A Nifty Look Back At New Brunswick's Skating History

Exterior of the Victoria Skating Rink in Saint John. Photo courtesy Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

2019 may mark the first time that Saint John has played host to the Canadian Championships but it is actually the fourth time New Brunswick has hosted Canada's best. In 1974, 1985, 1992 and 2012, the city of Moncton played host to the Canadian Championships, where legends like Toller Cranston, Brian Orser, Liz Manley, Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Patrick Chan claimed gold.

Although it is right under our nose, New Brunswick's engrossing skating history is sadly far too often overlooked. The province played host to Canada's first known skating club at Lily Lake in 1833 and Saint John, New Brunswick - site of the city's popular Victoria Skating Rink - became known as the country's speed skating mecca. In 1863, Maliseet hunter and guide Gabriel Acquin skated seventy three miles down the Saint John River in what the London Guide called "the most remarkable feat... ever recorded." At his skate factory at Jones Creek in 1867, eighteen year old James Albert Whelpley developed the Long Reach Speed Skate. He later patented the seventeen ice long skate, which was incredibly popular with speed skaters on the Saint John and Kennebecasis Rivers. In fact, so talented were the province's speed skaters that Norway's Axel Paulsen - the inventor of the Axel jump and one of the most successful racers of his era - came by railway to the province in the winter of 1884. He sold plenty of his patent tube skates but lost an exhibition race to Hugh J. McCormick of Kennebecasis Island. The ensuing well documented rivalry of the Norwegian and the New Brunswicker remains a fascinating highlight of Canadian winter sport history during the Victorian era.

Skaters on Lily Lake, circa 1899. Photo courtesy Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

The earliest documented figure skaters in New Brunswick took to the reflective, black ice of Marsh Creek and Lily Lake. The latter was the site of one of Canada's first organized skating clubs in 1833 and often attracted British officers that were garrisoned in the city for intervals. Many of these military men became quite proficient skaters. By the middle of the century, two Lily Lake skaters named Oliver Goldsmith and Albert Lyon gained popularity for their ability to carve their names on the ice in addition to other intricate figures of their own design. The sport caught on recreationally to such an extent by 1863 that a letter to the editor in "The Morning News" on January 26 of that year stated that skating "is contagious also, passing from house to house until the residents move en masse, skates in hand, to Lily Lake... It is fine recreation. The pale faces become flushed with a healthy hue, and everyone seems happy. No cross-natured people are admitted. And I will give you a friendly hint: Don't go without skates or you will be as I was - A Nonentity." Two years later, the lavish Victoria Skating Rink was built in Saint John. Fancy dress carnivals rivalling the Montreal Masquerades and those in Halifax were held. Everyone from Henry IV to Little Red Riding Hood were represented, many sporting skates brought up into town from Nova Scotia's Starr Manufacturing Company.

Poster announcing an 1884 exhibition by Louis Rubenstein in Miramichi, New Brunswick. From the collection of Rubenstein RB Digital Inc., Rubenstein Bros.

Costumed carnivals on ice aside, speed skating without a doubt reigned supreme in New Brunswick. If racing was not your speed (pardon the pun) you would have been largely relegated to sharing the ice with pleasure skaters to practice your figure eights. Despite the fact that Saint John mayor Albert Chipman Smith took an interest and served as a director of the Victoria Skating Rink, fancy skating just wasn't catching on.

Interior of the Victoria Skating Rink in Saint John. Photo courtesy Provincial Archives Of New Brunswick.

All of that changed in the 1880's, when a number of figure skaters of note including Mabel Davidson visited the province to show off her fancy skating prowess and Louis Rubenstein gave exhibitions in St. Stephen, Newcastle, Bathurst, Chatham and Moncton. An account from the March 12, 1884 edition of "The Daily Sun" details how the master from Montreal squashed the skaters of Saint John when he visited that year: "First came the fancy skating, the entries being Louis Rubenstein, champion of Canada, A.G. Stevens, A.M. Currie and Herbert Campbell. The programme included plain skating, cross roll, threes, plain eight, double eight, eights and loops, plain and double eight on one foot, eight with loops on one foot, grape vine, scissors, spins, pyramid spins, cross cut or anvil, and pivot figures. Rubenstein executed the different figures beautifully, his skating being universally admired. Stevens and Currie skated with good style, eliciting applause from the crowd. Campbell who is a mere boy dropped out when the programme was half finished, but the manner in which he skated was very fine. The specialities given by Rubenstein were the Maltese cross, several spins and a number of fancy figures. Stevens and Currie did the waltz, their initials, the eagle, the polka and several other figures. Rubenstein made 40 points out of a possible 45. Currie 21 and Stevens 20. Sheriff Harding presented the medals, a gold one to the champion, and silver medals to Stevens and Currie. The gold medal is very handsome. It bears the following inscription: 'Fancy Skating, Victoria Skating Club, St. John, N.B.'" One point that stands out immediately in this account is the fact that both Stevens and Currie performed "the waltz". Blogger Ronald J. Jack has suggested that "Saint John might have an earlier claim", but if you look at the context of performing "the waltz" as a speciality in a fancy skating competition, it appears evident that Stevens and Currie would have performing waltz steps individually and not Valsing.

