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John Hugh Gillis (born January 2, 1884–died July 4, 1913) was the first person to walk across Canada, and became Canadian all-round champion of track and field, now called the decathlon. On a bet and a dare, on 31 January 1906 at the age of 22 he set out from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, with two others to walk to San Francisco and back within a year. They hiked on the railroad track, crossed central Maine in cold and blizzard and reached Montreal. There they disagreed. Gillis, suffering from sore feet, went on alone towards Vancouver. Charles Jackman, retired from the Toronto lacrosse team, decided at Montreal to follow him. Jackman caught up with him near Ignace, Ontario. The two tall athletes, both 6 feet 4½ inches, walked 1800 miles (2700 km) together with many adventures and strode into Vancouver station to a waiting crowd at midnight 24 September 1906.
A physical director of the Vancouver police, Gillis was famous as the "Western Giant". At Winnipeg 1909 he became Canadian all-round champion. He set a shotput record that stood for 34 years. He was just 42 points short in 7,000 of winning the North American all-round. A member of the 1912 Olympic team, he hoped to compete with Jim Thorpe but he had to read about it from a tuberculosis sanitorium. He died at North Sydney 4 July 1913 at age 29. In May 2006 this "transcontinental pedestrian," as he called himself, was inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame.
John Hugh Gillis was the son of cabinet maker Angus Hugh Gillis and his wife, Margaret Ann MacFarlane, who had moved from the Margaree Valley to North Sydney. After she died in 1904 Angus married again and moved to Glace Bay. John Hugh attended St. Francis Xavier College but dropped out after a year or two, probably for financial reasons because his father had a large family. Jack was well known through the Maritimes as an athlete and champion long distance runner. His Gillis family had come from the mainland opposite the Scottish Isle of Skye and their first language was Gaelic, which was the third most spoken European language in Canada at that time.
How did this cross-continent walk come about? Perhaps Jack read books about two men who had walked across the United States. He and his young brother-in-law, Donald Parker, who owned the Queen Hotel, cooked up a hare-brain scheme. John Hugh was to walk to San Francisco and back in 366 days, starting off without a cent in his pocket, selling souvenir cards, getting the signature of town mayors, and coming back with $200. Oh, add to that, he would leave 31 January, 1906in the dead of winter and walk across central Maine to Montreal on the railroad track. They did not realize how impossible it was.
Jack asked George Cumming, an unmarried singer and steel worker, to go with him. When he was called away on an emergency, young married John McDonald, gymnasium director, offered to go. the three walked together on the railroad tracks, lost eight days because of snow storms and finally got to Montreal. There George and John got interested in the night life of Montreal. So John, who was suffering from foot trouble, limped on alone – towards Vancouver.
Charles Jackman played lacrosse for the English champions and then for Toronto before retiring and now at the age of 27 was an agent for a feed company. In Montreal he read about the North Sydney boys and left 14 April 1906 to try to catch up to Jack Gillis. He finally overtook Jack on June 5 near Ignace, north of Lake Superior.
They walked 1800 miles together, often not knowing what they would eat or where they would sleep, sometimes hungry, sick from the alkali water and the intense heat of the Prairies, sometimes staying up all night or sleeping in a haystack. They became good friends, the tall man from Yorkshire and the tall Scot from Cape Breton.
On 26 September 1906 John Hugh Gillis and Charles Jackman were interviewed by a reporter of the Daily News-Advertiser of Vancouver, which carried a long article the next day on page 7. It told of two powerful young men of height six feet four and a half inches arriving in Vancouver after a long transcontinental walk on the railroad. Gillis had started from North Sydney 31 January 1906 and Jackman had left Montreal 16 April and caught up to him in Northern Ontario. Gillis spoke about the foot trouble that often afflicts long distance runners:
"When I was once under way I was bound I would stick it out. Many a time, though, during the first month I felt like dropping out. I had a terrible time with my feet and at first I could make only a few miles a day. This accounted for the slow time made during the trip. I also suffered considerably from the heat.”
Gillis did not have what modern marathon hikers today find necessary: pre-training; flexible and waterproof athletic shoes; socks that wick away the sweat and prevent blisters; blister pads; sun protection, mosquito and black fly repellant; a system of roads and highways; an accompanying vehicle to supply good drinking water with salt and electrolyte replacement; nourishing food; a place to sleep comfortably.
Jackman kept a little diary of the daily happenings and took 250 pictures. That diary, the pictures that survived, and the newspaper stories about the walk led to a book Transcontinental Pedestrians, published in October 2006 by Fitzhenry & Whiteside, of Toronto.
