What the first Boston Marathon was like back in 1897

What the first Boston Marathon was like back in 1897

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The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual sporting event of its type, and to this day is considered one of the world’s greatest marathons — attracting over 20,000 participants every year. It wasn’t always such a huge event, however.

Inspired by the success of the first modern marathon at the 1896 Olympic games, the Boston Athletic Association decided to stage their own race in April of 1897.

Eighteen participants registered, with fifteen answering the starting bell. John J McDermott of New York would go on to win the race, setting a then-record of 2:55:10.

While there are a lot more than 15 runners today — more than 30,000 as of 2019 — the record fell to 2:03:02 in 2011 (although the race route has also changed a bit). – AJW

First Boston Marathon race course map - Published in The Boston Globe - April 16, 1897

Record time: JJ McDermott wins the “Marathon” race

Belongs to Pastime AC, New York – Takes lead at Newton Lower Falls

Grand and Gray had led till then – Harvard man runs pluckily after being overhauled – Kiernan finishes second and Rhell third

Cheers for the runners all the way from Ashland

The “Marathon” race from Ashland to this city, held under the auspices of the Boston Athletic Association, yesterday afternoon, in conjunction with open handicap games on Irvington oval, in emulation of the Olympic games held last spring, proved a great success and is an assurance of an annual fixture of the same kind.

JJ McDermott of the Pastime AC of New York won the distance run, and he was given an ovation as he went around the Irvington oval track finishing a record-breaking performance.

He made the distance, 25 miles, in 2h 55m 10s, which puts in the shade the performance made by the Greek peasant, Spiros Louces, from Marathon to Athens, last season, by about 20 seconds.

To be sure the going from Ashland to Boston is far better than over the Greek roads, but the hills and general lay of the land, according to Graham’s opinion, is very similar.

The famous run was held at Athens last year to revive the spirit of the great performance of Philippides of old, who brought to the inhabitants of Athens the news of their glorious victory and then dropped dead in the market place, after exclaiming: “Rejoice! We have conquered!”

The finish of yesterday’s race was inspiring, even if McDermott did not have the king of Greece and members of the royal family of Greece to embrace him.

The sports on the oval were going on when the people on the housetops and on the Huntington Ave bridge announced by a series of cheers that the victor was in sight. McDermott ran the one lap on the oval required to finish the course like a half-miler, and looked and acted as though he were capable of doing even more.

What the first Boston Marathon was like back in 1897

Off to Ashland

The early morning trains to Ashland carried hundreds of spectators who wished to see the start of the great race and then jump on a train again and be present at Irvington oval to see the finish. A small army of bicyclists went on the trains and over the road, and many of them returned with the runners.

The train which left the Boston & Albany station in Boston at 9:12 was well filled with members of Co B of the 2nd regiment and the ambulance corps, both of whom accompanied the “peds” along their route.

The baggage car of this train was filled with wheels and equipment which might be needed on the long run.

Most of the contestants went to the starting point on the early train. The Central House, where everybody who was interested in the race was quartered, was filled all the morning with a gaping crowd.

At dinner time, a jolly crowd filled the small dining room of the hotel. The six New York runners all dined at one table, while the Boston, Cambridge and local men occupied another.

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At just noon the contestants started up the street to the starting point at Metcalf’s old mill, one mile from the Ashland station. The route was from the old mill, through Ashland center, to South Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton Lower Falls, the new boulevard through the Newtons, leaving Chestnut Hill reservoir on the right, and thence by Beacon St to Commonwealth Ave to Exeter St and finish one lap around Irvington oval.

The bicycle corps did excellent work during the trip, giving the men lemons, water and wet handkerchiefs, etc. The ambulance corps also did good work. The men under Capt Lombard were Sgt West, Sgt Beaumont, Corp Heinlein and privates Blake, Chase, Cole, Blennerhassett, ET Young, EM Young, CF Young, HE Lombard, McDonald, Luscomb, Gilkey, Williams and Keith. Each athlete was attended by a militiaman and several of the ambulance corps, which Capt Lombard organized himself, rode along the line.

