by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)
Englishman Alfie Shrubb spent the day advising workmen on how to prepare the track in the Arena Rink on Bannatyne Avenue, “just west of the General Hospital,” for his race against Canadian aboriginal runner Tom Longboat, the “Onondaga Wonder.” On Shrubb’s advice, “ashes” were laid down on the track to provide “a certain amount of spring” for the runners (Manitoba Free Press, November 23, 1909).
This was to be Shrubb’s “farewell visit” to Winnipeg, as it was reported the multiple-record holder was on the verge of retiring. Of course, the Englishman had for a long time been threatening to hang up his running shoes, so few accepted his claims of an impending retirement.
“Alfie has made the same statement so often that it appears like an old joke, becoming green with age” (Free Press, September 7, 1910).
As a distance runner in an era of young up-and-comers such as 22-year-old Longboat, Shrubb was a 31-year-old battle-scarred veteran of the track. By 1909, injuries were taking their toll on his body. He lost to Longboat in February at Madison Square Garden in New York when he pulled up lame and failed to finish the race. In August at Happyland amusement park in Winnipeg, Shrubb’s “old trouble with the tendons of his right leg” resulted in another failure to complete a race, which was won by Paul Acoose, an aboriginal runner from Sakiway First Nation in Saskatchewan.
Despite all his injury troubles, Shrubb vowed that he would handily beat Longboat, whom he claimed “will never be a real champion.”
Yet, it was Shrubb who urged Longboat to turn professional when both men lived in the Grand Central Hotel in Toronto. In this context, what Shrubb said about his opponent can be compared to the pre-game hype and bragging among players that now takes place before an important professional hockey or football match.
The boasts coming from the lips of Shrubb and the prospect of seeing Canada’s premier runner meant that the promoters expected to have the Arena Rink filled to the rafters on November 23. Tickets sales — $1.50, $1 and 75-cents — were said to be brisk for the race that would be run at 8:45 the next evening, when rush seating was offered at 50-cents.
But on race day, streetcar service was disrupted. The hydro-electric plant at Pinawa owned by the Winnipeg Electric Company, which operated the city’s electric-powered streetcars and controlled the delivery of electricity to the city (the city-owned generating station at Point du Bois didn’t open until 1911), was flooded and out of service, plunging Winnipeg into darkness.
According to the November 24 Free Press: “... a big flume head gave way, and with a roar and plunge the great volume of water that should have turned the turbine wheel to furnish the (street)car power now flooded the power house. In a brief minute the machinery was out of commission.”
Since the water gates were controlled by engines powered by the plant itself which was no longer able to operate, “it was impossible to stop the rush of water into the plant.”
With the power out, streetcars at irregular intervals “stood silent ... each as if frozen to its tracks ... Darkness had come in from the wastes and wrapped the city ... The Red River last evening (November 23), shorn of its usual lively festoon of dancing lights, looked dead and blank as a ravine in the country: the houses on its banks, white-roofed unlighted, and only dimly seen through the mist of the swirling snowflakes, showed lifeless as drifts on the prairie.”
It was a situation somewhat reminiscent of the first race between Shrubb and J.F. Fitzgerald at Happyland when the artificial lights went out. But there wasn’t another duplication of the riot of August 9, as no one was in the stands when the Winnipeg Electric Company power plant broke down.
In addition, the Arena Rink was fortunate to have “a full equipment of gasoline lamps” (December 25, 1909, Free Press), as well power generated from city steam plants allowed the electric lighting in the rink to remain glowing.
Until the machinery in the plant near Lac du Bonnet was again generating power, William Whyte, a director of the company, said limited streetcar service would end at 7 p.m. and all available power would be used for lighting households and businesses.
Additional electric power was obtained from the city’s reserve plant on McPhillips street, while some businesses such as Eaton’s and the Hudson Bay Company, as well as the St. Boniface and Winnipeg general hospitals had their own power plants. As a further measure, the company later reintroduced into service its steam plant on Assiniboine Avenue to generate more electricity.
For those unable to catch a streetcar, they had to “do a marathon themselves” in order to attend. The lack of streetcars meant that a little more than 1,000 spectators witnessed the race, far short of the numbers predicted prior to the disruption of electrical service, which took days to be restored.
“It was the first appearance of Longboat in Winnipeg and he found himself a warm favourite here as elsewhere,” according to the November 25 Free Press. “His stoic features lightened up with a smile of gratification when he first stepped on the track. He is a lanky lad with a much longer stride than Shrubb.”
