Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Diamond Cup "Riots", Fact & Fiction

There's a riot goin' on!

Looking back to the days of the Diamond Cup, there are countless smiles and stories. As we babysat the Miss Budweiser in front of the Museum of North Idaho the weekend of July 4th, many people stopped to look, question, admire, have their pictures taken and talk about hydroplanes and the Diamond Cup. It was fun listening to stories of hanging out in the pits, the sound of the mighty V-12's, family outings to watch the races, hydro parades down Sherman, the boat boom on the lake, the concerts and dances, national entertainers performing, the Diamond Cup Room at the Desert Hotel and the Hydromaniacs. Only a couple people mentioned the riots. That's right, riots.

If there is any local story that has grown with age, it's the Diamond Cup "riots". They weren't anything near the "We won the World Series, let's burn the city down" type riot as some would have you believe. There are an number people who were smack dab in the middle of these disturbances and all I've talked with are amused at how the "hydro riot legend" has morphed over the years. I'll post some first hand reports down the road but let's start with the facts as reported in the Coeur d'Alene Press.

The first Diamond Cup "riot" was in 1961. In later years it was claimed to have been the worst as authorities were caught flat footed when the crowd got unruly. Hard to say what happened, the Monday edition after the race is missing from the Coeur d'Alene Press archives. It must not have been much as the Coeur d'Alene Press didn't mention it again.

The following year the cops were prepared. The Diamond Cup was a 2-day race, and Saturday night saw crowds fired up from the first day and excited for the next. The Press wrote about the weekend on Monday, July 23.

A "disturbance" was reported Saturday night around 11:00pm and took less than 2 hours for authorities to control. Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Reine Schmidt was quoted, "Last year's trouble was termed a riot. I don't believe this one was but it could have turned into a riot unless it had been contained." The story went on to say an "estimated 500 youths, more than in 1961" were gathered on Sherman. The police had prepared to "get tougher quicker" and they did just that. Sherman was blocked off from 1st to 6th Streets and the crowd was given a "ten minute warning to disburse." Firetrucks then sprayed water and "tear gas bombs" were used on the remaining crowd. The "result was several were injured and were given hospital treatment and care."

In the end, less than 50 people were taken into custody, 14 charged with failure to disburse. The rest were minor in possession, open containers, disturbing the peace, public drunkenness, drunk and disorderly and other similar charges. The majority of those charged were not from Coeur d'Alene. Damage was reported to windows at the Diamond Cup headquarters (Desert Hotel) and Merritt's service station and some police cars were dented.

The 1963 Diamond Cup was run the weekend of July 27-28, another two day race which meant a crowd from the first day was gathered again on Saturday night. Some people had no doubt been drinking (Sherman had no shortage of bars) and drinking age was nineteen at the time. The Monday, July 29 Press carried the stories of the Diamond Cup weekend.

The headline reads "Crowd Unruly, 80 Arrested" and goes on to say an estimated 1,000 "young people" were involved. The article cites previous Saturday night Diamond Cup years noting 1961 "reached riot stage when it caught the officers unprepared" and 1962 where the disturbance was "brought under control more quickly." It also stated that Police Chief Reine Schmidt and Sheriff John Bender agreed that the 1963 ruckus never exceeded the "unruly crowd stage."

Helmeted officers used tear gas, "wielded their nightsticks several times" and fire hoses were used between 3rd and 5th on Sherman. The only damage reported were 2 broken windows and as the crowd moved into City Park, "trees, benches and garbage cans were broken up." A total of 41 people (including 7 juveniles) were charged with failure to disburse, 14 were charged with minor in possession and "several" were charged with disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, drunkenness and like offenses.

If you ask any person at the 1963 Diamond Cup what their standout memory is, they won't say a riot. They'll talk about the wreck of the Miss Exide that put pilot Mira Slovak in the hospital with 27 stitches in his face, a couple lost teeth and a broken ankle. While The Press didn't follow up on the arrest story, it did report on Slovak's recovery daily until he left the hospital and Coeur d'Alene on July 31. That's what people remember, not the riots.

In 1964, the August 4 Coeur d'Alene Press reported on the weekend's Diamond Cup activity with one article stating "Saturday night's riots also proved to be successful for law enforcement but not for some of the 300-400 young people who tried to start something." Police Chief George Lenz said "Our small riot was under control almost immediately." About 60 were taken into custody, one Spokane teen was charged with inciting a riot, 17 with failure to disburse and "perhaps a dozen" high school and college kids were in jail. Again, most were not locals.

