Original Document
Original Document
Johnson beats Coyle in a thirteen-mile swimming race on the Delaware River, Philadelphia, PA, 1875

PHILADELPHIA, July 22, 1875

The great swimming match between J. B. Johnson, champion of the world, and Thomas Coyle of Chester, thirteen miles straight away for $1,000 a side, took place this afternoon at Gloucester Point. Fully 10,000 people lined the shores in hopes of witnessing the finish. At Chester, where the start was made, at least 5,000 people watched the contest.

The river during the whole contest was covered with boats of all sizes and kinds, from the large barge to the smallest skiff, decked with flags, presenting a beautiful scene of brilliant color and animation, but also threatening to interfere with the race by crossing the course of the contestants. Nothing occurred to mar the race, however, and although the representative of America was naturally the favorite, the Englishman received the fairest of fair play.

After a long delay both men were seen undressed, except as to swimming drawers, on board the steamtug Amanda Powell, lying at the wharf at Chester. The crowd, hooted and cheered, the tugs blew their whistles and crowded about the pier at which the Powell stood, and swarms of small craft were in everybody's way. There was some dispute between the men as to which boat the start should be made from, and Johnson objected to what Coyle wore on his leg as a preventive of cramps. This proved to be a piece of oiled silk tied with eel skin, and Johnson repeated his objections, and the wrapping was removed.

At about half-past one, after a prolonged shouting and giving of orders by all sorts of authorized and unauthorized persons, the tugs and small boats were finally sufficiently cleared out of the way to permit of a reasonably good start Johnson's judges were Dr. Thomas Steinagel, of New York, and James Gadsby, of Philadelphia. They were to follow Coyle in a small boat. Coyle's judges, Dr. ILM. Forward and Mr. Thomas Berry, were in a small boat, the Hannah Moulder, with the referee, Mr. Edward McGettigan, of Philadelphia, and they Were to keep up with Johnson, to see all fair. Two steamboats, dozens of tugboats and smaller craft were on hand containing thousands of people. Many well known sporting men were among the gathering, among them Billy Edwards, Arthur Chambers, O'Baldwin, the Irish giant; Harry Hicken, Frank Gormley and others.

A new agreement had been drawn up between the men by which the termination of the race was fixed at Gloucester Point instead of Philadelphia. It was also agreed, on Coyle's earnest protest, that the private boat to follow each man, containing the judges, should not approach nearer than five yards; that it should never lead him, but always follow, and that no other boat should come nearer than fifteen yards. Coyle did not insist on his original demand that each man should exhibit his hands and feet every twenty minutes to guard against the use of swimming stockings or other propelling contrivances.


The two men plunged into the water at 1:45; Arthur Chambers and Frank Gormley acting as starters. A fair start was had, and both touched the water at the same instant. Johnson immediately went to the front, keeping to the left or Pennsylvania shore. Coyle took a course toward the easterly side or Jersey shore. He struck out with a strong stroke, and in three minutes was ahead of his adversary, swimming thirty-five to the minute. Johnson headed for the western channel, with a steady stroke of twenty-five to the minute, Coyle making for the outside or eastern channel. Johnson followed from the first what is called the inside channel, between Chester Island and Tinicum Island and Lazaretto. This is shallow water and said to be full of whirls and eddies. Boatmen say that the water here is very bad, and that the tide turns an hour sooner than in the main channel or that followed by Coyle.

Johnson swam almost continuously on his right side, turning occasionally to this left. He was followed closely by a small boat containing the trainer, a pilot and a man pulling the boat. As the start was made the British ensign was hoisted astern, but was hauled in again as Coyle forged ahead, and was seen in the lead later in the race. Coyle was piloted by Captain Rudder, a Chester man, who is said to have a better knowledge of the river and its tides than almost any other waterman.

About fifteen minutes after the start the men lost sight of each other around the point of Tinicum Island, Coyle, apparently, twenty yards ahead. Johnson kept close in toward the Pennsylvania shore. Three-quarters of an hour after the start Johnson was opposite the Lazaretto pier, four miles from Chester. At four o'clock he had gained the lighthouse, nine miles from Chester. He changed his course to the northeasterward, having passed Chester Island, Tinicum Island and the Two Sisters; and, having clear water to Gloucester Point, Coyle was then about a half mile ahead; and Johnson, upon learning this, quickened his stroke.


Meantime Coyle, although ahead, had gradually slacked his pace and began showing the signs of distress. When asked how he felt he replied, 'Badly,' and his boat kept close alongside. A steamer came by him and some excursionists began cheering. This gave him momentary encouragement and strength, but he was, plainly fogged' out. His face was whitish-blue and he looked pale and tired. At fifteen minutes past four he showed such manifest exhaustion that he was dragged on board the boat with his pilot At this time he was opposite Red Bank, ten miles from Chester, having swum this distance in two hours and a half. Coyle had refused to take anything to drink but water up to within a few minutes before he gave out. Johnson had been drinking a small glass of whiskey at intervals of about ten or fifteen minutes during the race.


The news of Coyle's failure was brought to Johnson within dew minutes after its occurrence. The men were at this time half a mile apart, and owing to the swarms of crafts of an kinds with which the river was covered, it was impossible to see what had taken place. The news gave him great encouragement and, amid the cheers of the spectators, Johnson shot ahead with some wonderfully strong hand over hand strokes, which gave him such an impetus that he shot forward with an astounding spurt. By this time the tide had turned and was just beginning to run down stream. Gloucester was about three miles away. At 4:55 the referee deciding that


the race by distancing his competitor, he was taken on board his boat, the steam whistle screeching a salute and the crowd cheering. He did not seem, by outward signs, the least fatigued, and expressed himself as willing to continue the race if the referee desired. When he was taken on board he had swam about ten miles and a quarter in three hours and ten minutes.

A great deal of money changed hands on the result, Johnson being the favorite.

Credit: The New York Herald, (July 23, 1875), 3.
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