CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.
A small advertisement appeared in the Ottawa Daily Citizen in mid-September 1876 inviting those interested in forming a 'football' club to meet on Monday, Sept. 18 at 4:30pm sharp at the pavilion of the Ottawa Cricket Club located at Rideau Hall, the home of Canada’s Governor General.
The meeting went on a long time as it was adjourned until the following evening when “a goodly number of gentlemen” assembled in a private room at the Russell House hotel. There, on 19 September 1876, a club to be called the Ottawa Football Club was formed with thirty-four members. The president of the new sports club was Mr. Allan Gilmour, a pioneering Ottawa lumberman for whom Gilmour Street is named.
There seems to have been little doubt that a team would be established as the uniforms for the Ottawa Club’s footballers had already been ordered from England and were expected to arrive in Ottawa in ten days or less. The jerseys and stockings were in cerise and French grey—the colours of the new team. Their trousers were navy blue knickerbockers.
The new football club wasted no time in getting on the field. The following Saturday, the Ottawa Football Club took on the Aylmer Football Club. The game lasted one and a half hours with Ottawa emerging victorious. The score of the closely contested game was not reported. But Ottawa secured its first victory when Mr. Sherwood kicked the ball through the Aylmer goal.
During much of their early years, the team played in either the Québec or Ontario Rugby Unions under the name the Ottawa Football Club, or more colloquially known as the 'Ottawas' or even the 'Senators.' It didn’t get the moniker, the 'Rough Riders,' until 1898, the year the team won its first Canadian championship title.
1898 was the year of the Spanish-American War in which the United States intervened on the side of Cuban revolutionaries against Spanish colonial rule. In this conflict, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, later President Roosevelt, came to popular attention as the commander of the 'Rough Riders' who distinguished themselves at the Battle of San Juan Hill. Up until then, a rough rider was synonymous with a horse breaker. Roosevelt’s regiment apparently received its nickname owing to many of its members being 'bronco busters' from the western plains.
In mid-October 1898, the sobriquet 'Rough Riders; was given to the Ottawa Football Club by disgruntled Hamilton sports journalists following a hard-fought game in Ottawa where the home town team defeated the visiting Hamilton Tigers 9 -1. According to Hamilton players, the game was one of the roughest they had ever played in. The Hamilton captain said that “Ottawa has three of the dirtiest football players that ever played on a Canadian gridiron.” A news report from Hamilton declared that the “Westerners” (a.k.a. Hamilton) were “foully used in the capital.”
Ottawa had something of a reputation. The previous year, the Ottawa Football Club had been expelled from the Québec Rugby Football Union in which it had played due to rough play. Ottawa journalists, however, attributed the team’s expulsion to personal spite and a desire to eliminate a contender for the Quebec Union championship. One article in the Journal called the team’s expulsion “the most disgraceful exhibition of unfairness recorded in Canada sports.”
The Toronto Star demanded an investigation into Hamilton’s allegations of Ottawa dirty playing saying that “either Ottawa does play a foul game, or that its disappointed rivals are not above the trick of exciting popular opinion against the team to such an extent that it may be expelled from the Ontario Union.” According to the Ottawa Journal, one aspect of the game in which the Ottawa Club was very weak was its lack of squealers. It also called the Hamilton claims “a very bad libel on truth.”
The rematch was held in Hamilton at the end of October. Again, Ottawa vanquished the Tigers. This time, there were few complaints. The Toronto Star reported that while fairly rough, “it was not a dirty game.” Even the Hamilton Herald thought that the Rough Riders’ [italics added] victory was well-deserved and that the team was forgiven for their treatment of the Tigers in the earlier game in Ottawa. This is possibly the first time that the Ottawa team was referred to as the Rough Riders.
As an interesting aside, the Montreal Herald said that the Ottawa team was “composed of heavy men.” But the average weight of an Ottawa footballer was only 169 pounds—very light by today’s standards. Frank McGee, the nephew of D’Arcy McGee, the famed “father of Confederation,” who played for both the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Ottawa Senators hockey team, weighed in at only 143 pounds. Today, the average weight of a CFL football player is roughly 230 pounds, while the average NFLer weighs close to 250 pounds.
