A remarkable pedestrian: Edward Payson Weston (1839–1929)

Duncan R. Jamieson
Ashland University

Jim Reisler Walk of Ages: Edward Payson Weston's Extraordinary 1909 Trek Across America 240 sidor, inb., ill. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2015 ISBN 978-0-8032-9014-3
Jim Reisler
Walk of Ages: Edward Payson Weston’s Extraordinary 1909 Trek Across America
240 pages, hardcover, ill.
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2015
ISBN 978-0-8032-9014-3

I walked with my wife (then girlfriend) twelve miles from Ashland to Mansfield. Tim Morris walked with his son across New York’s Borough of Queens. Most years hikes or walks of a few to several miles are arranged for participants at the annual Sport Literature Association’s meeting. When in the early 1960s the White House staff uncovered an executive order from President Theodore Roosevelt to Marines that they should be able to march fifty miles in three days, President Kennedy sent his own executive order to the Marines to do such a march in one day. Being a fitness fanatic himself he joked that perhaps his own staff should be willing to do it. His brother Bobby, Attorney General, took up the offer and without any specific training set off at five a. m. with four aids. Two dropped out after twenty-five miles, the remaining two after thirty-five miles, but Bobby finished the jaunt. Pikers all.

A major sport in 19th century Great Britain and the United States was pedestrianism, with men setting out to complete walks of several hundred to a few thousand miles in a set number of days. Thousands of spectators gathered along the route to watch the pedestrians go by. People flocked to county fairgrounds to watch the walkists circle the track. Six day walks proved popular with the contestants walking prodigious distances with only a few naps a day. Walking was one of the most popular, and certainly most grueling athletic competitions of the day. Pedestrians earned money by winning bets, selling autographs or post cards or giving lectures along the route. Private citizens and businesses lined up to offer free food, drink or lodging for the privilege of having the sportsman under their roofs.

Walk of Ages is the biography of one pedestrian and his 1909 amble across the United States, from New York to San Francisco. It took one hundred four days to cover the 3,895 miles, an average of thirty-seven and a half miles[1] a day. Leaving on his birthday, March 15, meant he faced miles of walking through late winter snowstorms and roads he described as covered in “mucilage.” High winds often blew him across the roads he traipsed. Unfortunately the walkist bet he would complete the trek in one hundred days. The next year he reversed and shortened the course, expecting to complete 3,500 miles from San Francisco to New York in ninety days. This time he won, completing the distance in seventy-five days, averaging forty-six miles a day. Because he never walked on Sundays, due to a promise he had made to his mother, the average daily mileage was significantly higher, more than the average person today walks in a year. Some days he walked as far as seventy miles.

The next year he accepted a bet to walk from the Boston State House to the Capitol in Washington D.C. in ten days to attend the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.

If this isn’t amazing enough, he completed these two walks when he was seventy and seventy-one years of age. Though he had a pilot car to carry food and drink it often remained mired in mud as he trudged on ahead. In populated areas the local police kept the path open while Weston feared someone might accidently step on his foot. He had a unique gait as well as an interesting diet, consisting of several meals a day, beef and mutton among his favorite meats, but no pork. He loved pies and bread slathered in butter. He avoided fried and spicy food. He drank two or three quarts of liquid a day, favoring milk with an egg or two, or lemonade, sweet cider or root or ginger beer on a hot day. He never drank whiskey, but he did rub it on his feet after walking. He started each day with a cold bath.

Edward Payson Weston (1839-1929) is not one of the well-known athletes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Boxer Jack Johnson, cyclist Marshall “Major” Taylor, race car driver Barney Oldfield, or baseball great Ty Cobb spring immediately to mind. Though largely unknown and ignored today, Weston was a household word during his life as his walks filled the sports pages from coast to coast. Jim Reisler, author of eight baseball books, which explains the many analogies the author makes to the boys of summer, brings this fascinating character to life on the pages of Walk of Ages.

A sickly child, Weston started walking long distances in his teens when he had to retrieve a box of flowers he had forgotten to take off a delivery wagon. Walking rapidly uptown he found the wagon and saw the flowers safely to their destination. He knew he had a skill in fast walking; he needed to find a means to exploit it. The next year he accepted a bet to walk from the Boston State House to the Capitol in Washington D.C. in ten days to attend the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Though he didn’t win the bet, he did become a celebrity and discovered a means to travel and earn a living. Unfortunately, he never managed money well, frequently squandering what he earned.

He married and had a child, but like his lack of judgment with finances, he failed as both a husband and father. He and his wife separated but never divorced. Weston lived the remainder of his life with an Irish immigrant, Annie O’Hagan. He continued walking and celebrating life until hit by a taxi not long after his eighty-eighth birthday. The accident confined him to a wheelchair and he died two years later, aged ninety. He always walked with his “three musketeers,” pride, pluck and principle. Reisler describes Weston as an everyman, a rock star and a happening all rolled into one incredible human being.

Copyright © Duncan Jamieson 2015

[1] C. 60 kilometers.

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