by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
To the list of extraordinary calamities it had compiled since an elephant stampede and a lion escaped in 1907, spreading panic among Winnipeggers, a riot was added in 1909. On August 9, Happyland, the amusement Park along Portage Avenue, was to have been the scene of a 10-mile (16 kilometres: one mile equals 1.6 kilometres) race between Alfred “Alfie” Shrubb, the fleet-footed holder of numerous world records, and J.F. Fitzgerald, the challenger from Edmonton.
Two thousand spectators, who either paid 25-cents for a seat in the bleachers or 50-cents for a grand stand ticket, eagerly anticipated Shrubb providing another example of his renowned athletic prowess and in the process lower his world-record time for the distance. Since it was a race between professional runners, many bets had been laid in the hope of earning a healthy share of the wagers.
Unique in the annals of foot races to that point in Winnipeg, the race at Happyland was to be staged using artificial lighting, which many in attendance felt would be as magnificent a spectacle as seeing the diminutive Englishman tear around the cinder track, which had also been specifically built for the occasion. The lighting was to be provided by six electric arc lamps placed atop the same number of wooden posts placed at intervals around the track.
“Trouble could be felt in the air as soon as 9 o’clock, the hour set for the race, arrived, with the grounds still in darkness,” according to the August 10, 1909, Manitoba Free Press. “Ernest S. Harrison, the manager of Happyland, was conspicuous in a suit of white duck, and every time he walked across the grounds jeers and boos came from the bleachers. Occasionally dark figures could be seen hurrying to and fro, and it was understood that electricians were preparing to illuminate the grounds.
A half hour after the scheduled race time, a single light broke the darkness. At 10 o’clock, the glare of another dim light could be seen.
Harrison announced that as soon as one more light could be coaxed to life, the race would begin, promising the crowd and the runners it would only be a matter of a few minutes. Meanwhile, in frustration, some spectators had given up hope and began leaving the bleachers.
“Then, (all) of a sudden, the two lights went out, and in the darkness pandemonium broke out.”
Enraged at the failure to illuminate the grounds and run the race, the wooden bleachers and grandstand were broken into pieces and thrown into a pile. Once the wood was lit, the bonfire successfully pierced the darkness with flickering flames — something the electricians had failed to accomplish.
“More wood was thrown on, a large table and a dozen chairs intended for the use of the officials and the flames leapt skyward considerably higher than the grandstand.”
Shrubb and Fitzgerald, who had fruitlessly waited in the dressing room under the bleachers for the race to commence, emerged to witness the destruction being wrought by the rioters. As the mélee surged about them, they hastily stripped off their racing attire and changed into their street clothes “on the damp grass.”
Only one Happyland employee made an attempt to extinguish the flames, while others stood about, staring in disbelief at the scene of carnage unfolding before them. The worker attached a small rubber house to the water tap in the dressing room that Shrubb and Fitzgerald had recently fled, but discovered that the hose had been cut in the melee, “and the crowd howled in derision. Then the same man began carrying pails of water, but after he poured the second pailful on the fire he was set upon by the crowd and kicked and cuffed so much that he did not return.”
Shrubb decided to address the rioters in order to prevent further mayhem. He said he understood their frustration, but urged them to depart the grounds, and “leave it to the runners and newspapers to see that they got proper redress.”
By this time, the original bonfire began to die down for want of fuel. Then another fire was started under the front row of the right-side bleachers. “The seats, however, were damp and did not burn well, otherwise the whole grand stand must have gone up in flames.”
According to the newspaper, “not a policeman was to be seen.” Fifteen minutes after the second fire was started, the fire department arrived and the bonfire was extinguished using a stream of water from a hose, but the hose couldn’t reach the burning bleachers, so the portion on fire was chopped away with fire axes. “The crowd stood looking on, groaning and grunting in chorus at every blow, but not offering interference.”
The crowd then turned its attention to other buildings and structures, pulling down the ballpark gates, electric light standards and the offices beside the main gate to the amusement park.
