Weston the Walkist: The Making of “The Pedestrian” (Part 1)

· Pedestrian History, Weston

Part 1 – The Making of “The Pedestrian”

The young William Payson Weston

Weston's account of his adventures while walking between Boston and Washington

Title page for William Payson Weston’s 1862 pamphlet that described the 1861 Walk

In this first section we’re benefited by Weston’s own self-reported pamphlet titled “The Pedestrian” which is primarily a journal of his walk from Boston to Washington, a distance of 478 miles in 10 days. The story is a log of his journey, which is supported by numerous newspaper articles of the day. True to his entrepreneurial nature, Weston wrote the story to earn money and to promote his new avocation of long distance walking. He added the section called “Pedestrian Adventures” as an epilogue about odd events that happened to him afterwards, including his role as a Union spy. We are left to wonder about veracity of the story as told by Weston.

However, the original nearly 500-mile walk proved important as it drew enormous popular attention to him and his physical accomplishment, which helped set the stage for him as a professional athlete and contribute to the coming age of popular sports and physical fitness.

Click here to view the original pamphlet

Click here to view Appendix 1 – A Chronological Summary of the 1863 Walk between Boston and Washington

A Pedestrian is Born

By all accounts, Weston always preferred to think big and to be adventurous. Described as a weak and sickly child, he nevertheless, overcame his physical limitations and continued to rigorously challenge himself throughout his life until his death at age 90. He noted one of his earliest challenges was at age 10 when he persuaded his mother to allow him to tour with theHutchinson Family Singers, considered to be one of the first popular American entertainers, selling candy and songbooks during performances. The group also promoted some of the more controversial themes of the day, such as abolition.

Photo of Hutchinson Family Singers 1845

The popular Hutchinson Family Singers – In 1849 Weston worked with them selling candies and songbooks

As an enterprising teenager, he published his account of his father’s adventures in California during the gold rush days, a very popular subject at the time. He would sell the pamphlet as a newsboy on the railroads. But his restlessness, and parental concern, caused him to try various jobs. He finally settled on selling, and sometimes writing, for books and newspapers. He even sold several popular stories his mother wrote, by traveling door-to-door, developing his walking skills along the way.In the mid-1800’s, at the birth of the railroads and before the inventions of the telephone, telegraph and automobile, foot travel was often a necessity to communicate and deliver important information quickly. Reporters relied on the hustle and ambition of their copyboys to deliver written stories quickly and dependably to the newsroom.

Ironically, it was a mistake that led to Weston’s initial success as a pedestrian. At the age of nineteen, while working as a copyboy for the New York Herald newspaper, Weston was charged with passing a box from the editor to a delivery service. The box contained flowers sent as a gift to the postmaster general in Washington D.C. When he realized that he had forgotten the important box, he raced by foot to catch the delivery wagon heading uptown. That effort so impressed his employer that he earned him an immediate reward of doubling his $3 per week salary and an opportunity to write about it in the newspaper. More importantly, that speedy delivery impressed upon him the idea that he could turn a hidden skill and his perseverance into valuable assets.

A Long Bet Against Lincoln

It was an odd challenge of his own making two years later that really brought national publicity and recognition to Weston. During the presidential election of 1860, Weston bet his friend George B. Eddy that if Lincoln won the election he would walk from Boston to Washington D.C., 478 miles, in 10 days to attend the presidential inauguration. Eddy agreed to do the same if Lincoln lost.

There was much tension during the election.The Democratic Party was in disarray in 1860 when they convened in Charleston, South Carolina. Southern states insisted that the nominating convention make a strong statement supporting slavery in the territories.Lincoln as a talented speaker, had a moderate position on slavery and could mount the best challenge to Douglas. The end result was that Lincoln easily won on electoral votes splitting with three other candidates but came in a close second with the popular vote. We do not know if Weston supported Lincoln or Douglas, but the popular results show that the race appeared to be close.

Poster for Presidential Election 1860

Poster of Republican Presidential Slate for election of 1860

The story goes that neither Weston nor Eddy thought the bet was serious. Lincoln won, of course, but Weston was taken by the challenge and his personal obligation and set his mind to accomplish the impossibly difficult task, a pattern that would appear again and again throughout the pedestrian’s lifetime.