After the competition, Louis Rubenstein (ever the epitome of good sportsmanship) mentored his nineteen year old competitor Albert G. Stevens. He went on to compete in fancy skating tournaments throughout Canada and the United States over the next ten years including the 1894 'Canadian Championships' held in Quebec, where he tied with a Mr. E. Dumas of Montreal for third place. Brian Flood's wonderfully researched 1985 book "Saint John: A Sporting Tradition 1785-1985" (which I used as a source for this blog) stated that "his style and grace was admired by all who watched him." Although he had stopped competing early in the last decade of the nineteenth century, "The Daily Sun" records Albert giving a fancy skating exhibition in January of 1898 at the Up Town (Singer) Rink and census records place as him as still residing in Saint John in 1911 with his brother and mother. Albert G. Stevens passed away on January 9, 1944 in the city and his obituary noted his skating achievements and that his brother Beverly was also a fancy skater.

Skaters in Saint John's Rockwood Park in 1899. Photo courtesy Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

Although Flood described Stevens as "Saint John's first and last great fancy skater", he was not without peers. Edge tool manufacturer G. Wilford Campbell, a speed skating competitor of Hugh McCormick, was widely known prior to the Great Fire Of 1877 for his fancy skating prowess. He took up the craft at the age of fourteen, inspired by a Maritime champion named Jack Cummings and at the age of seventy five in 1937 was still out there rocking it. An article from the June 14, 1937 edition of "The Montreal Gazette" noted, "Campbell does the Philadelphia twist, Dutch roll and double eight with the greatest of ease. Last year he abandoned the clamp skates he had used since 1886 and cut 22 figures with modern blades. This winter, he confined himself to 20, leaving out the '8 with loops' and the '8 with loops and 3's. But he hopes to go through the entire repertoire next year when he really gets his ice legs on the new skates." Campbell gave exhibitions until right before his death at the age of eighty one.

Sackville, New Brunswick's skating rink in 1892. Photo courtesy Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

Long after Louis Rubenstein came, conquered and inspired one of his competitors to follow his lead and Campbell carved out his last figure eight, figure skating began to come into its own in the province. The Sunny Brae Arena in Moncton, designed and built in 1922 by R.C. Donald, thrived as a venue for six years in the twenties until it was destroyed in a devastating fire that look the life of a young girl. Despite the tragedy, the people of New Brunswick skated on.

Sonja Henie

Sonja Henie visited New Brunswick with her Hollywood Ice Revue in 1952, performing in St. Andrews By-The-Sea, Fredericton and Saint John. Her three-night engagement at the world famous Algonquin Hotel was a far cry from Hollywood indeed. Sonja and her troupe performed in an unheated Quonset hut to six hundred spectators a night. There were no toilets and nearest restroom was in a gas station a mile away. Sonja's secretary and backstage crew had to arrange a wardrobe to serve as a makeshift dressing room. Yet, the Norwegian skater won over the hearts of New Brunswickers.

In the sixties, Alex Balisch started his Summer Figure Skating School in St. Andrews By-The-Sea. The first New Brunswick Section Figure Skating Championships were held in Oromocto in 1970. Saint John has thrice been the site of Skate Canada International. The latter city even hosted the World Junior Figure Skating Championships from November 30 to December 7, 1997, where a very young Aliona Savchenko competed with partner Dmitri Boenko.

Many accomplished skaters have come out of the province over the years including Olympian Eric Gillies and Shawn Sawyer, Canadian Champion Mark Mitchell and Canadian junior champions Hugh Yik, Chad Hawse and Ken Rose. I can tell you from personal experience that when the skaters from Northern New Brunswick came down to compete at Skate Dartmouth (now the Rob McCall Memorial) back in the nineties, you knew you had to step it up a notch. Not bad for a province where at one time if you were practicing a figure eight, you were looking over your shoulder to make sure you didn't get run over by a throng of speed skaters who were competing for cold hard cash. 

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.