The University of Washington campus, after the Alaska/Yukon Exposition of 1909, was now physically changed, and the school was growing quickly too. Enrollment had tripled since 1905 from about 700 students to 2,200 in 1910, and more and more young men (and women) were turning out at the boathouse to find out more about crew.
The new decade found the rowing squad at Washington firmly established and hungry for more. The coach of the program, Hiram Conibear, who had seen his hopes of a west coast dynasty dashed in 1909, now realized that to meet the goal of being the “Cornell of the Pacific” (Cornell dominated the IRA in the early century), more would be required of him, his athletes, the University, and the community.
It was in this decade that Washington Crew entered the national stage, and through that recognition brought attention to the University and Seattle itself – for some perhaps too much. For Hiram Conibear, though, the sky was the limit.
One of the first orders of business for Coach Conibear was to procure the Coast Guard station and lighthouse, built for the AYE, as new crew headquarters. This building, at the foot of “Pay Streak” – the main amusement corridor linking the upper exhibits to the lower fair – would also be home to the new Varsity Boat Club, established in this year under Conibear as a social organization for all of the upperclassmen who rowed on the team. The building was located on Portage Bay, in fact very near where the west end of the Montlake Cut is today. At the time, of course, there was no Cut, and no access to Lake Washington. The crews practiced in Portage Bay and Lake Union for about six years, carrying the shells over to Lake Washington in the spring. In 1916 the Cut was completed, opening up miles and miles of Lake Washington – much to the joy of Conibear.
Click here to see a map showing the AYE. The bay to the left is Union Bay, the bay to the right is Portage Bay, and the green, low level area in between is where the Montlake Cut is today. “Pay Streak” runs north to south (down to up) in the middle/right in this picture; the Life Saving Station – future home of the VBC – is the thin white tower at the foot of “Pay Streak” (on the southeast end of Portage Bay) with the large ship anchored out front.
And one final note from the AYE. As part of the cultural celebration of the fair, Igorot Tribesmen – indigenous people of the Philippine mountains – put on a show of native dances. Conibear, in a way only he could, began to reference his freshmen as “igorotes”, said in a way that every syllable dripped with a certain disdain. Although today such a reference would be unthinkable, keep in mind the times. In fact, it was in the counter-culture revolution of the sixties that the name evolved into the as-endearing “gruntie” that is invoked today.
Two new shells were also acquired in 1910, named the Helen and the Walter B. The shells were built wider and deeper, specifications for larger men. It was clear what was on Mr. Conibear’s mind, and unlikely that Conibear changed the training regimen much. Once again the crew only raced inter-class prior to their championship race against Stanford (who had defeated California earlier in the year) slated for Wednesday, May 25th, 1910. It is unclear how the men got the shells to Lake Washington for the races – they were probably carried to the old student-built boathouse on Union Bay a week or two in advance, and possibly, in later years, transported by vehicle.
The course off Madison Park on Lake Washington was windy again, and the race postponed from 10:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (one would think by now spectators had grown accustomed to delays). At 1:30 it calmed enough to get a start underway, with Washington pulling out to an early lead. Stanford outweighed Washington by only six to seven pounds as opposed to almost twenty the year before, with even three-year letterman and now stroke Brouse Beck weighing three pounds heavier than the previous year at a bulky 164.
Conibear was also more confident with his new shells, particularly the Helen. Almost immediately however, both crews began to take water over the gunnels. Washington, leading by two lengths as they approached the mile mark, watched as their opponent’s shell dipped and flooded, scattering the crew. Beck tried to quickly drop the stroke rate, but it was only a brief time before the Helen, caught between two large waves and heaving from the weight of the water and men, buckled cleanly in two. The men were sent sprawling. And although all athletes were rescued, the Stanford coxswain narrowly escaped drowning after being trapped under their shell, and was rescued by three followers in a launch.
The race officials gave the race to Washington on account of their lead when the crews went down, but both Beck and Captain Bart Lovejoy refused the declaration, preferring to race again the next day, even though it would mean rowing in the Walter B., a slower, heavier boat unrigged for the Varsity.
