The Great Scull Race, 1878


One summer, a young painter named Harry J. Sunter (1850-1889) caught a moment of our history with his oil painting “The Great Scull Race of July 4, 1878 at Skaneateles” (also known as “Boat Race at Skaneateles, 1878”).

The race was between Charles E. Courtney, a carpenter from Union Springs, N.Y., who was a nationally known amateur rower, and James Dempsey, a blacksmith from Geneva, N.Y., who trained on Seneca Lake.  Courtney defeated Dempsey, who arrived at the finish about a minute or so after the race was over. Courtney rowed competitively until 1885, compiling a record of 130 wins and 7 losses. He went on to coach the Cornell crew team until his death in 1920.

Harry Sunter painted landscapes of scenes in central New York, and spent a summer on Block Island, off the coast of southern Rhode Island, returning with beautiful paintings of life on the ocean shore. It was said that he loved sunshine. He exhibited at the National Academy of Design and at the Pennsylvania Academy but his career was cut short when he died at the age of 39. Today, “Boat Race” is in the collection of the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery.


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