Curling on the Columbia River

Drawing titled "HMS Modeste Frozen in the Columbia River 26 Jan. 1847" shows a frozen river with tall ship stuck in the ice. Mount Hood rises in the background. On the ice, groups of people play curling and ice skate.
This watercolor from the collection of the Mariner's Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia, shows the HMS Modeste stuck in the icy Columbia River.

CL6440, The Mariner’s Museum and Park

Image of newspaper article, Curling on the Columbia, quoted in full in the article.

Oregon Spectator, February 4, 1847, University of Oregon Libraries

The winter of 1846-47 was one of the coldest on record in the Pacific Northwest, and even the mighty Columbia River succumbed to below-freezing temperatures. The river froze over completely, and the Royal Navy's HMS Modeste, which had been anchored in the river near the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver, was stuck until the ice thawed. Contemporary Northwesterners often make the best of extreme or inclement winter weather, and the residents of Fort Vancouver and the sailors and officers of the Modeste were no different. Together, they walked and skated on the ice, and engaged in some friendly games of curling.

Curling originated in Scotland, and was brought to Canada by Scottish emigrants. In 1807, the Royal Montreal Curling Club was established, and is the oldest curling club in North America. Many of the workers at Fort Vancouver had come to North America from Scotland or from eastern Canada, and some were likely curling fans.

On February 4, 1847, the Oregon Spectator, an American newspaper based in Oregon City, wrote about the first of that winter's curling games, which took place on January 26:

This ancient and manly game was played on our noble stream on the 26th instant, creating no small sensation in the locality as being the first exhibition of the kind in Oregon. The curling stones were rather hurriedly made, but altho' wanting the "polish of surface and handle," yet by the skill of the players, they were made to reach the "tee" in good style. A friendly match (best of 3 games) came off between a party of the officers of H.B.M.S. Modeste, and those of the Hudson's Bay Company, 4 of a side, on a "rink" of 22 yards; at the conclusion, victory was declared in favor of the Modeste's by a majority of shots. The players were

Modeste's Officers.
Capt. Baillie,
Lieut. Coode,
Dr. Gibson,
Mr. Grant, midsh'n.

Hudson's Bay Officers.
Messrs. Lowe,
Dr. Barclay,

The parties afterwards partook of Curler's fare, [beef and greens] on board the Modeste, where the evening was passed in that social and happy manner so peculiar to the fraternity, and numerous curling toasts and songs were given. A club to be called the "Vancouver Curling Club" was proposed to be instituted, and cordially agreed upon.

P.S. Ogden, Esq. Patron - and we doubt not, but in the winters to come, the "roaring game" will have a place in the pastimes and diversions of Oregon.

Thomas Lowe, a clerk at Fort Vancouver and one of the game's players, wrote in his journal:

Jan. 18th, Monday. Early this morning the thermometer was 5 degrees below zero, and the River is now completely frozen over, all the Modeste’s crew going backwards and forwards on the ice, and hauling the boats over it. Skated on the River in the evening.

Jan. 22nd, Friday. Very cold weather. People are now walking across the River on the ice.

Jan. 26th, Tuesday. Fine frosty weather. In the forenoon we had a curling match on the ice, four of the “Modeste” officers against four of us. They had the best of it.

Feb. 11th, Thursday. The weather continues the same. A curling match was played to day [sic].

Thomas Lowe Fonds, PR-1701, Royal BC Museum and Archives

Lowe wasn't the only player to write about curling on the Columbia River. Dr. John Gibson, who served as the surgeon aboard the HMS Modeste and also played in the January 26th game, wrote a letter describing the match to the Secretary of the Royal Caldeonian Curling Club in Edinburgh, Scotland. Gibson wrote that "in this the Far West, upon the noble river Columbia, a friendly Match was yesterday played (the first in Oregon) between a party of the Officers of the HMS Modeste, now frozen in, and of the Honourable Hudson's Bay Company's Officers."

The first curling match on the Columbia River is captured in the watercolor above, attributed to Lt. Trevenen Penrose Coode, an accomplished artist onboard the HMS Modeste, and a player on the ship's team. Coode's work not only shows the game on the left side of the painting, but also shows groups of men, women, and children enjoying themselves on the ice. The painting is now in the collection of the Mariner's Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia. Learn more about it here.

While curling may not have caught on in the Northwest in the way the Oregon Spectator predicted, it remains popular, especially in Canada, and has been an Olympic sport since 1924.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Last updated: February 7, 2018