The conditions were not much better on Thursday. The race played out similar to the day before: Washington garnering a quick lead, this time Stanford making it halfway through the three mile course before sinking; again Beck lowered the stroke rate, and whether it was because the Walter B. was built like a tank or the waves just not quite as high, the men were able to finish the race in 18:32. .
That evening they boarded the Great Northern Railway for a first for the crew team: a trip east of the Rockies to race Wisconsin on June 4th. Two thousand people were reportedly there in Madison to meet the train when it arrived. The race on Lake Mendota was rowed in poor conditions, but Wisconsin pulled away after the first mile and were never seriously challenged, finishing five lengths in front of Washington in 16:06. Even so, the men were proud of their accomplishment, and the fastest time rowed on a three mile course by a Washington crew (16:21).
Conibear, likely a subscriber to the “no publicity is bad publicity” philosophy, knew that the fact the team had even competed against an “eastern” opponent was a milestone in the continued development of his program. However, with the majority of the crew graduating, including a number of three-year lettermen, he also knew that 1911 would challenge his skills as a coach and teacher.
The 1910 west coast champions. Royal “Pink” Pullen, brother of the first three-year letterman Dan (’05), decided at one stop across the country to stretch his legs – and impatiently jumped before the train came to a complete stop. However, the train was not stopping, just slowing for a flag station. As he sprinted to re-catch the train, his teammates cheered him on. After that he “always waited for the train to stop before he commenced his exercise” said the Tyee. VBC Collection: UW21767.
Sources: The Tyee, 1912, (Rowing, pg. 130-135); The Tyee, 1924, pgs. 152-163 (1); The Seattle Post Intelligencer, May 25, 1910, pg. 10; May 26, 1910, pg. 1; June 4, 1910, pg. 10.
With a new contract effectively doubling his salary to $3,600 per year, Conibear was now “teacher of aquatics” ($1,800 for the full year) and head crew coach ($1,800 for Dec. 1 – June 1 only). The argument for the change was that the governing sports body, the student athletic board, believed “rowing should be placed on the same plane as football, track, and baseball, and a coach employed only during the actual athletic season.” (1)
It is not clear exactly how this affected workouts, but regardless of titles or “official” capacities, it seems that what we know of Conibear, training in the fall likely proceeded as in previous years. One thing that was affected positively by this change was the growing popularity among women students to participate in the sport as part of the physical education program at the University. We cover that in a special section at the conclusion of this decade.
1911 was a “rebuilding” year, although it is doubtful anyone associated with the program would have wanted to call it that. The Varsity boat had seven new members, a new captain, and a new coxswain.
May 25th, 1911, was the day of the coast championship on Lake Washington. Although it is reported that Stanford had earlier defeated California (2), California made the trip north, along with their freshmen. The day was nice, with what is indicated as a tailwind blowing up the Leschi to Madison Park course (the race started at the “sawmill south of Leschi Park” (3).
The freshmen race was not close, Washington leading by four lengths at the mile, when an oarlock on the California boat broke, ending what little suspense that was left. The Varsity race, however, was a toss-up, with the untested Varsity only five pounds per man heavier than their southern rivals.
The Varsity race started fairly, with the boats even. The Seattle P-I described the early part of the race, with Washington rowing “a long, even stroke; the visitors used a shorter and quicker stroke. The machine-like Washington crew, pulling easily and with apparently no unusual exertion, gradually drew away…” (4). Understroking their opponent, Washington led after the first mile, and won easily by seven lengths in a time of 15:22, the fastest time yet recorded on the coast. A rebuilding year had produced one of the finest crews yet.
As pleased as he must have been over that achievement, Conibear was nevertheless uneasy about his future. Only a week before, talks had broken down on a new contract. In a Seattle P-I article entitled “Conibear may leave U. of W.” Conibear said “… the action of the (student) board in continuing to lay my application on the table at their meetings is placing me in a bad position.” He continued: “Not one member of the board of control was present when the Seattle-made varsity shell was launched Wednesday afternoon”. (5).
Later that summer, the board and Conibear would reach agreement on a contract. But the dispute revealed the simmering relationship the coach had with the University, one that would boil over in only a few short years.
From Art Campbell’s scrapbook, a picture which he labels “1911 VBC”. VBC Collection: 21793z.
