Thursday, February 27, 2014

On this date in 1861...

Five days ago, I wrote about Edward Payson Weston's attempt to walk from Boston to Washington in ten days to witness Lincoln's inauguration. On this date (Feb. 27) in 1861, Weston reached New York City. The following is from my forthcoming book, Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport:
At 9:45 on the morning of Wednesday, February 27, five days after leaving Boston, Weston walked across the Harlem Bridge and entered Manhattan. His first stop was the offices of Grover & Baker, a sewing machine company that was his main sponsor. There he curled up on a table and took a nap. At five o’clock that evening he rode a ferry across the Hudson to Jersey City, New Jersey—his only respite from bipedal locomotion since setting out.
By now Weston’s walk was attracting considerable attention up and down the East Coast, and when he arrived in Newark the crowd that greeted him was so large and unruly that several policemen had to be called out to maintain order.

Weston captivated the country because the nation empathized with him. America was a walking nation in 1861. The overwhelming majority of people traveled primarily, if not exclusively, by foot. Only the wealthy could afford a carriage—or even a horse; a good one would set you back more than one hundred dollars, at a time when the typical laborer was lucky to earn a dollar a day. More than 80 percent of the population lived in rural areas, where public transportation was practically nonexistent. To put it in contemporary terms, the 1 percent sat when they traveled; the other 99 percent walked. Virtually everyone had, like Weston, trudged many miles over dreadful roads in harsh conditions, whether to attend services at a distant church or to fetch a doctor in the middle of the night.