James 'Big Jim' Pendergast was Kensington's version of the rugged individualist, a man who tasted life to the full through sports and adventure. Born in 1879, he completed school at Kensington and went on to Prince of Wales College, where he tested his mettle on the football gridiron. After graduation, Pendergast taught school for a few years on the Island, but the thrill-seeker in him soon got the upper hand and he packed his bags to head off in search of new sights.
He moved to Boston and found work as a motorman on the Boston Elevated Railway, a job whose hard physical labour was well suited to his brawny 6' 4", 225 pound frame. His strength began to attract attention not only on the jobsite, but also in local track-and-field competitions. At a field day sponsored by his railway company, Big Jim almost swept the events. Encouraged by this success, he began to train more seriously in local gyms. Then in 1904, at Madison Square Gardens in New York, he set a world record for throwing the fifty-six pound weight, heaving that poundage to a height of fifteen feet, eleven and three quarter inches. His throw was not eclipsed until two years later. Holding this world strongman mark was quite an achievement for a man all the way from little Kensington! He continued his athletic exploits in the boxing ring, where he went toe-to-toe with such well-known fighters as Jack 'Twin' Sullivan, Australian Billy Warren, and 'Philadelphia' Billy Barker. A man that tossed over fifty pounds high into the air must have packed a pretty fair punch.
You would think that-- between winning a world record and playing the fight game-- Pendergast would have had his fill of excitement. But in 1906 he was soon possessed with wanderlust again, and lured by the promise of riches, he struck out with his brother David for the Klondike gold rush. They prospected for gold for a year and then, perhaps realizing that their plans of instant fortune were not panning out, Jim joined the fire department in Dawson City where he served for several years. The firefighters in Dawson kept a semi-tame bear to symbolize their rough-and-ready character. But one day the bear got loose, and made his way down into the basement of the fire department. The company bulldog was sent in to flush the bear out but soon returned with his tail between his legs-- and clawmarks across his face. So Big Jim offered to go in himself to get the bear, since he had wrestled with the animal before and become quite friendly with him. Jim approached the bear slowly and, when it ducked its head to sniff his pantleg, he managed to throw one leg over the bear's body and catch him by the loose skin around the neck. You can imagine the look on the faces of the Dawson City fire department when Jim walked the bear right out of the basement!
In 1911, after his brother had passed away, Pendergast finally returned home from his wanderings across the continent, and settled down in Kensington to help his father on the farm. When he could not find enough excitement on the Island, he seemed determined to make some himself. In 1912, he became partners with John MacKinnon and Jim MacDonald in the development of the New Annan race track. The annual races at the track soon became the most action-packed day of the year, thanks in no small part to the boundless energy Pendergast devoted to the contest. Still an imposing figure, he helped serve as crowd control at his own event, where sometimes the spirits flowed as fast as the horses. If someone looked ready to start a commotion, the perpetrator would soon feel a heavy hand clamp upon his shoulder. Not many wanted to be personally involved in determining how far the former world champion could still throw.
In 1924, James Pendergast married Gertude Cullen of Sherwood and, together, they had ten children. In 1949, he took a bad fall on the ice and suffered a broken hip. He underwent two different operations and was left with one leg three inches shorter than the other, which sometimes made even walking difficult. While this accident must have been a devastating blow to a man who had pursued such a vigorous lifestyle, he never uttered a word of complaint.
Knowing that his days of participation were over, he shifted his involvements in the world of sports to the organizational side. One of his most lasting accomplishments was the organizing of a 9 mile marathon swim between Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick and Borden , P. E. I.-- the same route taken by the ferry crossing. The first Northumberland Strait Swim in 1963 attracted athletes from across the Maritimes, and by the following year, it drew internationally-known swimmers from as far away as Holland, Egypt, and Britain. In 1963, Pendergast was voted Islander of the Year for founding such a prestigious event, and for devoting his life to building the community through sport. More accolades followed in 1972, with a richly-deserved induction into the Prince Edward Island Sports Hall of Fame.
This Hall of Fame ceremony, which took place in his ninetieth year, was the last public function which the sports star ever attended. Pendergast passed away on January 25, 1975 at the age of ninety five, after a life which could not have been more active or full. Immediately after the funeral, a memorial scholarship fund was established, which grants annual scholarships to a girl and boy graduating from Kensington High School. While Kensington may never produce another world-record holder, Big Jim's legacy of athletic excellence lives on.