History

The following is excerpted from ‘100 Years, A Century of Curling’ at the Port Arthur Curling Club, published in 1987.

One hundred years ago, a hardy group of men went about the task of building the first curling facility at the head of the lakes in the former city of Port Arthur.

On December 17th. 1887, a brief note in the city’s daily paper, The Journal, reported that the “new curling rink in Port Arthur was almost completed.” Thus began a long and illustrious history of the Port Arthur Curling Club at the property simply known as Egan Street.

The first curling stones slid down the 4 inch thick natural ice surface of the new rink in January of 1888 and a renewed interest in the roaring game was evident from an advertisement appearing in the newspaper Weekly Sentinel.  The ad, placed by Moir & Mills reminded curlers to secure their curling stones before they were all sold out. Members at that time were required to supply their own stones and a variety of different sized stones were lugged to the curling rink by the members.

Records are vague as to the original number of sheets in the new rink. A published report on one of the first games played on the new surface was a match between the F. S. Wiley rink and the F. Jones foursome. Jones won the game 17 – 16 and his team members included J. Cousins, J. Whalen and A. Adams. Curling with Wiley were A.G. Moir, J. Hancock and M. Isbister.

Previous to the building of the Port Arthur Curling Club, curlers used a variety of ice surfaces dating back to the early 1870’s when curlers cleared away the snow on Lake Superior at the foot of the Red River Road in Port Arthur. A few years later Fort William curlers used the frozen surfaces of the Kam River thus establishing what turned out to be a great curling rivalry between the two cities.

Curling indoors began on rented ice at a skating rink located on Wilson Street in 1879. The curlers and skaters put up and took down side boards as required. A prominent Port Arthur resident, Mr. D. F. Burke, is credited with bringing the first curling stones to Thunder Bay in 1879 and they were put into play at the Hill City facility.

In 1890 the C.P.R. moved its divisional point from Port Arthur to Fort William because the Hill City had seized one of its trains for back taxes. With this move, many of the former residents of Port Arthur relocated in Fort William and this seriously affected the active membership of the Port Arthur Club.

Curling in the formative years saw standard games consist of 16 ends of curling with two extra ends played to break a tie, and if necessary, a nineteenth end. In 1897 the length of games was changed to 14 ends and shortly thereafter this was replaced by the 12-end game. This format prevailed for the next half century.

A meeting in the mayor’s office of the municipal building in 1907 struck up an agreement with the Lake City Rink Co. to rent three sheets of ice. Chairing the meeting was president M. A. W. Robarts and he pleaded with the membership to take immediate steps to rescue the club from the poor financial condition it had fallen on in the previous year. The treasurer’s report showed $16.14 and outstanding accounts of $34.00. Officers elected were F. B. Allen as president and William Vigars as vice-president, secretary-treasurer George Nichol with executive members R. Bowell, F. H. Adamson, R. L. Strathy, W. J. Schwigler and V. Doran. Annual membership fee was $8.00 and election of skips for the season was left to a later meeting.

In the meantime Fort William had constructed a fine four sheet facility in 1907 and boasted an enthusiastic membership of 150. The club appointed Mr. Andy Russell as caretaker of the rink and elected W. J. Schwigler to the president’s chair.

The desire of the club to have their own curling rink became a reality on April 1, 1910 when lots 16 and 17 in the McVicar addition on Egan Street were purchased from John and Elizabeth McVicar of Princetown, Minnesota for the price of $1,320.00. The club had to enter into a mortgage arrangement with Robert Thomas Riley of Winnipeg for $2,000.00 at 7% interest with payments required to be made twice yearly at $100 each until the principal was paid in full.

The club continued to forge ahead and on December 1, 1910 Mr. R. Elliot of Southhampton Curling Club was hired as manager.  He reported at the annual meeting of the club that the first flood was applied and that ice should be ready for play in 10 days. R. L. F. Strathy was elected president with D. L. Cranston as vice-president.

