Walking Across America: The Forgotten Feats of Edward Payson Weston

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"In his nearly five decades as a pedestrian, Weston developed a distinct set of rules for the road and a sense of rhythm and routine to his long-distance jaunts."
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Aided by long-buried archival information, colorful biographical details and Weston’s diary entries, “Walk of Ages,” by Jim Reisler is more than a book about a man going for a walk. It is an epic tale of beating the odds and a penetrating look at a vanished time in America.

In 1909, seventy year-old sportsman Edward Payson Weston left New York to walk across America to San Francisco. Having long been America’s greatest pedestrian, he was attempting the most ambitious and physically taxing walk of his career. Walk of Ages by Jim Reisler (University of Nebraska Press, 2015), profiles Weston’s tumultuous trek, which became a wonder of the ages and attracted international headlines. That Weston made it is one of the truly great but forgotten sports feats of all time.

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The main door of the General Post Office at the intersection of Broadway and Park Row in New York City burst open, and in stepped a striking figure. He was an older man of a medium height with a white handlebar mustache who was dressed for either going on a hike or performing in an off-Broadway revue, or both. His long linen duster gave way to a lightweight blue coat and a shirt “of the colonial times,” as one wrote. He wore riding trousers held up by a heavy leather belt and donned natty mouse-colored leggings and a sizable felt hat with a broad brim that an observer said “resembled a sombrero in all but color.” On his feet were army boots. And he carried a cane.

On his seventieth birthday, Edward Payson Weston wasn’t at the post office to mail a letter. He was going for a walk, a very long walk that he had decided to start in style, from the hallway of this handsome five-story granite building with the sloped green roof. It was March 15, 1909, in Lower Manhattan in New York City, and America’s best-known pedestrian was preparing to leave for San Francisco on foot—ocean to ocean—looking to get there in one hundred “walking days,” with Sundays off. Postmaster Edward Morgan and a number of other government officials had expected Weston shortly after 3:00 p.m., but the center of attention was nearly an hour late and anxious to get moving.

Weston would have to wait. Scads of his friends were there to wish him farewell, and Weston needed to bid adieu to as many of them as possible. First shaking hands with Postmaster Morgan, he moved to the rear of the post office, where some thirty of his Civil War–era comrades from the U.S. Army’s Company B, Seventh Regiment, had assembled under the leadership of Captain James Schuyler. Together with the Metropolitan Band and a posse of mounted New York City police officers, they would escort Weston northward to Midtown Manhattan and beyond.

Their presence was needed. Dense crowds, drawn to witness the start of the great event, swarmed the surrounding streets. So great was the throng that Weston would be resorting to a standard bit of strategy he had learned from previous walks—using his friends as a shield from the multitudes, like linemen clearing the way for a running back, for safe passage through the clogged streets. It was in this festive air that a cheer went up as Weston strode through the main doors of the post office and back outside at around 4:15 p.m. Shedding his duster in the dry forty-one- degree temperature, unusually seasonable for mid-March in the northeastern United States, he bounded down the front steps of the big building, crossed Park Avenue, and was off.

A Meandering Route

Actually, Weston wasn’t headed directly west right away—that would be through New Jersey—nor was he taking the shortest route. Instead, he would travel north through the heart of Manhattan and into the Bronx and then Westchester County. Walking parallel to the Hudson River, he would continue north some 175 miles, from his starting point all the way to Troy. Only then did he strike west through some of the bigger upstate New York towns of the Mohawk Valley, such as Utica, Syracuse, and Buffalo; the larger towns afforded the opportunity to earn a few extra dollars by lecturing. From Buffalo he planned to make another detour of sorts, meandering south through Olean and into Pennsylvania, before lurching west again, this time through central Ohio towns like Youngtown and Canton. Off the itinerary was Cleveland, where on his 1907 jaunt from Portland to Chicago, the police hadn’t provided adequate protection from the surging crowds and a boy had stepped on his foot, wrenching his ankle. Gamely, Weston had soldiered on in pain and still reached Chicago.

On this trip, Weston planned to leave Chicago and head south again—this time sticking to post roads and the railroad lines through Joliet and Bloomington, Illinois, traveling nearly three hundred miles to St. Louis. The detour of several hundred miles, he said, was out of obligation to a couple of friends. From St. Louis, he would finally turn west for good, trekking another three hundred miles to Kansas City, and from there sticking to the Union Pacific rail line and planning to head into the heart of the West: Denver, Colorado; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Ogden, Utah. Walking the rails was particularly hard slogging—the footing was uneven, forcing a pedestrian to move in a kind of diagonal, crisscrossing motion to maintain balance. But the railroad offered the shortest points between the remote settlements of the West; it could be a lifeline to supplies and even companionship.