The 1965 Diamond Cup was termed a "most successful affair" by both event organizers and law enforcement officials. While police said it could have been the largest Diamond Cup crowd yet and Chief Lenz was quoted "At no time was there any indication of major trouble," and "Disturbances were practically non-existent." Credit was given to a large showing of law enforcement including Civil Defense and National Guard members. Around 50 people were arrested for open container, disorderly conduct, drunkenness and traffic infractions.

The 1966 Diamond Cup was one of the best but the Monday after Press on August 15 made no mention of any crowd activity at all.

There was no funding and therefore no Diamond Cup in 1967 but returned in 1968. The August 12 CdA Press quoted Chief Lenz that this was possibly "the largest crowd ever" and that the total of 69 arrests from Friday to Monday wasn't out of the ordinary. Sheriff John Bender said "What few disturbances we had were normal for the size of the crowd." Even the marine patrol noted the highest number ever of boats tied to the booms but they were well behaved.

And that's story of the Great Diamond Cup Hydroplane Riots. But legend grows, especially when cultivated by someone with no first hand knowledge but a hostility towards the memory of the Diamond Cup.

The inflation of this tale has also led to the incorrect accusation that riots are what ended the Diamond Cup races. I have never understood how riots could be used as the reason to shut down the Diamond Cup five to nine years after the fact.

So, what ended the Diamond Cup? In a word, money. The last possibility was dashed when in the spring of 1969 it was announced there was no funding for the Diamond cup. Overall, in the ten years of the Diamond Cup Regatta, the best year turned a profit of around $500, a couple years broke even at best and others ended in red ink.

In 1968, a "ticket" to the Diamond Cup was a Booster Button that cost $1.00. A lousy buck. But people would walk 100 yards and round the fence rather than shell out a couple dollars. Even at the age of 13, I thought that was a pretty lowdown cheat. How could an event be funded when you can't even get people to buy a ticket. There was no money and there were no more Diamond Cup races.
But back to those riots. Four decades after the last Diamond Cup Regatta, some people are still eager to bash the memory of the Diamond Cup with skewed and inflated tales of those horrible hydroplane riots. Looting, tear gas, fire hoses, destruction, oh my! They paint it to be wilder than the end of Animal House.

Interestingly, the man who has propagated this yarn for years did not live in North Idaho between 1958-68, never attended a Diamond Cup Regatta and didn't move to the area until 15 years after the last Diamond Cup and 20 years after the last "riot". He's not a reporter, he just writes editorials for an out of state newspaper. Take his word for what it is, an inflammatory narrative warped by his own hostility.

Also part of the riot story is that our writer claims the riots were the reason Coeur d'Alene residents voted 3-1 in 1996 to ban unlimited hydroplane racing within city limits. This is probably, but sadly, true. But sadder yet, it was also a case of yellow journalism.

When word of someone exploring the possibility of holding another Diamond Cup in the mid-1990s, a local group banded to stop that from ever happening. Petitioners were stationed at the post office and the issue was eventually placed on that year's City ballot. In efforts to build opposition leading up to the election, our writer led the parade with exaggerated stories and riot hyperbole. His gullible readers rallied and the riot legend took off. "They'll destroy downtown!" "They'll burn down Tubbs Hill!" (No, if that ever happens it'll be the 4th of July so let's end the fireworks show.) The threat of the Hell's Angels was even tossed in for shock factor.

So, yes, riots, or more specifically, fear of riots drove the outcome of an election. Banned were unlimited hydroplanes racing on City of Coeur d'Alene waters and unlimited hydroplane launching from City of Coeur d'Alene property. I find it a despicable statement on how easy it is to get people to vote out of fear rather than bother them with the facts. And the writer continues to pat himself on the back over it.

Why my rant on this fellow? When word of the vintage hydros coming to Coeur d'Alene was made public, his first words were of negativity and accusation. This historical event is a celebration of a period in local history that is still very near and dear to many, many people who lived here at that time. Worst of all, this is hoped to be the first of an annual event benefitting the Museum of North Idaho. To taint a charitable effort for a worthy cause is the work of a lowlife.

I was bold/stupid enough to call a spade a spade and became his personal whipping boy because of it. That's OK, I'm a big boy, I can take it. I just sat back and let him prove his negativity with his own poinson pen. And he did.

Thanks for taking time to read the real story. If you were involved with any of these "riots", please feel free to add your thoughts.