Lake George Swim Marathon of 1927, Longtime Mirror Editor Recalls the Event
By Art Knight, former Mirror Editor
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Editor’s Note: In the summer of 1958, Diane Struble successfully swam the length of Lake George. That inspired Lake George Mirror editor Art Knight to publish his recollections of an earlier swimming event, the Swim Marathon of 1927. We reprint those recollections here, in part because they have an intrinsic historic value, but also to remind our readers that even a small community can produce an event that attracts national attention. One further note: we have long wondered what gave the promoters the idea. Knight alludes to a marathon held earlier that year in Southern California, the twenty mile Catalina Swim. According to the historians of these matters, that was the first professional swimming race ever. Walter Wrigley, Jr. owned Catalina Island , and developed the event as a way to attract tourists to California during the winter months. The Catalina Swim was so successsful that it was replicated around the world and throughout America – Lake George included. The same swimmers traveled to each site to compete for the large amounts of money being offered as prizes.
The Catalina Swim held during the winter received so much publicity all over the world that Arthur P. Mannix, local building contractor and at that time superintendent of construction at the new school being built here suggested that if Lake George would offer a prize of $10,000 for a swim through the lake we should receive a great deal of publicity.
The idea caught on rapidly and Lake George Post 374 decided to sponsor such a swim and ask the business people of the area to put up the money. $17,500 was pledged and and paid in to the swim committee ;$10,000 in prize money and $7,500 for expenses. All committee members and the chairman of the swim committee donated their services. The only person to be paid was a publicity agent from New York City. All swim officials served without pay.
The late Karl T. Crandale , cashier of the First National Bank of Lake George and commander of the Lake George American Legion Post, was chairman of the swim committee. About three weeks before the date of the swim Mr. Crandale found that the many details were taking too much of his time and he asked the committee to replace him.
I had been handling much of the pre-swim publicity, in fact all of it, so I “stuck my neck out” and said I would take over if Mr. Crandale would stay on in name only. Little did I realize what a tremendous task I was assuming!
There were a thousand and one details to check and the nearer the swim date arrived, the more complicated such details became. The final windup of the race reminded me of the aviator of World War I, “coming in on a wing and a prayer.”
Over 140 swimmers entered the July 12 event, many of them just to get their names in the papers. Nearly 100 did start from Hague in what had been advertised as “The Longest Frsh Water Swim Ever Held for the Championship of the World!” First prize was $5,000 in cash; second $1,500; third $1,000; fourth $750; fifth $250; and $1,500 to the first woman to finish, in case a man won.
The pre-swim publicity had been tremendous, not only all over the United States but in Canada and many foreign countries, for there were entrants from England, Canada, France, Germany, Norway. Italy and an American Indian. Entrants also included for conquerors of the English Channel. So it was safe to say that on July 12, 1927, the eyes of sportswriters from all over the world were either at Lake George or focused on Lake George!
I was at the telephone until after midnight on July 11 making last minute checks on the many details. At 6 a.m. on the 12th, Bob Leavitt, local realtor and an official observer for the swim, a writer from the American Legion Monthly, a national magazine, and I left the dock at Lake George in Mr. Leavitt’s boat and headed for Hague. We embarked upon a trip that was not to end until 4:32 o’clock the following morning, many hectic hours of patrol duty later.
Shortly after docking at Hague, we learned that the army blankets for use on the hospital boats were stranded in a broken down boat at the Lake George Club, so had to rush them by car to Hague. Next, there were not enough boats for all the swimmers, so we hurried up to a camp north of Hague, where we got six boats in tow. If you have ever tried towing six boats in a choppy sea through a winding island passageway you have something to learn… we did! Time had passed rapidly, the swim was already late in starting, so we were travelling as quickly as possible when one boat filled with water and capsized! We beached the boats and rushed to our job patrolling the line of swim when we heard the starting gun.
