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The Great Boat Race

by Ken McClelland

Dawn came quietly on the 24th of May in our small town of Weston. 


Weston Road ran through the town, north and south, known then as Main Street. At the centre was the Town hall. These two short blocks housed our gang, “The River Rats”.

Early that holiday morning, the Queen’s birthday, a loud screech of the fire siren and my brother Jack and I made it to the front porch steps in jig time.


Our advantage? Front-row seats to the show presented by the Weston Volunteer Fire Department. Boots, coats, helmets, and the old La France fire engine were snarling at the Starting Gate. “CRUICKSHANKS BARN!!!” came from Mr Summerhayes, the driver, and off they went, siren and all.

Now that the stage was set, we had to get to the entertainment, but Mother interrupted shouting “DRESS AND BREAKFAST!!” It would be short pants today and toast on the run.


Our route was not Main Street but by the Humber River to our island right below Cruickshank’s Barn. The Rats had assembled! Black smoke so heavy you could not see the siding on the barn and an explosion that sent the steel sheets flying into the air and landing down the bank!


Some were red hot. Other debris landed on the river flat just short of our vantage point, so we decided after that episode to clear off our island and go home.




A fire in the morning, a Weston Silver Band concert in the afternoon and family fireworks during the evening. Unknown to us, this was the start of a very busy summer.

The following day was inspection time.


The flats, now Cruickshank Park, were strewn with junk but the most important items were the sheets of steel siding. Some are corrugated, and some like house siding. These had come from the barn fire on the cliff above.


Interesting, but what could we do with them? There had to be a use.


Gordon Squibb suggested there was enough for a floor for our dressing area on the island. Other thoughts came to mind, but the most sensible was from Bob Soaper, “Let’s build boats”. We had a mile of shallow river, which could be navigated, and along with our other activities, this would make for a great summer!


So we picked our boat shells and dragged them home.

Back yards were the production areas and we all knew who was building as the noise from pounding metal was apparent. As the gang of young engineers progressed, we used orange crates and potato sacks from Nat Nasso’s fruit store garbage, a few cents worth of nails from Oldham’s Hardware and tar from the town’s sidewalk cracks.


We put these all together and had a small navy in the Humber River.


We soon found that a proper paddle was lacking! Dad did help Jack and me with this item, as some old boards were shaped to respectable and efficient additions.

The Humber had never seen such activity. Even the Fur Traders would have been surprised, but the town council took note. The outcome was a surprise proposal of a boat race.


Civic Holiday weekend and the course was under the Dufferin Street Bridge. Twice around was approximately a mile, and water depth averaged 3 feet with a fair current.


Two rules: the inside boat had the right of way, and if you knocked down a flag, you had to stop and put it up. The Council had dusted off an old starter pistol to make everything official.

What surprised us was the enthusiasm created by the Council, Hap Holley, the chief of police, and some merchants. People were surprised at the creativity of a bunch of kids using the remains of the barn. There was no paint, just burnt black metal formed with enough beam to slide into, and that was it.

The starting gun went off just after 1 pm. And some important lessons were learned very quickly. We had never raced before, and the paddling made such a difference.


Fast and with a flick filled the boat, and bailing became necessary; slow and steady was the answer. There were sinkings and, no doubt, tears.


Soaper had more beam and less freeboard and was subject to filling up.


Gordon Squibb had problems with control.


Bill Cameron was doing very well and I was right on his stern and verbally giving him a blast or two.


My brother Jack was close by. Bill got into the lead and, while going upstream, created a good lead but made a fatal error. He cut for the buoy too soon. The current dragged him over the flag, and as he jumped out, he lost the painter, and his boat ran into mine. Pressure from behind was my main concern, as this incident put me in first place. I had never paddled so hard, but when I finished, I was not happy with my achievement.

Even the applause, cheers and prize money of $1.00 did not help. Discussions at the island and in the swimming hole made us aware that if you are going to plan something, make sure that it will be fair to all concerned and that a win is not by default. There was never another race. Running the rapids was more fun!'

Ken McClelland and his wife Edith, both former Westonites, now live in North Vancouver, B.C. During our correspondence, Ken told us that the Great Boat Race occurred in the 1930s. In addition to those named above, the “River Rats” included Bill Norman, Doug Seal and Esmond Butler.

Ken McClelland and his wife Edith (Aitchison), both former Westonites, now live in North Vancouver, B.C. During our correspondence, Ken told us that the Great Boat Race took place in the 1930s. In addition to those named above, the “River Rats” included Bill Norman, Doug Seal and Esmond Butler.

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