Sources: The Tyee, 1924, pgs. 152-163; The Log of Rowing at the University of California Berkeley, 1870-1987, pgs 4-9 (2); The Seattle Post Intelligencer, June 4, 1910, pg. 10 (1); May 20, 1911, pg. 2 (5); May 25, 1911, pg. 3 (3); May 26, 1911, pg. 3 (4).
Using the shells and barges of the Seattle Parks Department, Conibear had his men “informally” rowing from September until the official start date of December 1. The coach also organized two fall regattas on Lake Union, on October 29th and December 9th – a prelude to the current early November “Head of the Lake” regatta.
The Varsity was on the water by early February preparing for the Triangular on the Estuary on April 13th. After a good trip down by steamer, the men were healthy and ready to race. At the start of the three-miler, Washington and Stanford broke away from California, but it was Stanford that was able to keep up a higher stroke rate and pull to the lead. Around two curves the course went on the winding estuary, until in the last mile and a half it turned straight, and was joined by a twelve car train that ran parallel to the shore, filled with spectators that then followed the race. Amid the shouts and cheers, Stanford maintained their length lead until about a half-mile to go, when they were able to then sprint to a twelve second victory over Washington, with California another twenty seconds back.
There would be no follow up race in Seattle that year due to an outbreak of the mumps in the California shell (1), so Washington scheduled a race with Canadian club crews in Vancouver on May 24th. Washington rowed to strong victories in both eight-oared and four-oared competition.
But in historical terms, very few moments in Washington crew history would have more of an impact than a side trip Coach Conibear would take to visit a pair of English brothers eking out a living building boats on a float in Coal Harbor, Vancouver. The brothers, George and Dick Pocock, accomplished oarsmen themselves, could not believe that the man clawing his way in a dinghy, through the wind and waves to their floating shop, was a crew coach. Nevertheless, Conibear enticed the men with visions of a west coast dynasty and, more specifically, orders for twelve new eight-oared shells.
After visiting Seattle later in the year, the brothers were sold on the idea, and sent for their father, Fred Pocock, from England. Yet after agreeing to move, Conibear sent a sobering letter: there was only money for one shell. The one order amounted to $600, and it had cost them $500 just to bring their father overseas. Said George of Conibear later: “Conny can be excused because he was so deeply committed to the excellence of rowing at the University of Washington, and was so anxious to get us down to Seattle.” (2) But at the time, the disappointed brothers were probably also wondering exactly who this man was – and what they were into.
Regardless, while George stayed in Vancouver to tend the shop there, Dick and Aaron went south to Seattle to build the first Pocock racing shell for Washington. Constructed in the “Tokyo Tea Room”, another AYE “temporary” building made permanent (like the new crew quarters, these buildings were originally slapped together in days), the men completed The Rogers – namesake of the Seattle candy entrepeneur who donated $200 towards its completion. (2) “As a matter of fact,” said George forty years later, “it looked impossible to finance even one shell until Mr. Rogers of the of the Rogers Candy Company on University Way donated $200 and the boat was named in his honor. We went back to Vancouver, sadder but wiser…” (3) Difficult to know at the time, but after 1913…see below… there would be many, many more boats to follow.
When The George Pocock was christened on the apron of the Hiram B. Conibear Shellhouse in the spring of 1976, the partnership that had endured sixty-four years, and spawned countless champions, could be traced back to that very first meeting between the two men on a blustery day in the spring of 1912.
The 1912 Varsity on the Estuary. Tyee photo. VBC Collection.
Sources: The Tyee, 1911-12, (1912 Crew Season, pg. 124-131); The Tyee, 1924, (The Log Book) (1); VBC Log Book, 1916-1925, MSCUA (1); Ready All! George Yeoman Pocock and Crew Racing, pgs. 31-42 (2); The “Husky Rowing News”, published by members of the VBC, 1954 (3).
Word quickly spread about the craftsmanship of Washington’s new Pocock shell (quite possibly by Conibear himself, who was trying to find work for the Pococks), and within months California had ordered a Pocock eight. On trips to Seattle, the brothers were spending time getting to know Conibear, and started sharing their own English rowing styles and experience with the always curious and observant coach. This blend of old-school “Eton” knowledge with the innovative personality of Conibear significantly impacted the ever evolving “Conibear stroke”, creating an even more effective mechanism than before.
