On May 6, 1896, 36-year-old suffragist Helga Estby (1860-1942) and her 18-year-old daughter Clara (1877-1950) begin an unescorted trek from their home in Mica Creek to New York City. Their walk is a publicity wager that they expect will bring them $10,000 and save their family farm from foreclosure. Following the railroad tracks east, they will walk between 25 to 35 miles a day on a seven-month trip across 1890s America. They will cross mountains, battle severe storms, survive bitter cold and heat waves, encounter hobos and highwaymen, a mountain lion, and rattlesnakes. Along the way they will meet famous politicians, Native Americans, journalists, and suffragists, collecting autographs of many notables. Helga and Clara will keep a trip journal that they hope to publish. Surviving the trip of 4,600 miles, they will reach New York on December 23, 1896, only to find no cash prize at the end of their amazing journey.
In 1892, Norwegian immigrants Helga and Ole Estby (1848-1913) purchased 160 acres of farm land in the town of Mica Creek, 25 miles southeast of Spokane, an enclave referred to as "Little Norway" (Columbia, p. 35). A farm would hopefully provide for their large and growing family of 10. By 35 years of age, Helga had given birth to 10 children. Eight were still living.
But by April 1893, a national credit shortage triggered a deep economic depression. Banks closed, thousands of businesses went bankrupt, railroads failed and unemployment was high. No government relief funds existed and it would take at least five years before the U.S. economy improved. Due to a back injury, Ole was temporarily limited in his ability to do physical labor and, as the economy worsened, he borrowed against the property, a loan he could not repay. By 1896 the Estby family was in danger of losing their farm.
The hard times called for unusual courage. Helga's own health had been in delicate balance as well, but she decided something extraordinary needed to be done and devised a plan.
Helga was an outspoken supporter of woman suffrage. She believed that women were capable of doing anything men could do, and thought of a way to raise a large sum of cash and, at the same time, draw nationwide attention to the suffrage cause. She was inspired by journalist Nellie Bly (1864-1922), who traveled around the world and wrote about it. Helga arranged with a party (or parties) in New York that she would walk from Spokane to New York City in seven months, a distance of more than 4,000 miles. Although it was not part of the contract and wager, Helga also began to dream of publishing a book, based on the journals she would keep of their trip.
Announcement of this plan must have startled her family and neighbors. While attitudes toward women were certainly changing, it was commonly held at the time that physical exercise was damaging to women's health, particularly those of childbearing age. A woman's place was still believed to be in the home, with her family. But Helga was a highly determined person on a crusade. The trip would show the nation that women could make the trip.
Helga chose her shy and level-headed 18-year-old daughter Clara to accompany her, which may have partially relieved family worries. At least Helga would not be traveling alone and Clara was dependable. Helga and the sponsor in New York agreed to a contract stipulating that if Helga and Clara successfully reached their destination in time, they would receive $10,000 -- a huge sum in 1896.
Preparing to Walk
In signing the contract, Helga agreed to walk unescorted and not beg along the way but instead to work for food, lodging, and clothing. It is unclear who the sponsoring party was, but Helga several times spoke of a connection made through the help of an East Coast acquaintance. Helga expertly staged the event herself, wisely assuming that public awareness would increase as she and Clara spoke with reporters in major cities along the way.
Helga and Clara officially kicked off their departure with a stop at the Spokesman Review in Spokane to announce their planned journey and then returned home to spend one last night with their family before leaving the following morning. That day, May 5, the Spokesman Review announced their departure and Spokane Mayor H. N. Belt (b. 1841) wrote a letter of introduction, which was also signed by the state treasurer and stamped with the state seal.
The two traveled light. In their satchels they carried a compass, a map, a revolver, a pepper gun and powder to thwart possible attackers, a knife, a notebook and pen, and Helga's curling iron. Helga and Clara had a mother-daughter studio portrait taken in Spokane that was made into carte de visite prints that they planned to sell as souvenirs. They also carried calling cards that read: "H. Estby and daughter. Pedestrians, Spokane to New York." That, and $5.00 cash.