We later learned that we had missed an exciting episode.Jack Dempsey, then heavyweight champion of the world, who was in training in Saratoga for his coming fight with Gene Tunney, had agreed to act as official starter for the race. On his arrival at the Trout House in Hague, as he and his friends stepped out of a boat onto the dock, the crowd rushed forward to greet him and down went the dock! No one was injured, but Jack and a few others did get wet in about three feet of water.
Meanwhile, we had no idea of the chaos that could be created by 100 swimmers with numbers hung on their backs and that number of boats with corresponding numbers all trying to get underway. Some oarsmen provided by the swimmers had never rowed a boat before and that didn’t add to the calmness of the occasion!
Our first job was to pull out of the water any swimmer not protected by an accompanying boat. In spite of our vigilance at the starting line, some swimmers did start without boats to accompany them, the first being a young fellow dressed in a loin cloth of plenty of grease. Leavitt and I were all dressed up with white flannel trousers, blue coats, and yachting caps, and we had a beautiful white boat with mahogany trim. When we pulled this fellow over the side, much of the grease got transferred to us, while much more of it covered the boat. We proceeded immediately to the hospital boat, the steam yacht “Sayonara,” but the doctors and nurses refused to take him when they learned that he was in no need of medical attention. We started back for the Hague dock, in spite of our passenger’s protests that we had to take him to Lake George Village, as he had sent all his clothes down there. We unloaded him on the dock, and never did hear how he made out.
The next lone swimmer we found was Charles Toth of Boston, first American to cleave the waters from France to England, who had become separated from his boat. This gave us quite a scare; if something happened to a noted swimmer, the “bad”press we would get would be terrific. Asking a nearby boat operator to stand by, we started in search of Toth’s boat and happily soon found it and got boat and swimmer together.
The first six miles separated most of the girls and boys from the women and the men, and most of the swimmers remaining were either professionals or amateurs who had won fame in the swimming world. By 2:15 p.m. only four swimmers had passed Sabbath Day Point, although there were quite a number still in the water for two or three miles back. During the course of the afternoon, the field of swimmers was narrowed down from hour to hour and we began to breathe more freely as the risk of losing a swimmer became less great. We had to disqualify one of the women swimmers as she was being towed by a motorboat. Around midnight we found a rowboat in the Narrows and both men in it were bailing water wildly with tin cans. When asked where their swimmer was, they pointed in the direction of Lake George Village and said “On ahead somewhere.” This was our second big fright of the day. We took the men on board and their boat in tow, and went in search of the swimmer whom we found a short distance ahead and he gladly climbed aboard.We left the three of them on the dock in Bolton Landing.
Other boats were busy pulling out swimmers as they gave up, and finally the only known swimmers in the water were Edward Keating of New York City and Meyer Mendelsohn of Montreal, Canada. Mendelsohn gave up the race only two miles from his goal, and left Keating the winner at 4:32 a.m.
I stayed around the village until 6:30 a.m., getting reports from various patrol boats. At 6:30, a patrol boat operator reported cruising both shores and there were no more swimmers in the lake. With a sigh of relief, I went home and went to bed. Then at 7:30, the telephone rang and I was informed that there was a swimmer and boat off the Sagamore dock and they needed assistance. Somehow the final patrol boat had missed them. I gathered up some blankets, a thermos of hot chocolate and some sandwiches and went down to the lakeshore where I was fortunate in finding the pilot of a commercial flying boat and we proceeded down the lake. We found the swimmer, William Erickson, still in the water and two pretty tired and hungry young men manning his boat. He didn’t want to get out of the water , so we left our provisions with them and came on back. Erickson floated around until the middle of the afternoon , when he decided to quit 6 or 7 miles from the finish line. Had a good north wind come up during the day I believe he would have floated in for second place.
Keating got his check for $5,000 and the balance of the prize money was divided up among those who had made the best showing. Lake George got onto the front pages of every newspaper in the nation and many foreign countries as well, and received millions of dollars worth of free publicity.