On July 18, 1884, a swimming race for dogs took place at the Harlem Beach Bathing Pavilion – also known as the Harlem Beach Baths – located on New York’s East River at the foot of East 116th Street. Frederick Kenyon, the manager of the beach, had arranged the event to attract crowds and make money. The races were open to Newfoundlands, water spaniels, and mongrels for a 50-cent entrance fee.
Around 3 p.m., the dogs began to arrive by land or by boat from up or down the East River. The plan was to have the dogs race from Randall’s Island, which was across the river, and back to the goal – a beer keg float with a flag – located off the docks of the Harlem Beach. The race was refereed by Clarence Lipman.
The first heat was for three of the Newfoundlands: two dogs named Jumbo, one owned by William Bernard and other by Rudolph Schnitzer, and Nero, owned by Peter Bernard. The dogs’ owners took them to the starting place at Randall’s Island in rowboats.
The starter, James Gordon, cried, “Ready, Go!” and fired a revolver. Each owner threw his dog into the river. Then each man called his dog from the rowboats, expecting the dogs to follow their calls. A flotilla of about 100 rowboats followed along.
The two Jumbos followed the boats, but Nero looked at his owner in the receding boat, turned around, and casually swam back to shore on Randall’s Island. He shook himself off, “gazed contemptuously at the two swimming dogs,” and lay down in the sun. Wise dog.
Just as the dogs got midway, the schooner Isaac N. Kerlin, being moved by the tug Cornelia, bore down upon them. The small rowboats scurried out of the way as hundreds of onlookers shouted out. Poor Jumbo Bernard was right in the path of the ship. The dog howled and took desperate strokes to get out of the way.
The 348-ton schooner missed his head by a foot, and the swirl of water along the keel swung his body to the side. People started to shout in joy, but then they saw that the dog was now in the path of the tug. Once again, the Newfoundland just missed getting hit. He finally made it to the float, and was announced the winner with a time of 6:00 minutes.
The next heat of Newfoundlands was won by Jack, owned by W.P. Armstrong, in 5:00 minutes, and the third by Lulu, owned by Peter Hogan, in 5:30. The three winners swam a final heat, which was won by Lulu in just over 5 minutes.
The water spaniels included Rover, Nell, Flora, Jack, and Fannie. Nell got to the float first in 4:30 but was disqualified because her owner touched her after she was in the water, so Flora was declared the winner. The mixed class included a bloodhood, a Gordon setter, a bulldog, a spaniel, a staghound, one or two mastiffs, and a great variety of mutts. The bulldog, Music, won the race, and the setter, Jack, came in second.
All the winning dogs received handsome collars on the West Harlem shoreline (source).