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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Famed Walker Passed Through Cuba, NY in 1909

By Dave Crowley
Cuba Town and Village Historian
Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved by the author.

There was a time in the Victorian era when “long distance” athletes were attracting the attention of thousands of people across the country. That was when “professional pedestrianism” was in its heyday. And the greatest walker of that era was Edward Payson Weston who passed through Cuba, NY at least once. This is evidenced in the photo above. My grandfather, Fordyce F. Hammond,(#1 in the photo at far left) was among those who witnessed his trek through Cuba where he posed for a picture at the Erie Railroad Depot. Others identified in the photo with Mr. Weston (#9) are #5, Mr. Ringrose and #11 Art Bernard.

It was the election Abraham Lincoln that unknowingly put Weston on the road to fame. Weston lost a bet with a friend on the outcome of the 1860 US Presidential election, which Lincoln won. As the loser of the bet Weston was to walk 478 miles from Boston to Washington to attend Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861.

He began his payoff walk at Boston’s State House at one o’clock, February 22nd, which gave him 10 days to hike the 478 miles to the Capitol. He was then 22 years old, weighed 130 lbs., and was 5’7” tall. He pegged off the first five miles in just 47 minutes before settling into a steady 3.25 miles per hour pace. At every town throngs waited for him and cheered him on. A serious delay took place outside of Leicester, Mass., where he encountered foot-deep snows and fell down several times. He kept plodding on arriving in New York the morning of February 27.

Weston followed no set routine. Sometimes, after a quick nap on a kitchen table in a friendly farmhouse, he would start out walking again at midnight often grabbing a moment to sleep alongside the road. His longest break at a Trenton, NJ tavern was less than 6 hours. Most of the time he ate on the walk, eating sandwiches and doughnuts offered by people as he went by. Once a day he would sit down to a full meal. On March 1, 1861 after an all-night walk he reached Baltimore where he ate breakfast and immediately started out in a driving rain over muddy roads on the final lap of his journey. He made it to the Capitol on March 4 at 5 p.m., too late to see Lincoln sworn in but not too late for the Inaugural Ball, which he had enough strength to attend that night.

He had finished the journey in only 10 days, thus becoming a prime mover in the sport of pedestrianism, a sport that was taking the Victorian world by storm. During his athletic career he covered tens of thousands of miles, drawing very large paying crowds.

Nicknamed “The Yankee Clipper” Weston was a family man, married with three children who adored him. He was forever concocting schemes to make them rich. But he was also a charmer, a hit with the ladies who flocked to see him. His roving eye eventually led to the break-up of his marriage, and to at least one illegitimate child, and to mortal danger. At one stage late in life he survived being shot.

Weston was born in Providence, Rhode Island on March 15, 1839. He was a direct descendant of two Mayflower pilgrims (and as such, related to 20 million contemporary Americans). Weston’s father, Silas, was a teacher, merchant and adventurer while his mother, Maria, wrote poetry and novels as well as raising four children. Weston was a small, sickly child who grew into a boy who ran away with a circus, into a teenager who ran his own publishing business and into a man who ran his life on a head full of dreams.

He married. He suffered family tragedies. He racked up debts as a hapless businessman, but the lure of a $20,000 prize pot drew him into what would become a lifetime of walking for cash.

In 1867 he walked 1,226 miles from Portland to Chicago in 30 days. That trek was a rollercoaster of hysteria, death threats, very bad weather, riots and glory. From controversy to curiosity, Weston attempted time and distance records, took on all comers (if the purse was right) and toured America as a lecturer and an exhibitionist. Critics didn’t believe the hype, so Weston responded by walking 100 miles indoors under test conditions, then became the first man to cover 400 miles in five days, and the first to walk 500 miles inside six days.

Over the years he competed in many walks, both in this country and in England where he met with success victorious in beating several famed walkers from the British Isles. His achievements were widely lauded.

Weston announced his retirement in 1886, but it was neither peaceful nor permanent. His marriage to Maria was a tenuous union, uniting them with “shackles they both hated”, and Weston, aged 54, walked out for good in 1893. He took up with a mistress known in variously as a niece, nurse, secretary or distant younger relative. He also resumed his walking career.

In 1896, aged 57, he tried to repeat his feat of walking 112 miles within 24 hours, done 22 years earlier. In front of society friends, industrialists, magnates and the president of the NYC police, Theodore Roosevelt, Weston broke down after 103 miles and tearfully declared “I am a fool” and “that to fail breaks my heart”.

His spirit was not broken however. At age 68, in 1907, he repeated an earlier trek from Portland to Chicago, beating his time of 40 years before. In 1909, on his 70th birthday, he began a 4,000 mile walk from New York to San Francisco, a journey he completed inside 105 days at a time when the record in a motor car was 15 days. In 1910, he walked the other way, a 3,100-mile trek from California to New York, completed on 3 May 1910, took him just 76 days, 23 hours and 10 minutes. He was then 71 years old. Newspapers of the day reported that Five hundred thousand people crammed New York’s greatest thoroughfare that day to see him walk past the cheering crowd. “The ovation which he received was the greatest ever accorded to any man not connected with public life” according to one newspaper of the day.

In his 80s he undertook challenges of up to 500 miles, and at 85 he survived being shot in a raid on his rural home during an incident that was almost certainly related to his love life.

In his final years, broke and increasingly frail, Weston was supported by a trust fund established by a playwright, Anne Nichols. On his 88th birthday, he was still well enough to attend a birthday luncheon hosted by the mayor of New York.

Weston regularly expounded his view that walking was an antidote to a sedentary lifestyle and to the “lazy culture” encouraged by cars. In a cruelly ironic twist, a week after his 88th birthday, in 1927, he was knocked down by a taxi in a Brooklyn Street. He was then confined to a wheel chair and never walked again.

Edward Payson Weston, the world’s greatest walker died on 12 May 1929. He is buried a St. John’s Episcopal Church Columbarium in Brooklyn, NY.

About the author: Mr. Crowley has been a successful businessman in Cuba having once owned, for many years, the Cuba Patriot and Free Press weekly newspaper. He has also owned and operated an insurance and real estate agency, and with his wife Sandy operated a clothing store in Cuba. He retired in 2009 from ACCORD Corporation, the county’s community action agency, where he served as Information Services Director and Volunteer Coordinator for the Community Action Angels program. He is currently serving on the Cuba Rushford Central School Board of Education, and is a trustee of Our Lady of the Angels Church in Cuba and the Allegany County Federal Credit Union (ALCO) board of directors. He is also currently the Historian for the Town and Village of Cuba and has served in the past on the board of trustees of the Cuba Circulating Library Association, and as a board member of the Allegany County Industrial Development Agency. He has been an officer of Our Lady of Angels parish council, the Cuba Chamber of Commerce and the Cuba Rod and Gun Club.

1 comment:

  1. Weston lived on Weston Road in Esopus, NY (90 miles north of NYC) in the early 1920s. My grandfather workd for him and my father told me about Weston. Those stories usually included the incident of his attack and wounding. I've written about my father's memories of him in