That new-found efficiency, and the return of many of the athletes from 1912 translated into a twelve length victory over Stanford and a twenty length victory over California April 19th on the Estuary. Rowing against a flood tide, the team rowed the three mile course in 17:54, with Stanford closest at 42 seconds back.
A month later and back home on Lake Washington, the crew defeated California handily by seven lengths, establishing itself as one of the best crews Conibear had coached.
With the extent of these two victories behind him, Conibear set out to raise the funds necessary to transport the team back east for the IRA. With the community having expressed interest in previous years (back to 1908), this time Conny put the wheels in motion and by mid-June had made the necessary arrangements to take a Varsity 8 and Varsity 4- to Poughkeepsie. A $4,000 gift from the Frye Packing Company family assured the trip would proceed. (1).
Although Stanford had competed the year before (finishing a distant sixth), this crew from the northwest was seen as a novelty. Once arriving in New York by rail, the team became a spectacle: what did people from the “wild” west look like, talk like, act like. But once out on the Hudson River for practice, the men believed they could challenge for the famed Varsity Challenge Cup.
On June 21st the four-mile race went off, with Cornell the favorite. Washington trailed early, but at the three-mile mark began to move. Clipping by Pennsylvania, Columbia and Wisconsin in the final mile, the crew fell short about a length behind the winner, Syracuse, and runner-up Cornell. Although Elmer Leader rowed a good portion of the race with broken foot straps, it was more a case of inexperience and a late sprint that cost Washington the victory.
Even so, the close third place finish by a crew from the far reaches of the country in this vaunted east coast sport was a stunner. The expectations by the public were that, although it was very interesting to have a northwest representative there, they would not be competitive, as Stanford had not been the year before. But not only were they competitive, they came a length shy of winning. One has to wonder that had Conibear prevailed among his west coast rivals to make the four-mile distance (instead of three-mile) the standard, how his crew might have handled the pace, particularly in the last mile.
With this performance, the complexion of American rowing was now irreversibly altered. East coast schools and their followers now knew that Washington rowing was for real. The men were welcomed back to Seattle as heroes. The community hailed Conibear as a man who had represented Seattle on the national stage with great honor, and it was followed by an outpouring of gifts to the program. 1913 was the defining year for Hiram Conibear, and squarely put Washington Rowing on the national map.
With his treasury growing, Conibear ordered two new shells (Seattle Spirit I and Seattle Spirit II, named for the outpouring of gifts to the program from the citizens of Seattle) from the Pocock brothers following the return from Poughkeepsie, as well as additional barges for the women’s physical education program. That winter, the Pococks left their Vancouver shop and moved south to make Seattle, and the University of Washington, home.
Fall turnout in 1912, from the Art Campbell scrapbook. VBC Collection: UW21847z.
Sources: The Tyee, 1912-13, (Crew, pg. 134-139); The Tyee, 1913-14, (Poughkeepsie, pg. 148-153); The Tyee, 1924, pgs. 152-163; Ready All! George Yeoman Pocock and Crew Racing, pgs. 43-51 (1).
Max Walske, at 6′ 2 1/2 ” and 194 pounds, and named to the All-American eight in 1913 at the IRA, was the only member of the 1913 IRA crew to return. However, he was joined by the likes of Russell (Rusty) Callow, who made the trip back east to row in the fours race at the IRA, and James Frankland, who had rowed at the California race in 1913 but did not participate at the IRA’s.
The men raced April 11th in the Triangular on the Estuary, with the freshmen coming second to Stanford. The Varsity won by five lengths over Stanford, with California trailing. .
The return trip by California on May 22nd was slightly more interesting. In an effort to speed up the three mile races, Conibear had devised a plan whereby a race (reported as the freshmen, or JV, or interclass in separate sources) would start at one end of the course, and the Varsity race at the other; when the first crew finished, the next race would then start, going the other way. This meant that spectators at both ends of the course would see a start, and a finish.
