Great Strides: Edward Payson Weston Was ‘World’s Greatest Pedestrian’
Great Strides is an occasional feature of The Trek exploring some of the greatest walks and walkers in history, literature, and film.
On Sunday, March 28, 1909, The New York Times reported on the latest adventure of Edward Payson Weston, who had set out from the city earlier that month, intending to walk almost 4,000 miles to San Francisco — in 100 days.
“Having exceeded the allotted span of threescore years and ten, one conception of this famous walker would be that of the white-haired veteran of the roads resting before a cheery fire in slippered feet,” the reporter wrote. “But instead, we now see him in his seventy-first year trudging through rain and mud and negotiating more miles a day than the vast majority of half his age could accomplish.”
Though others had previously claimed the feat, Weston’s 1909 journey is now widely recognized as the first documented trans-US walk. While he just missed his 100-day goal, the following year he walked 3,611 miles from California to New York in a shade under 90 days.
Though known during his life as the “world’s greatest pedestrian” and credited with inspiring a brief surge in competitive, long-distance “race-walking” events in the 1860s and ‘70s, Weston’s name is little known among today’s thru-hikers and ultra-athletes.
500 Miles for Lost Bet
Weston was an accomplished walker decades before his cross-country feat.
Born March 15, 1839, in Providence, Rhode Island, he was somewhat frail as a boy and not noted for athletic feats. But at age 22, in payment for a lost bet on who would win the presidential election, he had to walk from Boston to Washington, D.C. to the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. He completed the 478 miles in 10 days and 10 hours, averaging more than 43 miles a day and arriving just in time to attend the inaugural ball.
Six years later, he walked from Portland, Maine to Chicago, covering 1,326 miles in 24 days, 22 hours, and 40 minutes, winning a prize of $10,000 (about $175,000 in today’s dollars).
For a time, he walked competitively in Europe. In 1879, he defeated British “racewalking” champion “Blower” Brown and won the “prestigious Astley Belt” by walking 550 miles in 141 hours and 44 minutes — just under six days.
At age 67, Weston repeated his Maine to Chicago walk, besting his 1867 time by more than 24 hours. The next year, he walked from Philadelphia to New York to become the first person to walk 100 miles in less than 24 hours.
40 Years in the Making
Weston had first publicly pondered a walk across the United States in 1869.
“The newspapers had jeered at the suggestion and said the Apaches would get him,” Nick Harris writes in A Man in a Hurry: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Edward Payson Weston, the World’s Greatest Walker, “but it was an irresistible challenge.”
By the time Weston actually took up the challenge, Native American attacks were no longer a concern. In 1909, he announced he would start from New York on March 15, his 70th birthday. He planned to walk on “dirt road turnpikes” and railroad rights-of-way, using a support team — what ultrarunners would today call “crew” — following along in a car.
“Towns and villages would become few and far between as he reached the West and only a few hundred miles of road were paved, the rest were clay, sand and loose stones,” Harris writes.
Weston left lower Manhattan at 4:30 p.m., wearing a lightweight blue coat, riding pants, leggings and a broad-brim felt hat. Instead of striking out west, where he would run headlong into the Pocono Mountains, he went north into the heart of a still-raging winter.
He hit the Kansas plains in May, where he walked alone under a blazing hammer of sunlight.
“It was a pathetic sight,” one motorist reported, “to see the old man coming across the prairie.”
But Weston found the Sunflower State “beautiful and health-giving … a paradise” where “someone would inevitably appear with some refreshing drink” as soon as he arrived in a town or village.
Mosquitoes and Hoboes
Colorado opened Weston’s eyes to the caprices of weather on the high plains. “The people east of Chicago have no idea of the force and magnitude of the elements in the West,” he wrote in one of his regular Times dispatches.
To avoid the Rockies, Weston walked north to Wyoming and crossed the Continental Divide in the Red Desert, bisecting the route of today’s Continental Divide Trail. Just past Hanna, Wyoming, he fell and cut his stomach on a glass bottle he’d been carrying.
Throughout his walk, the Times dutifully printed his updates on page one, with headlines that often made his journey seem excruciatingly uncomfortable: Weston Struggles in Gales and Drifts … Mosquitoes Like Weston … Weston Without Shoes … Weston Beats Hoboes (he outraced two threatening figures, but did not physically beat them).
“Two weeks in the Great American Desert,” he wrote from near Lovelock, Nevada. “Is it any wonder I long for something else than sand, alkali, tremendous heat, mosquitoes, and sage brush. There is nothing here that tends to encouragement or induce pleasant walking.”
He finally arrived in San Francisco at 11 p.m. on July 14, after 105 days of walking, bitterly excoriating himself for missing his goal and calling the walk “a wretched failure.” He rued using “a miserable and worthless automobile to convey my attendants” and argued that he should have walked from west to east, with prevailing winds at his back.
He vowed to do just that, as soon as possible, proclaiming he would show “how easy it be for anyone to walk from San Francisco to New York by direct route within 100 secular (e.g. all but Sunday) days.”
After securing the promise of a $500 prize for each day he shaved off his 106-day goal, he left Santa Monica, California on Feb. 1, 1910. He walked into New York City on May 2, with 13 days to spare.
“It was a great walk, all right,” he told reporters, “and I’m glad it has ended as happily as it has. It’s good to be back, and I guess I’ve taken my last walk. It’s up to the young men now.”
But he wasn’t quite done. In 1913, he walked 1,546 miles from New York to Minneapolis in 51 days and in 1922, hiked 500 miles from New York to Buffalo, at age 82.
A Long Decline
Then Weston retired to a home in the country, where, in 1924, the Times reported he was attacked and shot by a “gang that stormed the house.” However, some media reported rumors that local residents had beat him up, outraged that he lived with an unmarried 40-year-old woman named Annie and an eight-year-old boy named Raymond whom the unconventional couple had adopted.
Whatever the truth, Weston’s injuries were real, and triggered his slow decline. In 1926, he was locked up in the “psychopathic ward” at Bellevue Hospital after he was found wandering and incoherent in New York. After his release, Weston, Annie, and Raymond moved to the city, where he later suffered a stroke and was paralyzed after being struck by a taxicab. He died in his sleep on May 12, 1929.
“Weston had once reckoned that he had walked more than 90,000 miles in his career, not including the distances he walked on his days off,” Harris writes. “He was, for a time, one of the most famous men in the Western world. … By the time he died … pedestrian competitions were part of a quaint old America like velocipedes and floor-length skirts, baseball and football had conquered all.”
- A Man in a Hurry: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Edward Payson Weston, the World’s Greatest Walker by Nick Harris
- The New York Times‘ searchable TimesMachine archive
- “Edward Payson Weston’s 1909 Walk Across America” by Davy Crocket, ultrarunninghistory.com
- Walk of Ages: Edward Payson Weston’s Extraordinary 1909 Trek Across America by Jim Reisler
More from the Great Strides Series
Featured image: Map showing route of Edward Payson Weston’s first cross-country hike in 1909.
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