The newspaper listed 22-year-old Longboat as weighing 150 pounds, standing 5-foot-10 and having a stride of 5-foot-2, while the 31-year-old Englishman weighed 128 pounds, stood 5-foot-7 and had a stride of 4-foot-6.
“The famous Indian showed himself a good plugger; he went the route with little change of pace, but he never had a chance against the little Englishman.”
Longboat was right to consider shorter distances more favourable to Shrubb. Shrubb has been unfortunate in his Winnipeg races in having two breakdowns here, but last night he convinced all who saw the race that he is without a peer at the game. He went the full distance without the slightest sign of distress, finishing like a 100 yard sprinter.”
According to the newspaper account, Shrubb was in his best form and took the race by three laps, or about 480 yards. The Englishman’s winning time was 1:34:50.
“Shrubb has been unfortunate in his Winnipeg races in having two breakdowns here, but last night he convinced all who saw the race that he is without a peer at the game.”
Longboat didn’t finish the 16-mile run until Shrubb had left the track. “He looked decidedly glum as he went to the dressing room, but, at that, the marathoner ran a good race: no man could have done better against Shrubb last night. And it can be said that the Englishman was running well within himself.”
A commentary in the November 27 Free Press, said that the “way the Englishman romped away from Longboat the other night was somewhat shameful ... The winner took his time about it. Longboat may be a marathoner, but he does not seem to have any right on the same track with Shrubb at anything under 17 miles.”
Longboat probably would have agreed, as his previous victories over Shrubb always came at longer distances, when the Englishman in his turn did “not seem to have any right on the same track.”
Over the years, Longboat raced Shrubb 11 times: both won five races each, while both failed to finish one race.
“When Tom was winning, everybody was his friend,” Will Cardinal wrote in Tom Longboat: Running Against the Wind (Eschia Books, 2008), “but when he lost, newspapers printed long articles (more like rants) against him, and they were often peppered with racist overtunes.”
To be fair, the Free Press commentary was more along the lines of a critical observation rather than a “rant.”
On July 1, 1907, a Winnipeg Morning Telegram reporter wrote that running was considered a “manly” pursuit because of its requirement for skill and endurance — “altogether the atmosphere of the occasion appeals very strongly to the imagination of the lover of legitimate sports.”
It was the endurance showed by the athletes as well as the strategy which attracted so many spectators.
But there was also a highly-charged entertainment aspect to the races, especially at the professional level. The professional races were part athletic contest and part theatre with the runners having their own anthems which the band played when a runner was introduced and whenever he took the lead. Runners such as Shrubb taunted their opponents to the delight of spectators, sprinting ahead, intentionally falling back and walking at times. It was a drama-inducing strategy he and some other runners employed to generate audience excitement.
In addition, managers could be seen at trackside urging on their runners or taunting their opponents. At Madison Square Garden, Tom Flanagan, Longboat’s former manager, jumped down the stands, stripped off his suit jacket, tie and collar and ran up and down one straightaway, jeering at Shrubb and leading the crowd’s cheers for Longboat, who was steadily closing the gap between himself and the Englishman. With two miles to go in the race, the fatiguing Englishman was passed by Longboat, after which Shrubb conceded defeat by stepping off the track.
The cigar and cigarette smoke was so thick in some indoor venues that the racers were severely hampered. After the February 5, 1909, race at Madison Square Garden in New York, Shrubb complained that he lost to Longboat because he was affected by the smoke filling the arena.
But spectators were often fickle and when a runner didn’t perform as expected, instead of cheers, he received jeers from the crowd.
In the end, it was the money that generated most of the excitement associated with each race. Betting during races was fast and furious as the runners circled the track, with wagers placed on the outcome of each stage of the race. Once they joined the professional ranks, each runner had a manager, and these managers would place side bets on the results of a race. While a runner might claim a purse of up to $5,000 — sometimes, but rarely, $10,000 — for winning a race, the real money was in the wagers placed by their managers. As in horse racing, wagers were placed on a racer’s position of finishing, so a racer in second, or even third place, could still pick up some money from the bets placed by his manager.
The era of such races was short-lived, losing momentum by 1912 and effectively ended by the outbreak of the First World War. But until then, 1909 would be remembered as Winnipeg’s best year for foot races between the world’s greatest runners of the period.
In fact, a May 24, 1909, headline in the Free Press proclaimed that Marathonitis Affects Winnipeg after it was reported that a number of greatest professional runners announced their intention to race in the city. Another report (May 3) talked about Winnipeg’s “marathon craze.”
The riot at Happyland, caused by the failure of the artificial lights to illuminate the amusement park track, didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for long-distance racing among Winnipeggers during the year when so many world-class runners came to town.