As we have learned from previous years, however, things did not always go as planned. After a lengthy delay, Conibear started the Varsity race. Behind the crews came a number of launches eager to follow; however, three miles away at the other end (actually about 2 1/2 miles – the course was measured wrong), with the crews and spectators growing restless and with what seemed like an inordinate delay, someone started the other race. It too was followed by launches and spectators. You can see where this is heading. Somewhere in the middle, to Conibear’s astonishment and chagrin, the crews, and launches, and spectators, met in a conglomeration of oars and wakes and shouts and horns. Conibear was seen “bashing his megaphone over the bow of his launch in utter disbelief of what he was seeing” according to George Pocock, who witnessed the event. (1.
Remarkably, all of the crews made it through without swamping, with Washington recovering enough to win both events – the Varsity by six lengths. This year also marked the first JV event in the dual – with we think no other races slated to start at the same time it did – and Washington won that race as well.
Owing to this somewhat odd victory and the performance of 1913, and with $3,000 raised through the business community and another $1,000 through the students, the crew returned to the IRA in 1914. This time, however, the crew was only able to garner fifth place, losing by twenty-four seconds to winner Columbia. Upon returning, the student board decided that Washington would not send a crew east until after 1916.
The IRA crew before heading east. VBC Collection: UW21775z.
Although the crew knew they would not be going east this year, there were a number of returning athletes ready to defend their dominance of the west coast.
The racing season started dubiously however, with the crew hitting a submerged piling while practicing on the Estuary four days before the April 10th Triangular, ripping a fourteen foot gash in the “Merrily” and sinking it, the men swimming to shore. A wire was sent to George Pocock, who caught the next steamer south.
After Pocock did his best to repair the gaping hole in the shell the day prior to the start, the crew was set to race; the odds makers had the race even between Stanford and Washington, with Stanford noted as having a “greater avoirdupois as well as a new sweeping stroke that looks ominous” (1). That new stroke was an early adaptation of the Conibear technique.
At the start, Stanford and Washington quickly moved to the front, and the shells raced neck and neck through the mile mark. However, Stanford at two miles was up by a half-length, with Washington stroking higher than in the past. At the finish, it was Stanford with the upset by 3/4 length. The Washington men were dejected and looked forward to a rematch in May.
That rematch was not to be however, as Stanford refused to come to Seattle to race, opting for the IRA instead. Pleading with them, Conibear and the ASUW Manager stated: “We have your word that you would come… Washington has always taken a chance at defeat by you in a return regatta before going east… our interests are mutual in promoting the rowing game on the Pacific coast… come on and fulfill your promise…” (3). Conibear and the Stewards also invited and believed that some east coast schools would come out to race in Seattle; the May 19th P-I reported “Penn and Syracuse Sure to Compete in Seattle” (3). But Stanford ended up leaving for Poughkeepsie, the east coast schools never materialized, and thus ended a disappointing and truncated season for Washington.
That June, Stanford fell just fifteen feet shy of first place Cornell on the four mile IRA course, a western team once again confounding the eastern establishment and serving a reminder that west coast rowing was here to stay.
The 1915 Varsity, left to right: Paul “Shorty” Hammer, Heine Zimmerman, Clyde Brokaw, Rusty Callow, Adolph “Shorty” (6’5″) Harr, Harold Waller, Paul McConihe, Clarke “Brick” Will, Arthur “Stub” Ward. Waller was a four year letter-winner, bow man in 1911, captain and stroke in 1912 as a junior, rowed in the Cal race for 1913 but missed Poughkeepsie and the 1914 season, then returned in 1915. Brokaw was called by the 1915 Tyee: “a sincere, powerful, and hard-working son from Stanwood – every inch of him a man of whom Washington is proud.” Tyee photo.
Sources: The Tyee, 1914-15, (Crew, pg. 127-135); The Tyee, 1924, pgs. 152-163; The Seattle Post Intelligencer, April 7, 1915, sports; April 10, 1915, pg. B9 (1); April 11, 1915, pg. 1; April 30, 1915, pg. B10 (2); May 19, 1915, sports (3); June 29, 1915, B8.
Bent on revenge, close to sixty men reported for turnout when practice officially began in January. Fighting a particularly cold and snowy winter, workouts on the water were not consistent and the crews were untested as spring arrived.
Possibly in response to their refusal to race in Seattle the previous year, Stanford came north early on April 8th. Although returning a number of men from the excellent crew of 1915, Stanford was over-matched and under-stroked by a surprisingly aggressive and well-tuned Washington crew, who rowed to a lop-sided victory of seven lengths.