Track and field sports
they came back from Victoria, Charles and Jack shook hands as Charles took the train for Halifax and home. They would never see each other again. Jack Gillis decided to stay in Vancouver because there was great interest in track and field sports. At the 1907 meet there he won the 120-yard hurdles, the high jump and the shot put. The Vancouver Police Force, attracted by his athletic prowess, inducted him as a physical director. He and another athlete in the police force, Duncan Gillis, probably a distant cousin, lived at 852 Cordova Street.
Physical director of the Vancouver Police Force
In the Vancouver meet of 23 May 1908, Jack was first nationally with a shot put of 40 feet 7 inches (Radcliffe, Ted & McNulty, William. Canadian Athletics, 1839–1992. Ottawa: Athletics Canada, 1992)
This from The Winnipeg Tribune 19 July 1909, page 6:
- Sensational Performances at Dominion Championships
- J.H. Gillis, Vancouver Policeman, Wins All-Round Championship
- "As was expected the Toronto team made a big cleanup but they were, nevertheless, given a great surprise by the two Vancouver policemen who toyed with the weights and jumps in a manner that had the Olympic stars beaten. D. Gillis took the hammer throw and the 56 lb. weight while J.H. Gillis secured the shot put, discus, high jump and hop, step and jump, besides a number of seconds and thirds. They will make great men for the next Olympic team, and they are practically sure of places in the big events."
In Toronto the Globe of 28 July 1909, page 9, featured a photograph of John H. Gillis, the “giant Vancouver policeman, who won the all-round championship of Canada at the C.A.A.U. annual championship meet at Winnipeg.
From The Citizen, Ottawa 29 July 1909, page 8:
- "The two Gillis boys proved great attractions and soon became great favourites with the crowd, the splendid work of the British Columbia athletes evoking great enthusiasm. To John H. Gillis goes the gold medal for the all round championship. On the basis of three points for a first, two for a second, and one for a third, John Gillis won no less than 21 points. He took first in the hop step and jump, the 16 pound shot put, the 220 yards hurdles, throwing discus, and in the running long and the running high jumps. He was second in the standing broad jumps.
- "Gillis is tall and wiry, with long slim legs and a beautiful chest. He was graceful in every move despite his great height and in view of his gilt edged work at yesterday’s meet it is no wonder that he landed the Canadian championship in Winnipeg. Duncan Gillis is also a strong acquisition in the field of Canadian amateur athletes. He was seen at his best in the heavyweight acts."
Five thousand spectators crowded the Scarborough Beach Athletic Grounds to watch the twenty-seventh meet held by the Toronto Police on Saturday, 31 July 1909. The Globe on page 3 the following Monday reported that J.H. Gillis, the Western giant, had won the gold medal with 20 points, had come first in five events and second in two, having placed in all events in which he had taken part. Duncan Gillis won ten points.
Four days later on August 4 at the Hamilton meet Jack Gillis came first in the running high jump, the running broad jump and the pole vault and second in the 100-yard race. Duncan was first in the 16-pound hammer throw, the caber tossing and the 16-pound long throw and second in the 56-pound high throw (Toronto Star, 5 August 1909, page 10).
At Brockton Point 28 July 1910 Jack Gillis won the all-round contest and Duncan came first in the 56-pound throw, the discus and the 16-pound hammer ( The World 1 August 1910, sports page).
The North American all-round championship for 1910 was fought out at Marshall Field in Chicago 13 August in a seesaw battle between F.C Thomson of Los Angeles, the favourite, and J.H. Gillis. Their rivalry gripped the crowd of 3,500, for the result was very close. Thomson scored 6.951 points and Gillis 6,909—just 42 points short. The winner of the third spot gained 6,120 points. This was a remarkable accomplishment for an athlete who had neither a trainer nor an advisor in attendance. He had not enough strength in the 16-pound shot and the 56-pound weight: otherwise he would have come first (The Daily World, 15 August 1910, sports page). That was strange for the man who set the Canadian shot record of 51 feet 5½ inches that would not be broken for thirty-two years (Letter from Cecil Smith, Athletics Canada).
Before a crowd of 4,500 at the Toronto Police athletic meet 17 August 10, Gillis cleaned up with 21 points, the nearest competitor winning 9 points. The Toronto Daily Star of 18 August, page 13, had a three-column montage of Gillis in action.
Another athlete and competitor in Jack’s career was Martin Sheridan, who came from County Mayo to the United States in 1897, became a New York policeman, won nine Olympic medals and won three U.S all-round competitions, forerunners of the decathlon. In the first all-round between Gillis and Sheridan, Gillis won four events and Sheridan won six. In their second all-round, certified by Thomas Flanagan of the M.A.A.U, Sheridan won only two and Gillis won eight.