By this time, the police had arrived and using billy clubs forced some of the rioters to abandon their rampage. Meanwhile, another group had managed to break into the beer tent and availed themselves of free samples of the frothy beverage. Their indulgence only ended when firemen turned a hose upon them.
An attempt was made to cut the leather fire hose and stop the water. When the stream of water fell to a trickle, the rioters believed someone had been successful. But the firemen had initiated a ruse by themselves turning off the flow. When another try was made for the beer taps, the firemen opened up again, drenching the crowd.
“This made the crowd angry, and lamp standards were pulled down, electric wires broken and ticket offices upset. An attempt was made by a number of men to overturn the large obelisk which stands just outside the gate, but this was too heavy to be upset, and the crowd had to be content with tearing off and smashing the signboard which was fixed to it.”
By 11 o’clock, 12 police officers under the command of two patrol sergeants managed to disperse the mob, which then quietly left the Happyland grounds.
It was later learned that Harrison, bearing in mind the near-disaster he had encountered during an earlier demonstration when another race had been cancelled, had left the grounds before the worst of the rioting began. Once beyond the grounds, he caught the Headingley streetcar for his farm near Deer Lodge.
It was also reported that the riot was probably caused by 12 striking electricians attending the event, who were alleged to have sabotaged the lights by cutting wires, triggering the crowd’s anger.
In the aftermath of the riot, no arrests were made nor any charges laid. Harrison told reporters that the damage to Happyland was in the hundreds of dollars.
Meanwhile, Shrubb and Fitzgerald, who “regretted the fiasco,” sent a “better” (bettor) to the Free Press office with the message that they would restage the race the next evening at a venue other than Happyland. According to the messenger, the new race would be free to the public.
The fact that a bettor was sent indicates the popularity of wagering on such races, both by the public and the racers themselves.
“Winnipeg the Wicked” was the reputation the city earned across Canada for the proliferation of vices within its borders, including prostitution and gambling. As such, Winnipeg provided the perfect setting for the staging of professional foot races that would be the subject of heavy betting.
Since both Shrubb and Fitzgerald were professionals, they also demanded and received an appearance fee from race promoters for their participation. As a famous world-record holder, Shrubb could both chose his opponents and expect the highest fee, which could be a guarantee of up to $5,000, win or lose.
In 1909, the most anticipated race was between Shrubb and Canadian aboriginal runner Tom Longboat, who first gained international fame as the winner of the 1907 Boston Marathon, where he established a new record of 2:24:24.
At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, England, Longboat was considered the prohibitive favourite to claim the marathon gold medal. Unfortunately, he collapsed late in the race and failed to finish. The highly controversial race was won by American Johnny Hayes.
Arthur J. Burns, a runner from Calgary, who participated in the 1908 Olympic marathon, made the contentious claim that Longboat was “doped” to keep him from winning.
But the alleged drugging of the favourite was just one of two controversial occurrences during the race. Dorando Pietri of Italy, who was leading when he entered the stadium, collapsed repeatedly as he neared the finish line. At one point, the confused athlete was running in the wrong direction. In apparent sympathy for his struggles, some misguided individuals assisted the runner across the line, resulting in Pietri’s disqualification.
Longboat ran well in the race, which was held on July 24 in hot humid weather over a course between Windsor Castle and the Olympic Stadium. At the 19-mile point, he had worked himself into second place and was pressing to take over the lead, but this exertion apparently contributed to his collapse and failure to finish.
It was suggested that Tom Flanagan, Longboat’s manager and trainer, drugged Longboat to deliberately throw the race in order to collect $100,000 in bets for himself and his cronies. But it was a charge that has never been substantiated.
According to the Olympic report by J. Howard Crocker, manager of the Canadian team at London: “I consider it my duty to state that my experience in racing leads me to believe that Longboat should have won the race. His sudden collapse and the symptoms shown to me indicate that some form of stimulant was used contrary to the rules of the game. l think that any medical man knowing the facts of the case will assure you that the presence of a drug in an overdose was the cause of the runner's failure.”