On departure, day, Helga and Clara wore long gray dresses and high boots. They would change clothes in Salt Lake City and for the remainder of the trip, wear a new short skirt designed for the new craze, bicycle riding. Before trip's end, they would wear out 32 pairs of shoes.Along the Way
By the 1890s the railroads ran from coast to coast and portions of the track were still fairly new. To keep from getting lost, the Estbys walked rail lines, first the Northern Pacific to the Union Pacific, then the Rock Island line to the Burlington and Reading, giving them access to some railroad section houses. More often, citizens gave them overnight lodging. Such was the code of hospitality in 1896 America and surprisingly Helga and Clara spent only nine nights without shelter. To pay for a stay, they cooked, cleaned, and sewed. Most days they walked 25 to 35 miles and when they arrived in a city or town, they first headed to the local newspaper office to talk with reporters. They sent occasional progress reports to the New York sponsor.
Helga and Clara had to battle extreme weather: snow in the mountains, heat in the plains, flash floods, and washed out bridges. An encounter with a persistent tramp near La Grande, Oregon, led Clara to shoot him in the leg, a story Helga relayed to a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune. This incident gave rise to their press image as tough women of the Wild West. However, although basic facts often varied in newspaper accounts, each described mother and daughter as articulate, well-educated, intelligent women who expected to be given $10,000 if they reached New York by a specified date.
By the time they arrived in Pennsylvania, they were greeted as celebrities. Citizens were amazed that they had come so far. Helga and Clara collected the autographs of many notables along their way including governors and mayors in Utah, Colorado, Iowa, Chicago, and Pennsylvania, populist General Jacob Coxey (1854-1951), and presidential candidate William McKinley (1843-1901). They also visited the wife of McKinley's opponent, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). Bryan himself was away at the time, campaigning.
Clara sprained an ankle in Pennsylvania and Helga wrote to their sponsor requesting a few days' extension of time so that Clara could heal.
Winning and Losing
Helga and Clara arrived in New York City on Wednesday, December 23, 1896. They were then shocked to learn that they would not get the $10,000. Possibly the sponsor had not expected them to succeed and did not have the money to pay them. The facts are not known.
The trip had expanded their own worlds and had certainly proven the great endurance of women. And although Clara frequently told reporters she was weary of the trip, in the end, the experience gave her, as she expressed it, a rare and excellent education. They had proven their own capabilities, achieving something even most men would never have tried. Yet they failed to save the farm.
Many questions remain. It is possible that the sponsor had no money to offer them, but it is difficult to understand why he or she did not provide them with the money to get home safely. To make matters even worse, Helga's written journals disappeared in New York, either misplaced or stolen.
Then Helga and Clara received tragic news from home. Diphtheria had taken the lives of two of the Estby children. Ole and the family had had to cope with the tragedy without them. To most 1890s Americans, Helga's trip was reckless family abandonment and folly.
Now, destitute in New York, two days before Christmas, Helga and Clara had to figure out how to get home. This time they would not walk. They approached both the city of Brooklyn and local charities for help, but were rejected. Clara then approached railroad titan Chauncey Depew (1834-1928 ). Depew gave them rail passes to travel from New York to Minneapolis.
Upon arrival in Minneapolis, Helga and Clara met with reporters and Helga stated that she had arranged with her New York sponsor to publish a book based on their journey. Then they would received the $10,000. The women stayed several days in Minneapolis and then headed home, most likely by rail.
With the travel journals gone, Helga and Clara's story had to be written from memory and Helga began her trip memoirs. But the Estby family was unsupportive and upon Helga's death, a family member burned her writings.
In recent years, younger family members have been caretakers of the remnants of the story. Encouraged by his family, eighth-grader Doug Bahr entered the Washington State History Day Contest in 1984 with his essay "Grandma Walks from Coast to Coast." One of the contest judges that year was author and scholar Linda Lawrence Hunt who was inspired to research more. This led to her writing "A Victorian Odyssey," published in the summer 1995 issue of Columbia Magazine, which she then developed into the book Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America, published by Anchor Books in 2005.
April 2011 saw the release of two young adult novels. The Year We Were Famous intended for readers 12 and up, was written by Helga's great granddaughter and retired Everett Public Library librarian Carole Estby Dagg and published by Clarion Books. Following a day later was a Waterbrook Press book, The Daughter's Walk, authored by Jane Kirkpatrick. All three books are well researched and well written. Dagg is beginning a sequel that will cover Helga and Clara's year of 1897.
The Estbys eventually lost their farm, but it was not the tragedy they had expected. The family moved to Spokane where Ole and sons profited as carpenters. It is a great loss that Helga's book was never published. It would have been a unique piece of travel writing, giving a priceless feminine perspective on the United States in 1896.
Across the years, their story continues to intrigue.