Seven weeks later on May 27th, Conibear and his men faced a tough California crew on Lake Washington and defeated them going away in a time of 16:56 (California crossed in 17:41) to go undefeated for the year. The course was reversed from previous years, this time starting at Madison Park and finishing at Leschi, mostly to accommodate the large crowd.
The 1916 crew was a dominant team highlighted by athletes like Ward Kumm, a 161-pound dynamo in the stroke seat, Max Walske, a 1913 All-American oarsman who had skipped 1915, and Paul “Mac” McConihe, a tough, selfless oarsman.
At the time, no one could have foreseen the fact two future coaching legends were also together in the 1916 Varsity boat. Ed Leader, who went on to coach at Washington and Yale, and Carroll “Ky” Ebright, who defined California rowing from 1924 to 1959. In the five Olympic eight-oared events between 1924 and 1948, these two coached the crews (Yale and Cal) that won gold in four of them. The only year they didn’t, Washington did.
On October 21, 1916, the Lake Washington ship canal linking Lake Washington (Union Bay) with Lake Union (Portage Bay) was opened, draining nine feet from the shores of Lake Washington and creating the modern day home course of the Huskies, the Montlake Cut. Click here for more information on the construction of the Montlake Cut.
Varsity into the finish of the Stanford race off Madison Park. The Cal race would row the course in reverse. VBC Collection: UW21778z.
Sources: The Tyee, 1916; The Tyee, 1917 (Crew Pgs. 82-88); The Tyee, 1924, pgs. 152-163; The Seattle Post Intelligencer, May 27, 1916, pg. 12; May 28, 1916, Part 3 pg. 1
It was right after the end of the 1916 racing season that the simmering issues built up over the years between Conibear and the University came to a boil. There are conflicting accounts of what exactly transpired to send Hiram Conibear back east for a six month “leave of absence”. The Tyee suggests it was Conibear who volunteered to “go east to study methods used by the coaches of other crews” (1), however George Pocock paints a more likely scenario.
Henry Suzzallo had taken the reins of the University as president in 1915. His dedication to education went hand in hand with a perception that athletics were over-prioritized on campus and out of control. There was much speculation that Washington would send the crew to Poughkeepsie in 1916 – the student board even revoked the previous limitation made in 1914 – and businessmen were lining up to commit the necessary funding. Newspaper accounts in May, quite possibly planted by Conibear or his friends, had them on their way. Suddenly everything went quiet, the trip vaporized, and a couple of weeks later Conibear was gone. The efforts to revoke the 1914 agreement, or the aggressive campaign to go east may have put these two strong-willed men at loggerheads. Whatever the reason, according to Pocock, his popularity and personality led Suzzallo to fire him. Rusty Callow, at the end of his fifth year at the University and now ASUW President, reportedly then stepped in on behalf of Conibear and persuaded Suzzallo to back down. The compromise, according to Pocock, was that Conibear stop meddling in campus politics and take a six month leave (2). .
Conibear was gone in time to see the 1916 Harvard/Yale race and the IRA, and then spent the summer back teaching rowing in Chautauqua, New York, where he had spent time years before. He then landed at his brother-in-law’s ranch outside of Chicago, before returning to Seattle in January of 1917 to begin coaching again.
It was during this leave of absence that the Pococks decided to take a lucrative offer from Bill Boeing to build pontoons for float planes. Although gone from the Tokyo Tea Room, the brothers would stay in close contact with the rowing program at Washington.
Captain Tom Cushman and teammate Paul McConihe opened fall turnouts for the freshmen that year, with about forty young men in attendance, and held practices throughout the autumn. Come the first week of February, 1917, both freshmen and varsity contingents were on the water with Conibear back barking instructions from his megaphone.
Cushman, after being hospitalized for appendicitis, was replaced as captain by Ward Kumm prior to the departure for California and the Triangular. Leaving early to escape another miserable winter in Seattle, the crew had two weeks of training in the Bay area that greatly improved their morale and their stroke. On April 14th, although challenged by California halfway through the course, the team pulled away to win by five lengths over their closest rival, Stanford.