Flanagan did administer drugs to the runner, but swore that occurred only
after the race in an attempt to revive Longboat. In an era when “doping” rules were far less stringent than today, runners could be seen taking anything from alcohol to other suspect stimulants as they ran.
In a dispatch from London on August 5, 1908, the Hamilton Spectator concluded that Longboat was simply a victim of the heat.
Since Longboat was so heavily favoured, Burns said there was nothing for betters to gain if he won the race, but plenty of money to be won if he lost. He alleged that a member of the Canadian team was given $2,500 three days
before the race with instructions to
bet against Longboat at extremely favourable odds.
While the doping of Longboat remains a matter of speculation, he returned to the track after declaring himself a professional. He met Pietri at Madison Square Garden on December 15, 1908, coasting to an easy victory over the Italian.
On February 5, 1909, the long-anticipated race between Shrubb and Longboat occurred at Madison Square Garden. It was the last in a series of races between runners to determine the world professional marathon championship. Although Shrubb defeated all other challengers at shorter distances, he had never competed in a marathon, but was still considered a 7 to 5 favourite.
It turned out to be a race that led to a year-long rivalry between the two great runners and set the stage for a later rematch at Happyland in Winnipeg.
Shrubb, who was nicknamed the “Little Wonder,” was an unapologetic self-promoter as well as a consummate showman. A March 5, 1916, New York Times article described Shrubb’s running style, which was to beat his opponent by “worrying him with intermittent sprints. It was Shrubb’s custom, when he was contending against a dangerous rival, to make these frequent spurts, sometimes pulling fifty yards away, then gradually dropping back, then going ahead again.”
Using such tactics was Shrubb’s way of getting into “his opponent’s head.”
“I will beat Tom Longboat just as easily as I will beat Dorando Pietri, Johnny Hayes or any other of the marathon champions,” declared Shrubb in the lead-up to the New York race (Brandon Sun, December 31, 1908).
“About Longboat, he will never be a real champion,” Shrubb continued. “I doubt if he could do four miles in 21 minutes, and that’s not fast at all. In my coming race with Longboat, without praising myself, I want to say that I don’t think the Indian has a chance to beat me. I will find him out for three miles and run him off his feet. The Indian is overrated.”
Shrubb did try to run Longboat “off his feet,” erupting into a commanding lead in the first stages of the race.
“Shrubb was out for a new record from the crack of the pistol,” reported the February 6, Free Press. “The lean little Englishman started the race at a whirlwind clip.”
But it was a pace he couldn’t sustain over the distance of a marathon of 26 miles and 385 yards (42.2 kilometres). Shrubb staggered to a halt in the fifth lap of the 24th mile, unable to complete the race. With his victory, Longboat claimed the prize of $3,750.
“It was the old story of the hare and the tortoise. The hare had the speed and he had the heart, but the tortoise was built to go the route, and that is
all that can be said of the greatest Marathon race of the century ...”
“Tom Longboat came plodding down the stretch, running as well as he had run at any stage of the race. The crowd gave one cheer for the plucky little Englishman, who had tried to play another man’s game and failed, and then settled down to which Longboat finished the race alone.”
Longboat’s winning time before 12,000 spectators — to that date, the most people to witness such an event at the Garden — was 2:53:40.
On April 20, 1909, it was announced that the principal long-distance runners of the world would contest the marathon at Happyland. Among their ranks would be Longboat and Shrubb, according to the announcement.
Once arrangements were finalized, the “riot” race was slated for August 9, and in the end was to just feature Shrubb and Fitzgerald. After the rampage through Happyland, another race was rescheduled for August 11. While Shrubb had earlier asserted that the race would not be rerun at Happyland, the amusement park was in fact the venue for the 10-mile challenge.
“An enormous crowd witnessed the race,” reported the Thursday, August 12, Free Press, “and was more than pleased, both runners being greeted enthusiastically so that to some extent Monday night’s fiasco was atoned for. This time there was no trouble with the lights, and although the park could not be said to be brilliantly illuminated, the runners were well served and the spectators had little difficulty in following the gliding Englishman in his red sweater, or Fitz in a white costume.”
(Next week: part 2)