From Ogden loomed one of the projected journey’s most remote and barren stretches of all—the Great Salt Lake Desert and other areas throughout Utah and Nevada, where Weston wisely planned to walk the rails. In Utah he would switch to the San Pedro Railroad and Los Angeles and Salt Lake rail lines and traipse another 781 miles into Los Angeles. And from there Weston planned to turn north, traveling the Pacific Coast Road for the trip’s last 475 miles into San Francisco. Walking nearly four thousand miles in one hundred days meant he would have to average forty miles a day—minus the Sundays. Age be dammed. For a man who had once trekked 125 milesin twenty-four hours, this was doable, even as a senior citizen, he said to himself.

The sheer magnitude and scope of the walk was dizzying. In a golden age of newspapers, of which there were many in New York, the seventy-year- old pedestrian commanded attention. That was particularly true in the New York Times, for which he would be preparing those short daily reports. For now, Weston was confined to the Times’ sports pages, competing for space with spring-training reports from the city’s three baseball teams: the Highlanders, or Yankees, of the American League and the Giants and the Brooklyn Superbas, later known as the Dodgers, of the National League. Closer to New York, the day’s big news was considerable labor unrest among the six hundred or so Sicilian laborers kept away from their construction jobs at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The papers labeled it a strike, but the troubles sounded more like a lockout, imposed by academy officials who had charged that the laborers had offended military families by crowding them from sidewalks and fighting among themselves. Barred from the campus, the workers lodged protests with the War Department and the Italian ambassador, but they would never have their grievances effectively settled.

Rhythm and Routine

Edward Payson Weston’s meandering route would afford both a drumbeat of steady newspaper attention and the likelihood of lecture income. In his nearly five decades as a pedestrian, Weston had developed a distinct set of rules for the road and a sense of rhythm and routine to his long-distance jaunts. He would rest on Sundays, a result of the promise he had made years ago to his deeply religious mother. And though he was being accompanied by a chauffeur and two trainers, Charles Hagen and S. W. Cassells, and was often trailed as well by a stream from nearby towns of reporters, children, and admiring locals, Weston was hypersensitive about venturing anywhere near an automobile while walking. Any contact with a car could set the critics to leveling those tired old charges that he was a cheat. So fearful was Weston of even a whiff of impropriety that he refused to hop on the floorboards of a car while conversing with its occupants.

Weston’s team stocked the supply car with eggs, tea, bread, some meat, and plenty of ginger ale. They also carried ice as well as blankets, rain gear, extra shoes, and changes of clothing. Using a car marked a major change in Weston’s long-time strategy of using horse-drawn carriages to haul his support group and supplies. Horses tended to wear out on long trips. And though Weston didn’t like sharing the road with cars, friends had convinced him a car was certainly more reliable than a horse. In the end, the decision to take along a car was a no-brainer, enabling Weston’s team to make a food run or to easily speed ahead to alert reporters of Weston’s impending arrival and arrange a lecture or a hotel room for the evening.

Lecturing usually drew a crowd. Weston had been at it with great success since his five-thousand- mile trek in 1884 around England, where he spoke after each day’s fifty-mile walk under the banner of the Church of England Temperance Society. Back home in the United States, Weston lectured for income. As a celebrity, Weston rarely needed lodging arrangements more than a day or two ahead, with no end of offers to put him up for a night and serve him a meal, both in the big cities and in the smallest of hamlets, too. So confident was Weston of finding a bed for the night that he carried no tent or camping equipment. Only when he reached desolate areas of Utah and Wyoming would it be difficult to find places to spend the evening. At least he could sleep in the car.

Those lonely days in the West were still ahead. For now, Weston headed in the most densely populated part of America—northward up New York’s Broadway. Then he swung east on Twenty-Sixth Street and then north again on Fifth Avenue all the way to Fifty-Ninth Street, where most of his old army comrades, many of them tuckered out from the exertion, bade him farewell. By arrangement, three of the fitter men would accompany Weston all the way to Yonkers—Everett Brown and J. Chalmers along with a comrade from Company A, one C. A. J. Quackenbush, whose hefty name matched his girth. The thirty-one- year- old, 256-pound Quackenbush was perhaps the most accomplished sportsman of the three, a former U.S., English, and French weight lifting champion.

As a band struck up “Auld Lang Syne,” Weston doffed his cap as a good-bye to his fellow veterans. Maintaining a steady trot, he lurched back west along Fifty-Ninth Street and turned north again on Broadway at Columbus Circle—a direction he would maintain all the way to Troy. Amid the cheers, some spectators jumped in beside or behind Weston but soon gave up. Few could keep pace; and every time someone broke in and joined the crowd, another seemed to drop out, in what resembled a fast-moving rugby scrum. Weston didn’t let up for another three miles or so, until 125th Street in Harlem, where Hagen delivered a raw egg dunked in a hot cup of tea. The concoction pumped new vitality into the seventy-year- old athlete, who resumed his trek, crossing the Harlem River into Kingsbridge in the Bronx, then past Van Cortland Park, and across the city line. Though there were several miles left on day one of his great American walk, Weston had passed his first real test—the successful navigation of New York.

Reprinted with permission from Walk of Ages: Edward Payson Weston’s Extraordinary 1909 Trek Across America by Jim Reisler and published by University of Nebraska Press, 2015. 

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