By Ginger Henry
The year was 1927. Prohibition was in full swing. The Sacco-Vanzetti case was being tried in Boston. Calvin Coolidge was president and the Lake George Swimming Marathon was making headlines. The Lake George Swimming Marathon? Never heard of it? Well, you’re in good company. Most people are not aware of this historic event — which is pretty amazing when one considers that it drew 146 competitors from six countries and nearly every state in the U.S. that several of these swimmers were world record holders and that heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey traveled to Hague to fire the starting pistol.
Held under the auspices of the Lake George Post of the American Legion, the July 1927 marathon drew approximately 100,000 spectators, according to newspaper reports of the day. It put Lake George on the map for many across the country who had never even heard of the Adirondacks. As Charles Gelman of the now-defunct Merkel and Gelman Stores of Glens Falls and Lake George noted at the time, “It turned national attention on Lake George.”
July 12, the day of the marathon, dawned as a scorcher. An estimated 5,000 spectators rose early, lining the Hague beaches for the start. Among the spectators was Clifton West, former Hague historian. When asked during a recent interview if he remembered the day, he replied, “Of course! That’s not something you forget too easily.”
Mr. West was 18 at the time and was working as a dock boy at the nearby Island Harbor House Hotel. “I left work to go downtown to watch,” he recalled. “There were people everywhere, but I think they were more interested in seeing Jack Dempsey than they were in seeing the swimmers.”
The dock at the Trout House was a bustle of activity as boats arrived and departed, dropping off contestants, officials and others connected with the race. With each approaching boat, a cry went up from the crowd waiting in anxious anticipation for Jack Dempsey to disembark. When his boat finally arrived, state troopers had their work cut out for them as they cleared the multitudes from the dock to make way for the sports hero. Mr. West remembers that so many people had crowded onto the platform leading out to the pier, that it gave way when Dempsey stepped onto it, sending him and about a dozen of his fans into the ankle-deep water. Dempsey was unscathed, though his fashionable shoes were soaked through. He reportedly grinned and carried on with his business – getting the race started.
Champion swimmer Lotte Schoemmel had traveled by train all the way from California to swim in the marathon. When her train finally arrived at the Lake George station, the boat which was to carry her to Hague had departed. No matter. The determined Schoemmel hitched a ride on an aquatic plane, touching down in Hague with just minutes to spare before the start of the event.
Fortunately for Schoemmel, she didn’t require much time to suit up for the race. If the truth be known, she actually required NO time to suit up for the race. For Schoemmel, it seems, was the originator of the “grease bathing suit” which we understand had caused quite a stir and more than just a few raised eyebrows at several previous events around the globe. According to the official program for the Lake George Swimming Marathon, it had been decided in advance that the grease bathing suit would nevertheless be considered “suit”-able for this race. It was clearly spelled out in Rule #12: “Any class of bathing suit, except that which might cause the swimmer to remain afloat, can be used. Suits can be abolished entirely if swimmer chooses to use a covering only of grease.”
The use of the grease was put in question shortly before the event, when Warren County Sanitary Inspector Harry Smith announced that the grease could jeopardize the quality of Lake George’s water — which was, after all, used for drinking water. The swimmers, however, rallied at the Lake George Courthouse and were able to convince him that the grease was a natural substance (wool fat or lanolin) and would not harm the lake.
Of those registered for the race, two were local talents. One was Sam Schwartz of Glens Falls. The other was one of the few remaining members of the tribe of Six Nations, the Native Americans who inhabited the area long before the first white man ever laid eyes on Lake George. Her name (could this be pure coincidence?) was Anniwake Swimmer.
The 24-mile course set up for the marathon ran from the Trout House in Hague to the pergola of the Fort William Henry Hotel. Passing by Sabbath Day Point, it continued through the Mother Bunch Islands and the Narrows, past Bolton Landing and on to the head of the lake. Dempsey fired the starting pistol shortly before 9AM and the swimmers were on their way. Ernest Vierkoetter, the German baker who held the record for swimming the English Channel, took an early lead. He was the first to pass the checkpoint at Sabbath Day Point, a feat which would earn him the Bruce Carney trophy. (Carney was the proprietor of the Sabbath Day Point House).
As the race progressed, more and more swimmers were forced to drop out from cramps or exhaustion. George Knapp of Shelving Rock had donated the use of his yacht Sayonara as the hospital ship for the race. Dr. Edward C. Gow of Glens Falls was on board as the doctor in charge. Gow and his staff treated 41 contestants on the ship. Fortunately all of the swimmers swiftly recovered from their maladies, though a newspaper report of the day noted that the greased up swimmers did impart some slight damage to the fine furnishings and upholstery of Mr. Knapp’s luxury yacht.
Not all of the problems encountered by the swimmers were of a medical nature. One swimmer, delivered to the hospital ship with cramps, recovered and was transferred to another boat to be taken ashore. However, his clothes and possessions were in the rowboat which had been accompanying him. The rowboat was nowhere in sight. The swimmer, believing that the oarsman had rowed back to Hague, directed the patrol boat to bring him there. After the boat dropped him on the beach and returned to the race, the unlucky swimmer learned that the rowboat had continued on to Lake George, leaving him high and dry — and reportedly quite frustrated — in Hague.
Another account tells of an official who found two oarsmen rowing down the lake without their swimmer. When asked where the swimmer was, the oarsmen said they had lost him. After three-quarters of an hour of searching, the officials finally found the missing swimmer — about two miles behind the rowboat which was supposed to be accompanying him! The water was cold, the waves were high and the course was long. Apparently the swimmers had not anticipated the difficulty of the marathon. In the end, only one contestant crossed the finish line. His name was Edward Keating, a 24-year old swimming instructor from New York City, who completed the race just after 4:30 am on the morning of July 13, after being in the water for almost 19 hours.
A local newspaper reported that upon completion of the race, “Keating went to bed at the Fort William Henry yesterday morning and slept with what was reported as great earnestness.” At an awards ceremony the next day, Keating received $5,000 in prize money, as well as a silver cup and a lot in a Lake George development tract. He vowed to use part of the prize money to give his mother a vacation on Lake George. Although at the time of the prize ceremony he had not yet decided which hotel he would select, he did say that he had a special fondness in his heart for Hague. Keating had trained there for a week before the race and had established many new friendships in the picturesque village at the northern end of the lake.
Ernest Vierkoetter, the German baker who had held a strong lead throughout the first part of the marathon, said after the race that he had dropped out in Bolton Landing not because of cramps or fatigue but because of indigestion. It seems that his stomach was having difficulty adjusting to that good ole American cuisine after his hearty Germany diet!
Although the marathon was a great success in garnering publicity for the region that summer, it turned out to be a one-time event, never to be staged again. Perhaps it was the frustration on the part of the many competitors who were unable to complete the course, or perhaps the American Legion could not rally enough support for a second running of the marathon. The reasons are not clear. But for a few short weeks, in the summer of 1927, the Lake George Swimming Marathon was certainly the talk of the town.