On 17 September 1910, Jack Gillis suddenly resigned his position as first-class constable with a salary of $1,200 (Barbara Fenwick, Archivist, Vancouver Police Museum). The Vancouver Police Force had provided him with a useful profession, a good income, the opportunity to be an important member of its sports team, and leave and funds for travelling to various contests, sometimes distant, in track and field. Why did he resign? His departure was one month after his triumph at the Toronto Police Games and a month and four days after coming so close to winning the North-American all-round gold medal. Feeling vaguely unwell, losing weight and always so tired, he did not know what was wrong with him. The Toronto Star reporter had called him spare. He was.
Announcing the all-round championship The Daily World of 5 August 1911, sports page, mentioned “Vancouver’s star athlete” and added, “Jack had intended to train early for this year’s championship but later abandoned the intention.” He went to work for Customs but had no longer the energy to go out socially. Gradually he grew worse: coughing, low fever, cold sweat at night, poor appetite, wasted appearance. On 9 December 1911 Dr, Kennedy admitted him to the sanitarium at Tranquille, near Kamloops (Admission Book, Anti-Tuberculosis Society Records, 1907–1947. BC Archives, MS-1916, vol. 7).
The disease that crept up on Jack Gillis was tuberculosis, which for centuries had caused distressing illness and claimed many lives. European cities were losing one in seven citizens to the “white plague”. Four out of five North Americans became infected before age twenty and five percent of them became ill a year or two after being infected. Early in the twentieth century it affected young and old and was the single most common cause of death.
The Inland Sentinel of 8 December 1911 welcomed John Gillis:
- "A well known and popular figure in the athletic world arrived here yesterday from the coast in the person of J.H. Gillis, holder of the all-round amateur championship of Canada. Gillis is a fine type of Canadian manhood, standing six feet four inches in height, and while at present he’s not just up to his usual weight he expects the local climate and the training he enters into will soon have the effect of putting him into top class shape again. He intends to spend several months here and the training he will undertake is in preparation for entry in the all-round Olympic championship of the world in Stockholm next year."
Jack suffered a spell of sadness and regret when the Fifth Olympic Games opened 5 May 1912. He would have been there but for this bad luck. In the decathlon, which had taken the place of the all-round, he would have enjoyed going up against the great Native American athlete Jim Thorpe. He was pleased that Canada won gold in swimming and the 10,000 metre walk. He cheered when Duncan Gillis won silver for tossing the weight. His heart went out to Jim Thorpe when the officials took away his gold medals because long ago he had received $15.00 for playing minor league baseball.
John kept track of his friend Duncan, who had left the police force, founded an athletic club with the boxer Vic Foley, and become the all-round champion of British Columbia. John was not to know that Duncan was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 1967.
Jack Gillis bore himself with stoic dignity and did not complain of his bad luck. He had made peace with himself. Gradually he went downhill. The time came when he asked his brother Peter Dan and his widowed sister Jessie Parker to come and bring him home. He settled in Jessie’s home and did what he could with the strength he had left. When his sister couldn’t open his bedroom window he got out of bed and raised it for her. His father built an elegant cabinet, which he placed in John’s bedroom, and there behind the glass doors were arrayed the dozens of his medals for him to see. Quietly and cheerfully the champion with the big emaciated frame faded and, after the last rite, his breath and his heart failed. Two weeks after his arrival in North Sydney he died at Jessie’s home, 4 July 1913 at the age of twenty-nine.
The Sydney Record of 5 July, front page, remembered that he had walked across the continent. The Sydney Daily Post of the same date, page 5, remarked, “He was looked on as the most likely aspirant for the honors so long held by Martin Sheridan, but the disease which ultimately brought about his death fastened upon him and cut short his athletic career.”
The Daily News-Advertiser of Vancouver 7 July 1913 on its sports page carried the headline JACK GILLIS PASSES AWAY IN NOVA SCOTIA and the sub-head “Former Vancouver Athlete Succumbs to Tuberculosis After Long Illness—Won Many Trophies on Athletic Field”.
- "The deceased young man was Vancouver’s most successful point winner at all championship meetings until 1911, when he retired....During his athletic career he won numerous trophies and was one of the most popular athletes in the country."
The Inland Sentinel of Kamloops 5 July 1913 had a long item about him on its front page:
- "Thousands of friends and admirers throughout the wide world will hear with regret of the death of John H. Gillies, prince of Canadian athletes, which occurred at his Cape Breton home this morning.
- "Gillies. . . was of herculean build, and had a brilliant career in the field of sport and his reputation was known in every quarter of the globe. Mr. Patk. Hartney roundly declares, indeed, that Gillies was the finest all round athlete Canada ever produced. . . .
- "Mr. Gillies was a man of college education and while his exploits made him the admired of all admirers, he always remained a quiet unobtrusive and amiable gentleman, whose personal qualities retained for him the esteem which his prowess evoked."
British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame
Jack Gillis was inducted in the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in May, 2006, as a great pioneer athlete.
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