We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. Read more…

Helga & Clara Estby's 1896 Walk Across America - April Reception

Smallest Museum St. Paul
Event organized by Smallest Museum St. Paul

Get Directions

#var:page_name# cover

On May 6, 1896, 36-year old suffragist Helga Estby (1860-1942) and her 18-year-old daughter Clara (1877-1950) began an unescorted trek from their home in Spokane, WA. to New York City, NY. Their walk was a publicity wager that they expected to bring $10,000 and save their family farm from foreclosure. Following the railroad tracks east, they walked between 25 to 35 miles a day on a seven-month trip across 1890s America. Surviving the trip of 4,600 miles, they reached New York on December 23, 1896, only to find no cash prize at the end of their amazing journey. You can place a pin on a map (inside) to calculate whether Helga and Clara may have traveled through your neighborhood.

Helga was an outspoken supporter of women's 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 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.

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.

They sent occasional progress reports to the New York sponsor. 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). 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.

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. Clara then approached railroad titan Chauncey Depew (1834-1928 ). Depew gave them rail passes to travel from New York to Minneapolis. It is a great loss that Helga's travelogue was never published. It would have been a unique piece of travel writing, giving a priceless feminine perspective on the United States in 1896. – edited from http://www.historylink.org

About the Artist
Kaitlen Osburn is a physical theater artist, teacher, director, mover, and puppeteer. She relocated to the Twin Cities last April after living in a remote part of Northern California for five years. She formally trained at Dell'Arte International and studied shadow puppetry in Bali, Indonesia in 2015.