What made the challenge even more formidable was that neither Weston nor anyone else in America was known to have walked such a distance. Even horses usually needed to be exchanged along such a long route. The plan also implied walking this distance in the middle of the winter, and at a politically charged time when several Southern States seceded from the Union that January. Loyalties were frayed and war looked eminent as Lincoln took on the Presidency.

But Weston remained persistent and felt confident after accomplishing two trial walks between Hartford and New Haven that January by covering 36 miles or more on each of four days. During those walks he even managed to deliver hundreds of circulars door-to-door along the way and thus earn money for his efforts. Apparently, he had learned his entrepreneurial and publicity lessons well.

Perhaps it was his understanding of the newspaper business that helped land his story in the press. Even The New York Times (January 31, 1861) noted his recent feat in Connecticut and the one he was about to undertake. And soon the word of the walk from Boston to Washington spread all along the east coast. Towns became obsessed with seeing the “pedestrian”. It was an impractically bold challenge, without a precedent.

Financing the Trip

On the practical side, how could this 21-year old afford such a trip? As he planned this event, he realized that he needed a companion to vouch for his accomplishment and provide assistance. Undeterred by a lack of funds, he created a way to finance his adventure that demonstrated his resourcefulness.

Weston hatched a plan where George Whiting, a New Haven businessman, who would supply a horse, coach and driver to accompany him. But, Weston also had to fund all the other expenses along the way. With less than a month away, he headed to New York City with a plan to find companies that would pay for his newly discovered marketing skills – distributing thousands of advertisements cards, flyers and pamphlets over a long distance. He literally would become a walking promoter for their products.



During the business trip to New York he contracted with a sewing machine company, druggist, photographer and rubber suit company (rain gear retailer) to distribute advertising material to every house he passed between Boston and Washington – except for those passed on Sunday. (Throughout all of Weston’s exploits, he insisted that Sunday be reserved as a day of rest and limited his activities.) With his financial problems appeared to be addressed, he headed for Boston to begin the journey.

Planning a Walk from Boston to Washington

Weston’s detailed log for his 10-day walk tells of meeting crowds of well-wishers almost in every town along the way and of the logistical and physical challenges of the trip. He would be traveling mostly through well established populated areas and commercial roads.

Some of the truly puzzling moments are when he describes how he overcomes nearly being arrested twice for debts he owed and yet receiving so much generous hospitality from many individuals. He appears to be cared for and honored, almost without expense, for much of the trip.

Did he anticipate such a reception? How did a 21-year old young man plan for such a complicated journey in such a short period of time? The journal of the walk leads us to believe that he had set up a number of influential contacts along the way. If so, how did he have such an extensive network of contacts? We may never know what led to the enormous public excitement almost everywhere he went. Was it just a wanting public enamored with a young, handsome celebrity passing through? Or, was it a carefully staged publicity tour that Weston orchestrated. Most likely, it was some combination of the two.

A Gloriously Rough Start

Old State House Boston

Old State House (mid 1800s)

Weston, having publicized his plan for the walk, arrived at the State House in Boston on Friday, February 22, 1861 to start his famous 10-day 478-mile walk to Washington. His plan called for a truly ambitious schedule where he would arrive at the Presidential Inauguration ceremony on March 4th. That left little or no room for unplanned activities or unexpected incidents along the way. At that rate he would be averaging nearly 50 miles each day.

As the large crowd gathered to see him off, he was faced with a constable and attorney greeting him with claims that had been filed against him for money he owed others. After pleading his circumstances and arguing that the only hope for making payment was in completing the walk, he was able to convince them to let him continue. And, his walk began one hour behind schedule. There would be another situation in Worcester the next day where the local authorities held up Weston for another debt. That incident caused even more delay. Again, Weston was able to talk his way out of it by claiming he would repay the debt after the walk was completed. Apparently, Weston proved to be as adventurous a financier as he was a daring walker. He knew how to get funding when he needed it and to keep his creditors at bay.