Despite the supposed roughness of the game, there was no apparent animosity between the two teams. They went out partying together after the game and had a “good time” at the Russell Theatre where the footballers occupied two boxes to watch the Troubadours, courtesy of the manager of the Troubadours and Mr. Drowne, the theatre’s manager. Between acts, the footballers sang songs.
The Troubadours were an African-American musical and acrobatic group led by Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones. A New England Conservatory-trained soprano, she was the highest paid African-American singer of her age, performing for US presidents and the Royal Family.
The moniker Rough Riders given to the team by Hamilton journalists as a poke at Ottawa’s alleged rough play, was adopted by the Ottawa Club. Just days later, Ottawa footballer Fred Chittick showed off his Rough Rider cufflinks that were one and one eighths inches in diameter, bearing the figure of a rough rider with a football enclosed in a border of red, white and black.
Along with the new name came new colours. While the original team colours had been cerise and French grey, at some point Ottawa footballers began to play in black and white. This posed a problem for the 1898 season when Ottawa shifted to the Ontario Rugby Football Union after its expulsion from the Quebec Union, as the Osgoode team from Toronto also played in black and white uniforms. Ottawa opted to dress in new colours, wearing heavy white jerseys with scarlet sleeves and scarlet stockings. The new outfits went on display in Young Brothers’ windows—a local store. There is no mention of black in the initial newspaper descriptions, but presumably the pants were in that colour.
Ottawa won the 1898 Ontario Rugby Football Union title as well as the Inter-Collegiate Championship when it vanquished the Toronto University’s Varsity squad 7 - 3—according to the Journal the team’s “greatest and most glorious victory.” The game was vicious. The Varsity men “liberally used knee or anything else to stop Ottawa runners.” But notwithstanding the provocation, the Journal reported that the Rough Riders played a “clean, square game without a sign of temper.” This win, in front of 2,000 fans, set the stage for the Dominion Championships between the Ottawa Rough Riders and Ottawa College, the champion of the Quebec Rugby Football Union for two years in succession. Ottawa College’s garnet and grey colours are today the colours of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees.
The inter-city, Dominion championship was held at the Metropolitan Grounds. The grandstand and bleachers were packed with more than 3,000 rabid football fans. In a bruising contest in which the tackling was described as “vicious and in some cases brutal,” the perhaps aptly named Rough Riders won with a score of 11 -1. But the College team gave as good as they got. Rough Riders Harvey Pulford and Weldy Young received a broken collar bone and a concussion, respectively. (Weldy Young later left Ottawa to try his luck in the Klondike gold rush. Young, who like Frank McGee and Harvey Pulford also played for the Ottawa Senators hockey club, was to captain the Dawson City Nuggets, the team that challenged the Ottawa club for the Stanley Cup in 1905.)
Over the seven-game, 1898 football season, the Rough Riders went undefeated, scoring 188 points to only 24 points against.
In early December, a celebratory banquet for the team was held at the Russell House Hotel, hosted by its eccentric manager, François Xavier St. Jacques. More than 200 persons were invited to the feast, including Major Bigham. The dining room was decorated with streamers in the team’s red, white and black colours. In show of friendship, the Hamilton Tigers’ colours of yellow and black were also on display. Each table was decorated with bouquets of carnations, roses, mums and ferns. The menu featured such dishes as oysters à la scrimmage, boiled Saguenay salmon (Hold on the line) with referee sauce and Spec-“taters.” Also served were Stuffed young Vermont turkey (Tackled on the Run) with offside green beans and “scragged” potatoes. The meal ended with the “Sweets of Victory” consisting of a choice between umpire pudding with grandstand sauce and an apple turnover with a sauce “ruled off.”
In the following speeches, Fred Colson, President of the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Association noted that “Ottawa had defied the Tigers in their jungle, by Hamilton’s mole hill which was called a mountain.” President Seybold of the Ottawa Club said that the team was “called the Rough Riders like Roosevelt’s men.”
The 1898 Dominion Championship was the first of three Dominion championships and nine Grey Cup titles that the Ottawa Rough Riders were to win during their long, storied career. The club folded for good in 1996. Today, The Ottawa RedBlacks wear the historic red, black and white colours.