Start of the race

At 12:15, Tom Burke scraped his foot across the narrow street in front of Metcalf’s mill and called the contestants’ number. Fifteen men answered. They were: 1, AT Howe, Lowell YMCA; 2, WA Mitchell, Lowell YMCA; 3, JJ Kiernan, St Bartholomew AC, New York; 4, LB Brignoll, Bradford Boat Club, Cambridge, Mass; 5, Hamilton Gray, St George AC, New York; 6, W Ryan, South Boston AA; 7, J Mason, Star AC, New York; 8, EF Pettee, Boston; 9, Harry Leonard, alias Franklin Melrose; 10, EP Rhell, Jamaica Plain; 11, HL Merrill, Dorchester; 13, HD Eggleston, Pastime AC, New York; 14, JJ McDermott, Pastime AC, New York; 17, JE Enright, Pastime AC, New York; 18, Dick Grant, Harvard AA.

At 19 minutes past noon starter Tom Burke gave the word “Go!” All the contestants went away quickly, but after going about 50 yards they seemed to realize that they had just 25 miles of hard road before them and settled down to a comfortable jog.

Dick Grant and Hamilton Gray, the famous New York distance man, led from the start to the village, with McDermott running well up, and the others strung along in pairs and threes, but none were more than 50 yards behind.

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The crowd at the Ashland station was good-natured, and as it formed a line for the athletes to pass, the sleepy old town rang with the cheers of her lusty sons. As each passed he received a hearty greeting. After passing the station the men settled down to work in earnest and from here to South Framingham the order was almost unchanged, except that McDermott went back a little to save himself.

Hamilton Gray and Dick Grant were running side by side, stride for stride, as they passed through the long line of spectators which stretched from Ashland to South Framingham. The houses all along the line were filled with people, and many handkerchiefs and good wishes were wafted upon the beautiful April day as the men, with faces set, kept on.

The crowd at South Framingham was even larger and noisier than the one at Ashland. Hamilton Gray and Dick Grant were running beautifully here, and they were cheered lustily all along the lane formed by the crowd; JJ Kiernan and McDermott came together about 30 yards behind; Howe, the Lowell youngster, plodded along merrily about 300 yards in the rear of the second men; Pettee, Rhell and Mason came along about 10 yards behind him; Enright, Eggleston and Morrill passed in the order named. The rest of the field was strung out in single file for perhaps a mile.

After leaving South Framingham cyclists dropped in line about about the leaders, as if the heavens had suddenly opened and rained wheels. Carriages, wagons, motor cycles, and in fact every conceivable form of conveyance was brought into line, and by the time the tail end of the line of runners had left the square there was hardly room to turn around.

Boston Globe coverage of first Boston Marathon - Newspaper date April 20 1897

The final stages

At Auburndale McDermott had a lead of nearly a mile over the field, which was strung out in single file, the last man being about five miles in the rear. Gray had been passed by Kiernan, and though he tried hard to hold his place he was too much gone.

The main part of the crowd now centered about McDermott, and the attendants had hard work to keep the road clear. He was running like clockwork. His legs seemed to rise and fall like a phantom Greek, and his lithe body was bent just the least bit forward, his arms were at full length at his side, and his face was set with determination.

As he turned into the boulevard, he asked his attendant, Corp Eddie Heinlein, to tell him when he had gone 20 miles. He breasted the long hill manfully, still maintaining his beautiful form, and he laughed at the wheelmen who were pounding their pedals in their endeavor to keep their machines in motion.

He never lessened his pace until he reached the Evergreen cemetery, about a quarter of a mile from the reservoir entrance.

Here he stopped running for the first time since he started just 20 miles back. After walking about one-eighth of a mile he again sprinted for about 200 yards, when he was seized with a cramp in his left leg. He received a vigorous rubbing amid the plaudits of the people who had gathered to see the man go by. He started again. He ran a few steps and was obliged to stop again.

Many thought that he was gone, but he held the leg stiff and said “Rub!” That leg was rubbed! He started once more on his last run and never stopped until he passed Coolidge Corner, heeding not the great demonstration that was accorded him.