Handling the Crowds

Weston probably had some idea that he would be a popular celebrity, but it’s doubtful he could have anticipated the enormous crowds reported in almost every town along the way. This attention required him to pay respects to his fans and hosts, sometimes just slowing down and waving, other times eating and socializing or even giving speeches. All this attention must have been gratifying but also anxiety-building as he had to pace himself to meet his schedule or end up failing to meet his self-determined goal.

Weston tells of incidents where the crowds followed him or asked to walk with him. This must have slowed down his pace. There were many brass bands and ceremonies. Weston also spent time with his friends, sponsors and benefactors along the way.

As his trip went on, he fell behind schedule for a number of reasons. Due to limited means of communications at the time, crowds might be waiting for hours, or even ceremonies cancelled, not knowing when the famous “pedestrian” would arrive.Unpredictability probably led to even more excitement when he would finally appear.

Sleeping and Eating

Weston appeared to follow a loose plan for sleeping and eating where he scheduled a stop or stay at a hotel, more often as a complimentary guest. While he no doubt cherished the publicity he was receiving, his hosts probably welcomed the honor and recognition he brought with him to their establishment.

For the entire trip there was no more than 5 hours at a time when he slept. More often was the one to three-hour nap that he took a couple of times a day. Napping tended to rejuvenate him sufficiently. But over a few days, he required a longer sleep, a bath and even a massage to help keep him going.

Food was consumed often and seemed to be offered frequently by his hosts. His meals ranged from breakfast to lunch or even a large dinner with guests. Weston would talk later of a limited diet needed to accomplish his impressive feats, but here he seemed to be accommodating what his hosts provided.

Overcoming Exhaustion, Pain and Breakdown

Considering the time of the year, the various hours of the ten consecutive days, and the rough roads he faced, it was a wonder that Weston made the final goal of walking over 478 miles (actually 510 miles if extra miles walked are included.) During the walk he complained several times according to his record of knee and ankle pain but always seemed to work through it. When a combination of pain and exhaustion overtook him, he even appeared to be close to giving up, but he still carried on by his strong will to succeed.

While his physical problems slowed him down temporarily, it was a horse in his party that gave out 30 miles outside of Washington that caused his last delay. He decided to walk several miles out of the way to try to acquire a new horse but his efforts failed and he was ultimately forced to abandon his team and finish the last leg of the journey on his own, traveling at a blistering pace as he tried to make up time at the end.

Inaugural Blues

Lincoln's Inauguration - March 4, 1861

Crowd gathered for Abraham Lincoln’s Inauguration on steps of the Capital Building, Washington DC

According to Weston’s log, “He touched the back of the Capitol just as the clock struck 5:00 p.m….in ten consecutive days, four hours and twelve minutes.” Unfortunately, that was four hours late for the official Inauguration ceremony!

After a brief few hours for recovery, he attend an Inaugural ball that night before he retired although he didn’t stay long and retired for a long twelve-hour sleep before returning to the Capital to meet his friends, the press and several politicians. Congressman Robinson of Rhode Island introduced him to Stephan A. Douglas. A few evenings later Douglas would introduce him to President and Mrs. Lincoln who seemed to be surprised about his endurance. The President offered to pay for his trip back to Boston but Weston claimed he had failed because he did not meet his exact goal and would try again by walking from Washington to Boston.

A Walk Back Home is Cancelled

As Weston remained in Washington for a while, he became determined to walk back in ten consecutive days and set the date to be April 23rd. The political upheaval around him soon forced him to rethink his plans.

Lincoln had already set the stage for the beginning of the Civil War. He insisted on freedom for the slaves and that no state should secede from the Union. The Southern States grew restless and resented federal control. Lincoln soon called up 75,000 soldiers from the Massachusetts and New York regiments to travel to Washington in anticipation of the conflict. With an indirect rail service around Baltimore, the troops were forced to march through the city and face hostile secessionists who tried to keep the troops from reaching Washington

Baltimore Riots - April 19, 1861

A clash between pro-South civilians and Union troops in Maryland’s largest city resulted in what is commonly accepted to be the first bloodshed of the Civil War.

Clash between pro-South and Union troops resulted in the first bloodshed of the Civil War. The Baltimore Riot broke out on April 19th with four soldiers and twelve citizens killed and scores injured. It was the first blood shed of the Civil War. Communications were breaking down. Maryland would be a state that split its allegiance for both causes, with many families torn between both sides of the battle. The route Weston had walked only weeks ago could no longer be trusted for a peaceful walk.

