Footsteps: Steel-strong legs, cash bets, health-consciousness and a taste for publicity made Edward Payson Weston a 19th century minor celebrity.


December 22, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff

THE DAY Lincoln was inaugurated president, a young man ate breakfast at 5 a.m. in Baltimore and continued his walk from Boston to the celebration in Washington.

The next day, March 5, 1861, The Baltimore Sun reported both events. On Page 1.

Lincoln got the bigger play. But Edward Payson Weston got 30 lines of Baltimore type and, because of public enthusiasm all along his 478-mile walk in ten days, began a public career of long-distance walking that is hard to imagine today.

His cross-country adventures went on for more than a half a century. Propelled by steel-strong legs, cash bets, self-promotion and infatuation with health, Weston became one of the famous minor figures in American history.

He walked coast to coast, when 70 and 71, in 104 days and 76 days.

It was a time when people paid good money to watch other people walk in circles. In the 1870's, race walks were held in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute, the Masonic Temple, Kernan's Gardens. Tens of thousands watched races in Madison Square Garden.

Unknown today except to students of heel-and-toeing, Weston was described routinely as "the world's greatest pedestrian." He was to the athletic world what Jared R. Beads, "the human running machine," was to Maryland's running community in recent decades.

Beads, who died this summer at 68 after a stroke, was in the Guinness World Book of Records for five years for one of many activities: the world's longest nonstop run. In 1969 round and round Dulaney High School's track, Beads ran 121 miles, 440 yards in 22 hours, 27 minutes.

Weston would have loved it. Or said he could go further faster. If both men were alive, Weston would have challenged Beads to an endurance race.

Marathon walking was momentarily revived three decades ago. President Kennedy challenged military people to do 50-mile marches. Barbara Moore, 56, of England, was a famous pedestrian who in 1960 walked 3,387 miles from San Francisco to New York in 85 days.

While the Weston career lasted, the press covered him everywhere, sometimes calling him just "Weston the Pedestrian" "Weston the Walker" in the first reference.

The New York Times published maps and schedules when Weston went walking. The Sun carried "special dispatches" with headlines like "Good Old Man Weston," "Weston Gamely Goes On," "Weston on Last Lap" and "Weston Gets There."

Weston usually got there.

Some treks he did twice 40-odd years apart, the second faster than the first. Twice he walked from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in 26 days. Twice he walked from Philadelphia to New York in 23 hours.

When 75, he walked from New York to Minneapolis in 51 days. He walked from Canada to Mexico. He walked 5,000 miles in 100 days in England. He walked endlessly around tracks in six-day races attracting big paying crowds.

Outside on the open road, fans treated him as a baseball star. But he often walked alone. Once he was mistakenly arrested in St. Louis as "an escaped lunatic" and released. Some said the arrest and characterization were not in error.

Spectators along his routes on roads or railroad tracks came to recognize the Weston look: the handlebar mustache, puttees (tight leggings from ankle to knee), swagger stick, pack and serious forward motion.

And the bravado, seen in his first paragraph in one Times dispatch: "I am now resting up after the most triumphal walk I have ever made, one series of ovations from Portland, Me., to Chicago, Ill." Yet he was also self-deprecating, speaking of "errors" after some treks, and often walked for good causes.

Called "Hard as nails," Weston speed-walked 12- and 15-hour days on roads. His 5-foot, 7-inch, 150-pound frame averaged 40 miles daily but could step off 60 miles easily. He never walked for money on Sunday, a promise to his mother. He often walked until midnight, cadging beds at night from strangers eager to host the celebrity.

He walked fast, bent slightly forward, with "an elastic swinging stride." He once covered 550 miles in 144 hours in Agricultural Hall, London, and won "the famous Astley Belt." Other years he also lost it to some tough foes including his archrival, Daniel O'Leary.

Weston was not easily categorized. After walks, he sometimes lectured on temperance but he was not a total abstainer from liquor. He did have rules: He never drank in a bar.

In that first big march that made him famous in 1861, Weston spent parts of two days in Maryland after betting a friend he would walk from Boston to Washington for Lincoln's inauguration.

He crossed the Susquehanna at Port Deposit, continued to Churchville, Abingdon and Baltimore, "reaching the Eutaw House Baltimore and Eutaw streets] at ten minutes before 5 o'clock yesterday morning, where he breakfasted and proceeded on his journey at 6 o'clock," The Sun reported.

"The young man probably reached the goal of his ambition yesterday about in time to witness the inauguration ceremonies, which was necessary to the fulfillment of the obligations of the wager entered into."

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