

  2. Jackson, “Rowing.” 

  3. Richard MacFarlane, "Row for glory: Canada's Ned Hanlan stayed one stroke ahead of controversy to become the world's fastest man on water." The Beaver: Exploring Canada's History, December 2007, 44. 

  4. Figure 1: Ned Hanlan poster that was published in the New York Police Gazette newspaper in 1880. New York Police Gazette, “Edward Hanlan, America’s champion oarsmen, with history and portrait” (Canadiana, 1880). 

  5. Linda Irvine, "Fire on the Water: The Red-Hot Career of Superstar Rower Ned Hanlan (Recordbooks Series)." Resource Links, October 2007, 46. 

  6. Bruce Kidd, “Hanlan, Edward,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003,

  7. Kidd, “Hanlan, Edward.” 

  8. Val Ken Lem. "Fire on the Water: The Red-Hot Career of Superstar Rower Ned Hanlan. (Recordbooks)." CM: Canadian Review of Materials, (Oct 12, 2007), 1. 

  9. James H. Marsh, “Ned Hanlan” The Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Canada, January 29, 2013), - :~:text=Ned Hanlan achieved his last,spectators crowded along the embankment

  10. MacFarlane, “Row for glory,” 44. 

  11. MacFarlane, “Row for glory,” 44. 

  12. MacFarlane, “Row for glory,” 44. 

  13. MacFarlane, “Row for glory,” 44. 

  14. MacFarlane, “Row for glory,” 44. 

  15. Enjoy Ontario, “Toronto Island Park,” (EnjoyOntario, Feb 3, 2023)., 

  16. Enjoy Ontario, “Toronto Island Park.” 

  17. Figure 2: Original layout of Toronto Island before being change in 1915. Parliament of Canada, “Toronto Island Tour Guide”, Candiana (Parliament of Canada, 1894); Figure 3: This photo displays the present-day finish line and grandstands of the rowing course at Toronto Island. Enjoy Ontario, “Toronto Island Park.” 

  18. Kidd, “Hanlan, Edward.” 

  19. Marsh, “Ned Hanlan.” 

  20. Marsh, “Ned Hanlan.” 

  21. Lori Ellis, “Toronto Island Park Master Plan: About”, (City of Toronto, February 3, 2023).,%2C%20cultural%20places%2C%20and%20events 

  22. Yasmin Aboelsaud “Toronto Island Closure costing the city nearly $5 million in lost revenue”, (Daily Hive, June 28, 2017).,%2C%20cultural%20places%2C%20and%20events