Walking the Spy Game

In the same pamphlet that described his long walk, he provides an afterword called a “Walk in Disguise Through Baltimore.” Caught up in the excitement of the brewing Civil War atmosphere, and unable to perform his return walk, Weston found himself shortly in New York ready to performa mission that required his particular skills. It’s a story of how he quickly became a Union spy. His mission: deliver 117 letters from New York destined for the Massachusetts and New York regiments. The mail service could not be trusted to bringing mail to Washington, especially through Baltimore, for the Union troops.

To do this, he had to secure the services of the clothier Brooks Brothers in New York City to provide him a riverman’s outfit as a disguise and to have the letters sewn into his coat. All this sounds almost too strange to be true, but it was said that he may have performed his duties as a spy as a favor for President Lincoln and a way to do his patriotic part. There does not seem to be any other explanation as to why he did not enlist.

The Secret Walk to Washington

On the 26th of April, Weston had gotten a ride to Philadelphia from New York and began to walk alone in the middle of the night toward Washington. The journey started on the same route he had taken weeks ago during his famous walk. His first stop was the town of Media, 14 miles away, where he stayed at the Charter House and received additional special letters to be delivered to George N. Harrington, the Secretary of the Treasury. When he awoke a crowd was prepared again to honor him, even though he thought he remained undetected. This experience forced him to take an alternate route 9 miles north on the Susquehanna where he felt he could cross the river without being recognized.

Rafts Along the Susquehanna River

Weston needed to cross the Susquehanna River via raft. He was dressed as a riverman.

After hopping a train and befriending the conductor, he was aided with room and board by some Union sympathizers in Oxford. He was warned that it was dangerous to be out alone. But began walking toward Peach Bottom on his way to Baltimore. Alternately, hiding and walking on a main road he came across a farmer, a Confederate sympathizer, who tried to hire him as a farm hand and led him away several miles from the Conowingo Bridge which crossed the Susquehanna River. However, the bridge was guarded to prevent Pennsylvania troops from crossing to Maryland.

Weston, quickly assessing the situation, dropped back and decided the better course of action was to go upstream to Peach Bottom and find a boat he could use to secretly cross, rather than to be discovered. After walking, then securing a place to sleep , he headed 50 miles to Baltimore. The city was guarded day and night to prevent soldiers and spies from entering. Yet Weston was able to pass through the city avoiding a couple of situations where he was nearly caught.

Ironically, it was twenty miles past Baltimore where his troubles began. A guard from the 69th Regiment of New York questioned him. Weston could now tell of his mission but the soldiers were reluctant to believe him and wanted to confirm his story. For some reason, he was then put into the guardhouse cell to be held until they could corroborate his story. Luckily, his fame paid off as an officer recognized him from his long walk and arranged to grant him some rights but still have him under guard until Colonel Corcoran arrived. After a review of the situation, Weston became a guest instead of a prisoner. Obviously, these were times of great suspicion, not able to tell easily who’s side of the conflict a person might be on. Weston was soon on a train to Annapolis then to Washington where he delivered the letters.

A return walk was planned for 1862 from Washington to Boston which Weston optimistically planned to complete in 8 days instead of 10. His planned walk from Washington to Boston would have bettered his ten-day performance by two days – an average of 62 miles each day! However, it appears Weston had an accident on the second day along the Susquehanna River which caused him to cancel his plan. He was hoping to pay back his debtors and regain his fame. Chances are that the Civil War caused a change in his plan too and several years would go by before the country would hear from him again. We can only assume that during that time he righted his debts.

Weston would eventually take a job, apparently in the publishing business in New York, and settle eight miles away along the Hudson, where he would walk to work at a pace “faster than the trolleys”. But in 1867, it would be an even bolder self-proclaimed challenge to walk over 1,226 miles in 30 days that would bring fame again – and this time fortune – to “the pedestrian.”

Weston the Walkist: Appendix 1 – A Chronological Summary of the 1863 Walk between Boston and Washington

Weston the Walkist: Prolog

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