There would be no trip to the IRA that year, so thus would be the last victory for Hiram Conibear. On September 10, 1917, in his backyard, Coach Conibear climbed a fruit tree (a plum or apple tree, depending on the source) and fell, breaking his neck. He died instantly.
Rowing at Washington, with an already uncertain future under the University President and now stunningly without the man who had built it, would survive the next two years solely on the grit and will of the Seattle community and the legacy Conibear left – the men of the Varsity Boat Club, and the Washington Rowing Stewards.
On the docks at the boathouse on Lake Union. George Pocock recalled these times with Hiram Conibear in the 1954 Oarsman: “What Conny had was an indomitable spirit that was contagious among the oarsmen, and how they did work for him. I remember being out with him one evening in the coaching launch “Target.” He had just given an oration to the squad that rowing was apt to be abandoned, and favorable results in a race with California would save it. The crews really went to work; one crew, stroked by Bill Morrow, the heavyweight boxing champ at the University, was stroking a 42 and Conny yelled ‘Ease down Morrow, I can see smoke coming off the tracks.’ That spirit of keen endeavor has always been a part of crew at Washington.” (3) Photo: Tyee Vol XVI.
Sources: The Tyee, 1917 (Crew Pgs. 82-88) (1); The Tyee, 1924, pgs. 152-163; VBC Log Book, 1916-1925, MSCUA; Ready All! George Yeoman Pocock and Crew Racing, pgs. 49-54 (2); The Washington Oarsman, Guy Harper Scrapbook, pg. 2 (3).
“The important thing is to not stop questioning.”
That is a quote attributed to an innovator and contemporary of Hiram Conibear, Albert Einstein. A man who certainly lived by that philosophy, Conny probably said it too, although the scribes at the time were likely too busy noting his other observations – like defining the ‘Conibear stroke’ as “the stroke that gets you there”(1), or, during one of the tougher times “…please don’t fire me – we’re on to something really good here…” (2). Master of the understatement, he ultimately became master of the sport itself.
If the writers at the time had difficulty describing Conibear – eighty years later it is no easier. Certainly though, one of the best descriptions of the impact the coach and teacher had on the sport comes from Tom Mendenhall, the late rowing historian and professor at Yale University. In his book, A Short History of American Rowing, he writes:
“Perhaps the most permanent, extensive adaptation of the English tradition (of rowing) to American conditions came through Hiram Conibear at the University of Washington. In the spring of 1907 the former trainer of the White Sox and Alonzo Stagg’s football team at the University of Chicago coached his first crew at Seattle. Brought to Washington to train the football team, Conibear took over the crew almost on a wager. His training for the job included a few hours of rowing at Chautauqua summer sessions, careful study of of an English book on rowing, and some now legendary experiments the previous winter. With a skeleton borrowed from the biology laboratory he learned for himself the anatomical movement which a stroke required of an oarsman: where, how, and when the maximum drive could be applied to an oar. Similarly, by keeping a bicycle wheel spinning steadily with a simple pat of his hand, he came upon the critical role of the recovery in maintaining a steady run to a shell. His Chautauqua coach had been a pupil of Bob Cook (a Yale man who had studied English rowing in the mid to late 19th century*). The Pocock brothers, whom Conibear persuaded to move down from Vancouver, gave him another contact with English Orthodoxy. Soon to become the principle builders of shells to American crews for more than half a century, the brothers hailed from a family of watermen at Eton College, an historic center of Orthodoxy. Conibear’s genius was to discover and absorb the central elements of English Orthodox and then adapt them to American conditions and physiques, to develop a Native American style, something which Cook nor had Courtney (Pop Courtney was the legendary Cornell coach from 1885-1919*) quite been able to do.”
