Walking Across America: The Forgotten Feats of Edward Payson Weston

Edward Payson Weston, professional pedestrian and celebrity in his time, left Manhattan on his seventieth birthday to walk across America.

  • Walking Across America
    "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."
    Photo by Fotolia/jessicahyde
  • Walk of Ages
    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.
    Cover courtesy University of Nebraska Press

  • Walking Across America
  • Walk of Ages

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.

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