Giving 'Em Fitz: When walking was king

Edward Payson Weston (center), a premier competitive walker in the late 19th and early 20th century, sets off on a walk from New York to Minneapolis on June 2, 1913.
Edward Payson Weston (center), a premier competitive walker in the late 19th and early 20th century, sets off on a walk from New York to Minneapolis on June 2, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Posted: June 02, 2014

It's hard to imagine blue-collar Philadelphia sports fans, as impatient, boisterous and passionate as they can be, paying to watch people walk in circles for days on end.

But for a brief period in the 1880s and early 1890s, when spectating options were as sparse as clean-shaven faces, our athletic-loving ancestors apparently found these marathons of monotony compelling.

Competitive walking - or pedestrianism, as it then was called - briefly was the equal of baseball, horse racing, and rowing, particularly in large eastern cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Thousands flocked to large urban rinks or arenas to see well-known athletes walk against the clock or fellow competitors. Circling constantly, like balls in a nonstop roulette wheel, they often traveled as much as 100 miles a day.

Winners could earn $5,000 or more, an astounding sum in an era when the average working man might make $1 a day and a cap restricted baseball salaries to $2,500.

Pedestrianism's stars, men like Daniel "The Plucky Pedestrian" O'Leary, Edward Payson Weston, and Charles Rowell were as well-known as the best ballplayers.

Since these indoor walks ran continuously, often from Monday morning to Saturday night, fans could come and go at any time. The hours after Philadelphia's bars closed were particularly fruitful for ticket sales.

As with baseball crowds, gambling and drinking were endemic. At one pedestrian race in the original Madison Square Garden, 200,000 glasses of lager were served and, presumably, consumed. A Brooklyn Eagle reporter described that gathering, a depiction that almost certainly could have applied to Philadelphia's walking crowds.

"There were women there whose bleached hair, cheeks flushed with rouge, gaudy costumes, and 'loud' manner showed them to be fast; there were gamblers with big diamonds and dyed moustaches, and there were dwellers in the lower strata of society."

Blue-blooded Philadelphians viewed pedestrianism as they did baseball, as a lowly pastime of the lower classes.

"Because of rapid industrialization and urbanization, the average citizen was beginning to have leisure time. And, frankly, there wasn't a lot for them to do," said Matthew Algeo, a Bucks County native who has written a book on the subject Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport. "Previously, only rich people had the money and time to attend sporting events.

"But with pedestrianism, Philadelphians could pay a dime and go see a race. The events ran 24-7. You could go after your shift was done or whenever you had free time."

Here, the largest venue was the Chestnut Street Skating Rink, on the northwest corner of 23d and Chestnut Streets. Rinks were popular locales since few cities, save New York, where the first Garden had opened in 1879, had large facilities dedicated to spectator sports.

Roller skating was booming in popularity after the Civil War, and the big barrel-shaped rink on Chestnut Street, built for a reported $100,000, was meant to accommodate that craze. Its lavish interior included two tiers of boxes and walkways from which spectators could view the races.

The walkers strode round and round the floor on individual tracks, their progress carefully noted. Inside the racing ovals, tents were set up. Competitors retreated to them for food and rest. The average pedestrian, according to Algeo, might sleep three hours a day.

"Any more than that," he said, "and they might be at a disadvantage."

During their breaks, walkers often consumed champagne, which was believed to be a stimulant and undoubtedly dehydrated them further.

The craze had begun decades earlier in England. Walking moved into the American consciousness in 1864 when Weston bet a friend he could walk from Boston to Lincoln's second inaugural in Washington in 10 days. He failed by 10 hours, but the country was captivated by his effort.

Soon, other long-distance walks against the clock were attempted. Eventually, when promoters sniffed commercial potential, the top walkers began competing against each other indoors.

There were pedestrianism events for men and women, amateurs and professionals, Americans and international stars. Philadelphia newspapers and department stores sponsored teams. One successful pro walker, Frank Hart, was a black man. Most unusually in segregated America, Hart's racing was more significant than his race.

Rules were haphazard. Some events mandated that, as with Olympic race-walking, competitors keep one foot on the ground at all times. Others were "anything-goes" races, and running was permitted. It typically was the slow-and-steady walkers who prevailed since six straight days of running could be intensely wearying.

Their times, given the circumstances, were impressive. Weston, for example, set a world record by walking 100 miles in 22 hours, 19 minutes, and 10 seconds.

Though Weston survived to 90, dying two years after being struck by a cab while walking non-competitively in New York, the grueling sport extracted a physical toll.

"An awful lot of them died in their 40s and 50s," Algeo said.

According to contemporary newspaper accounts, the Chestnut Street rink burned down on Aug. 1, 1884, not long after it had been converted into a Wanamaker's warehouse. It likely was rebuilt or replaced by another facility because in 1887, the "Championship of the World Sweepstakes," in which Englishman George Littlewood annihilated a field of walkers, was listed as having taken place at "Chestnut Street Rink."

Gradually, as other sports matured, pedestrianism faded.

"The safety bicycle - with two equal-sized wheels - was invented in 1884, and bicycling became extremely popular," noted Algeo. "And by the late 1880s, baseball had gotten its act together. By the 1890s it was done."

And Philadelphia fans, their sports-going appetites stimulated, moved on to other, less-pedestrian activities.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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