After a lengthy discussion at the 1911 men’s semi-annual meeting, approval was granted to form a ladies league to curl in the afternoons.  That same year saw play in the Strathcona Cup, which featured teams from Scotland and Canada playing at Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg.  This competition still exists between the two countries.

An additional mortgage was necessary to carry on operations and in 1912 an agreement was reached to borrow a further $630.00 over a period of one year.  The mortgage was signed by the trustees of the club, Percy McCallum, manager; Levi J. Fallis, merchant; Richard Powell, tailor; Edward J. Dixon, shoe merchant and Thomas Rigg, gentleman.

Highlighting the curling season were the many bonspiels and competitions between the two clubs. The curling season in Port Arthur annually commenced with a Charity Bonspiel with the local St. Joseph’s hospital and in later years the Christmas Cheer Fund, the main benefactors.  Entry fees were mostly staples such as flour, potatoes, sugar, apples, etc. all to be donated to the hospital.  In 1937 the Charity Bonspiel became a mixed ‘spiel with the rules stipulating at least one woman per team  and that a man skip the rink.

The major competition between the two men’s clubs was the Intercity Bonspiel, held early in the year, with each city taking turns in hosting the event.  Big names in curling in Port Arthur in the early 1900’s were George Hodder and Neil McDougall. The pair’s accomplishments on the ice lanes were frequently published in the daily newspaper.  Immediately following the Intercity Bonspiel was the Manitoba playdown which qualified teams for the Canadian Curling Championships.

By the 1920’s the Intercity Bonspiel was now attracting teams from outside the city and the weeklong event, run just prior to the Winnipeg bonspiel, was having problems declaring champions before teams had to make the three-day trip to Winnipeg.  In 1924 the bonspiel was passed up by the Port Arthur Club, but after finally putting aside the many differences the two clubs fostered over the years, the bonspiel was reinstated the next year, bigger and better and consolidated into four days.

If ice was available at the end of the season numerous challenge matches were played between the clubs with oyster dinners or cigars being paid for by the losers.

As the membership expanded, the problems of finding enough qualified skips increased.  Membership committee had rigid control of the formation of club rinks and sometimes the selection of skips was based on their position in the community just as much as their curling ability.  Skips were expected to contribute more to the club than just curling quality and it was apparent that many qualified persons were hesitant to take on the extra responsibilities expected of them by the club.

To make the teams more uniform, a handicap system was instituted and it lasted for more than 40 years.  Adjustments to the rules were made at times to conform to Fort William’s system of play.  It was permanently discontinued in 1940.

In the early 1930’s, familiar names in the curling circles were Frank Sargent, Lis Hurrel, W. Storey, F. Gilliam, C. Swingler, Bill Joss, Roy English, Alex Gray and Charlie Boland. Over 30 rinks were formed in 1934 under the presidency of Frank Sargent.

In 1935 president Frank Sargent spearheaded efforts to affiliate with the Manitoba Curling Association.  A year later near catastrophy struck when a fire destroyed a good portion of the club. President Charlie Swingler praised ice maker Bill Joss at the semi-annual meeting for the fine condition of the ice and the repairs made to the building after the fire.  Thirty rinks signed up for play that season with six sheets in operation.

The rivalry between the two clubs continued to flourish over the years and at times was near fisticuffs.  The papers in each city reflected the views of the fans in that particular area.  One such report mentioned that during hockey games the spectators would pull the nails out of the boards and let sections fall onto the ice during curling games.  Another reported that a hockey rink in Port Arthur with a canvas roof had so much snow piled on top that the canvas sagged so low from the weight of the snow, curlers had difficulty seeing the other end of the rink.  The roof finally did collapse leaving spectators and fans scurrying for survival.

The difficulties encountered were many.  We thank those dedicated men and women for their perseverance and through their efforts we all can enjoy the wonderful game of curling as we know it today.

By Ken Slater

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