“Killed in a tragic accident in 1917 when only forty-six and barely ten years into his chosen vocation, Conibear left an almost legendary style and dynasty of pupils to carry it across the country. His successor at Washington, Ed Leader, rowed 2 in the Husky crew which confounded the experts to take third at Poughkeepsie in 1913. Ten years later Leader moved east to Yale, the first example of an American oarsman-graduate who chose coaching as a profession and bellwether of a Washington invasion which would spread the Washington perfection of American Orthodox throughout the country: in 1925, Ky Ebright, Washington’s cox in 1915-16-17, began his thirty-five years of coaching at California; Rusty Callow, captain of the 1915 crew, followed Leader at Washington, was called to Pennsylvania in 1927 and finally moved to Navy (where he too coached a gold medal winning eight at the Olympics*). Among Callow’s pupils at Seattle a second generation of Washington coaches soon appeared: Al Ulbrickson, who stroked Callow’s last three Washington crews, succeeded his mentor there, while his classmates, Stork Stanford and Tom Bolles were eventually lured east in 1936 to coach at Cornell and Harvard. By 1937 every major rowing college in the country, save Columbia, Navy, and Syracuse, enjoyed the benefits of a Washington coach, a pupil either of Conibear himself or of Rusty Callow. And after World War II, a third generation of Washington coaches began to emerge.”
Hiram Conibear was committed to his athletes and overwhelmingly committed to the program. He developed a training regimen unique to the sport while studying it extensively. He welcomed input – in fact courted it. The sport became his passion and he promoted it enthusiastically and creatively. He founded the VBC and the Rowing Stewards, developed an exceedingly popular women’s branch of the sport, and welcomed students at the Shellhouse door. He was tireless and dedicated.
But the best summation today of Hiram Conibear is in the legacy he left to rowing. That legacy can be seen in any shell, any morning, anywhere across this country.
* added notes for context
Sources: Ready All! George Yeoman Pocock and Crew Racing, pgs. 42 (1). A Short History of American Rowing, Thomas C. Mendenhall (2): reproduced by permission.
With the athletes in shock, the program in turmoil, and war times at home, it was not surprising that the 1918 racing season was cancelled. The United States became officially involved in World War I on April 6, 1917, and quickly campuses around the country were depleted of men volunteering or being assigned duty. The Tyee of 1918 noted “War has a peculiar and consistent demand for athletes. They are favored for commissions as officers and their presence in the ranks more welcome…” (1). Both California and Stanford cancelled their programs early, and eight of the nine men in the Washington Varsity boat the previous year were called into the service. (1)
Ed Leader, class of ’16, member of the 1913 Poughkeepsie crew and letterman in Rowing, Football, and Baseball, assumed the role as head crew coach in 1918. Like his mentor, Leader engaged the men (those that were not called into service) in interclass and interclub races during the spring to keep them sharp – and to continue to teach the sport.
The Varsity Boat Club would not go through the war without losing one of their own. On October 4, 1918, Arthur Kinney, VBC member and pilot in the U.S. Air Service, was shot multiple times during an air battle over France. Although somehow able to land his bi-plane, he died later that day in the hospital. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
The war ended on Armistice Day (now known as Veterans Day) on November 11, 1918.
Sources: The Tyee, 1918 (War and Washington Athletics; Crew; In Memoriam Pg 43.)
The one year hiatus from intercollegiate racing opened the door for those who wanted to eliminate athletic programs not only at Washington, but across the country. At California for instance, the ASUC only agreed to let the program proceed if the athletes themselves could come up with $1,000, which they did and then some (1). Stanford would also survive but only barely; within two years, that program would be cancelled.
At Washington, with the strength of the community and the Rowing Stewards on his side, Ed Leader was allowed to continue the men’s program. However the women’s program was dissolved. Hard to believe that had Conibear been alive and with the momentum he had, that would have happened. But in one long year the momentum was gone for so many reasons, and it was now up to coach Leader to begin moving the program forward again.
In the spring he had a good turnout, and his work from the year previous in keeping the men in shape and in the boats rowing began to pay off. However, at the Triangular on the Estuary May 10th, the crew quickly fell behind California by a length, and remained there until about a quarter mile left. Upping the rate, Tony Brandenthaler, the stroke, felt his crew begin to move. In a classic finish – in fact the closest up to that point in the history on the west coast – Washington crossed the finish line four feet in front of Cal. Stanford finished more than ten lengths behind the winners.
Somewhat foreboding for Leader was the freshman race, which saw Washington fall by a half-length. Even so, 1919 would prove an important year for the revival of the program, a return to prominence on the coast, and a confidence builder for a young coach looking to break out of the shadow of the legendary Conibear.
Sources: The Tyee, 1919 (Crew Pgs. 100-104); The Log of Rowing at the University of California Berkeley, 1870-1987, pg. 10 (1).
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