Down the short hill on Beacon St to St Paul St he went, where he stopped running and walked to Carleton St. In the meantime he mustered all his remaining strength, and when he was told that another runner had just come over the hill, he shut his teeth, set his face, and leaning well forward, he dug his shoes into the hard Beacon St surface and started on his last spurt.

He ran up the hill like a half-miler, down the other side to Commonwealth Ave and across Massachusetts Ave, breaking a funeral procession and stalling two electric cars.

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Passes BAA Clubhouse

He went up Exeter St, past the BAA clubhouse, where more than 500 people had assembled to cheer the victor. Cries of “Bravo!” rent the air as the line formed at the pathway across Huntingtown Ave, down Irvington St and into the oval.

The cheering and yelling was deafening. Every available foot of standing room in the oval was crowded. The fences were black with boys, young men and women. The policemen forgot their duty in the excitement, and the track was soon swarming with excited people, all wishing to grasp the hand of the victor of the first “Marathon race” ever held in Massachusetts.

The race was not won yet, however, and the little champion of champions landed on the track with a bound, turned to the left and moved his lithe, well-shaped limbs like a piston rod around the track. He ran the lap in exactly 40 seconds. When he finished he was perfectly strong, but he was lifted to the shoulders of the crowd, and it was by the hardest kind of reasoning that he escaped and ran to the BAA Clubhouse.

In addition to winning the race the game little New Yorker created a new world’s record for the distance. Louis, the Greek who it is claimed held the world’s record, is credited with doing the distance in 2h 55m and 30s.

There is some question about the matter of 10 seconds in the Greek’s time, but at any rate, JJ McDermott of the Pastime AC of New York and winner of the BAA Marathon race is now the recognized champion of America and of the world. His time for the distance was 2h 55m 10s.

The second man to finish was J Kiernan of the St Bartholomew AC of New York. He finished just seven minutes and eight seconds behind the winner. He was also accorded a great reception, and like McDermott, with the exception of a few blisters and sore feet, was in as good condition as when he started.

Of course, it is understood that they were tired, and very tired too, but had it been necessary for them to run five miles more, they could have done it.

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A Boston man romped home in third. He was EP Rhell of Jamaica Plain, and the race marks him as a good one. This is practically his first attempt at long distances. Hamilton Gray, the New York crack, got fourth place. Following is a table of the finishers up to 5 o’clock last evening:

JJ McDermott, Pastime AC, NY: 2h 55m 10s
JJ Kiernan, St Bartholomew AC, NY: 3h 2m 2s
EP Rhell, Jamaica Plain, Boston: 3h 6m 2s
Hamilton Gray, St George AC, NY: 3h 11m 37s
HD Eggleston, Pastime AC, NY: 3h 17m 50s
J Mason, Star AC, NY: 3h 31m 00s
W Ryan, South Boston AA: 3h 41m 25s
Brignall, Bradford Boat Club: 4h 6m 12s
H Franklin (Harry Leonard), Melrose: 4h 8m 00s
AT Howe, Lowell YMCA: 4h 10m 00s

John J McDermott, winner of the race [shown in the top photo], at the BAA after the race, said: “Yes, I feel pretty tired in my legs. My body is all right, but my feet are pretty sore, of course. My toes are blistered and the skin has peeled off the bottom of my feet.

“I weighed just 123-1/2 pounds when I started in the race. I lost just nine pounds by the run. The course selected for this race is the best in the country. It is just uneven enough to make it interesting.

“It is a great deal better than the New York course, which I won over last fall. In fact, everything connected with the race was managed a great deal better. The bicycle service was great. Nobody interfered with the runners at any stage of the race.

“After I had gone about 12 miles I took the lead from Grant and Gray. The man Grant is the hardest man I ever beat. He held me for a mile, although he was all pumped out. If he had trained for the race he would have given me a hard race.

“As it was, it was hard enough to shake him. He ran the pluckiest race I ever saw. John Graham deserves great credit for his treatment of us and for his selection of the course. He could not have had a better course made to order.

“This will probably will be my last long race. I hate to quit now, because I will be called a quitter and a coward, but look at my feet. Do you blame me for wanting to stop it? I only walked about a quarter of a mile in the whole distance, and it was 20 miles before I lagged a step. I think I shall be all right tomorrow.”

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